The Secular And Italian Gothic Architecture

The great comparative perfection of Gothic painting in the southern Netherlands leads naturally to the mention of the magnificent guild halls and town halls of the same country. The finest secular buildings ever erected in Europe, outside of Italy, are the late Gothic public buildings of Belgium, and once more it is to the commerce and manufactures and resulting great wealth and power of the country that we must turn for an explanation. The constant alliance between the English kings and the Burgundian Dukedom during the Franco-English wars was owing to the interests of the wool trade–the raw material being furnished by England and the manufactures by the Netherlands. Among the magnificent examples of this secular Gothic are the great halls of Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Louvain, and Oudenarde. In France the Palais de Justice (town hall) of Rouen is the finest corresponding example. In England there are some of the best survivals of the old feudal castles and of the medieval houses which are occasionally found in all the older towns of Europe. Picturesque qualities, common sense construction, and bold originality of individual arrangement are as apparent in these domestic buildings as in the churches. The system of exhibiting the beam construction in timbered houses is a common one, showing the constructive sense and frankness of the Gothic.

In secular domestic buildings there is, however, no country which can rival Italy for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and it is especially in Venice that the private palaces of the nobles still shadow forth the role played in history by the earliest modern country of modern Europe.

The most remarkable examples of the fortifications which were necessary in all the medieval towns of Europe are found at present in Southern France. The fortifications of Carcasonne and of Aigues Mortes are renowned instances.

It is in the so-called Italian Gothic architecture that the medieval independence of formulas and systems, as well the remarkable independence of the individual examples, are most apparent. The Italian Gothic is mainly not Gothic at all in any characteristic sense. In fact its main features are quite antagonistic to the Gothic system. The words specify a period rather than a style. This period corresponds to that of the northern Gothic as regards general time of beginning (1200 A.D.), and ends a little earlier than 1500.

The only first-class truly Gothic cathedral in all Italy is that of Milan, which was largely built by German architects, and in locality stands nearest of important towns to the influence of the north. Even this cathedral shows important deviations from the style of the northern Gothic. Otherwise the Church of St. Francis at Assisi is one of the rare instances of an approximately northern style and was also built by a northern architect.

The traits of Italian Gothic are best comprehended by reverting to the Italian Romanesque and its likewise exceptional position. We have seen that the basilica pattern and timber ceiling were very generally employed in Italy, and especially in Tuscany, through the Romanesque period and that the Romanesque character was mainly apparent in decorative traits. The reason for this has also been stated as the more abundant supply of ancient columns and the greater strength in Italy of Byzantine and early Christian tradition. It was not till the close of the Romanesque period that vaulted churches became common throughout Italy, and in their proportions they then tended to buildings,. but with ornamental traits which show some slight northern Gothic influence.

The Cathedrals of Florence, of Siena, of Orvieto are prominent instances. In the views of Florence and of Orvieto we notice a system of marble paneling or of horizontal masonry stripings, which is common to very many Italian buildings of the time and which is derived from earlier buildings under Byzantine influence, like the Pisa Cathedral and St. Mark’s at Venice. The most superficial comparison with the exteriors of the northern Gothic will show how foreign this use of colored marble must be to the accented rising lines, buttresses, pinnacles, and large windows of the north.

In a corresponding sense it holds that the window openings are relatively small, the window tracery wanting or found in simple elementary forms, while the buttresses are rudimentary and without pinnacles, or else entirely lacking. The great spires of the north are also wanting. The belfries (as found in Italian use they are called “campaniles”) are separate from the building.

Gabled ornaments appear as reminiscences of the northern style, but they appear in low relief and are never projected from the building, as appears by comparing St. Maclou at Rouen with the Cathedral of Orvieto.

The pointed arch is general, and this is the most distinct indication of the Gothic influence, but it is only a question of ornamental details, not of a system of construction. The round arch is found associated with it (Orvieto), which is unknown in the north. Gothic tracery in the round arch, as found in the Campo Santo of Pisa, would be impossible in the northern Gothic.

All these traits of the exteriors relate to a main fact for the interiors, viz., that they lack the lofty proportions and all the peculiar dispositions of the northern Gothic buildings.

These various distinctions do not convey in any sense a criticism against, or depreciation of, the Italian Gothic, which is full of peculiar beauties and originality. They are simply statements of fact showing the versatility of medieval architecture, but above all conveying an underlying phase of general history. The Italians were the earliest moderns, the first to consciously set up the ideal of modern civilization and to consciously antagonize the culture and feudal institutions of the Middle Ages. Their prejudice against Gothic culture and Gothic art, which gave us the word ” Gothic”, and which ultimately shaped itself in the Renaissance, shows its forecast and prophecy in the so-called Italian Gothic, by its antagonism or indifference to northern medieval forms.