Traits Of Renaissance Architecture

I HAVE endeavored to indicate some various answers to the question, ” What was the Renaissance? ” but we have not yet penetrated beneath the surface or touched the heart of the matter. In fact, until we take up its art in individual examples, it would be difficult to fix the real character of the time.

So far, in the illustrations scattered throughout preceding pages, my idea has been to show, through forms, ornament, furniture, details of buildings, and the like, the general influence of Italian Renaissance civilization on foreign countries and the rest of Europe, from the point of view that the object which can be seen represents a wider influence in science, manners, laws, and culture.

Comparison with following illustrations from Italy will indicate the relation and dependence of this art, and, there-fore, of the attendant civilization, on the Italian.

It often happens that a superficial fact represents and implies an underlying current, a hidden spring of power, a deep-seated motive and cause. Thus it is with the architecture and ornament of this historic period, whose lasting historic influence on every phase of modern life is still attested by the ” brownstone fronts” of New York City, by the new Parliament House of Berlin, by the Opera House of Paris, by the City Halls of New York, of Philadelphia and Chicago, by countless public and business buildings in every city of Europe and America, and by the terminal ornaments of many bedsteads and bureaus of ordinary fashion down to the year 1870.

I have in my ” Roman and Medieval Art ” given some account of the ” Italian Gothic ” architecture, of its repugnance to the usual appearance and natural principles of the Gothic of northern Europe, of its remarkable versatility of appearance, combined with constant rejection of what we know as Gothic character. In this rejection of the Gothic by the so-called ” Italian Gothic,” we have a prophecy of the character of the Renaissance, whose leading feature was outspoken reaction against the ideals, tastes, and habits of the Middle Ages.

In northern Europe the overthrow of the Gothic art was violent, revolutionary, and essentially sudden. It was displaced by the Italian architectural style and art now known as the Renaissance, and the Gothic rapidly tended to disappear after the opening of the sixteenth century in favor of this Italian style, and ultimately disappeared entirely.

Some English buildings of the middle seventeenth century are among the latest to show Gothic character, and England, by virtue of her remote and insular position, was the last country, aside from Russia, to yield completely to the Italianizing movement, which naturally reached her through intermediate countries.

The spread of this Italian style to the north was simply one result of a diffusion of Italian taste and culture which carried with itself a particular architectural style. In other words, the history of Renaissance architecture in northern Europe is a secondary fact, conveying a much larger fact in social life and general history some of whose phases I have briefly mentioned in preceding pages. But although the history of architecture belongs to a series of secondary facts, it is, notwithstanding, a visible and ocular illustration of this larger fact of greater importance: that the ideals, tastes, and habits of medieval Europe were displaced and over-thrown by a wave of Italian culture and Italian civilization.

At bottom, it was a question in northern Europe of the comforts and luxuries which were mainly unknown to the Middle Ages the use of window glass or of carpets, a better table, more garden vegetables, greater refinement of manners, more intellectual activity, less rude hunting and warfare, more music and books, more luxurious furniture, more fashionable clothes, more comfortable houses, and the like. All these various refinements of living spread from Italy and carried with themselves tastes of decoration and architectural style, which also were Italian.

A great assistance to the knowledge of our subject at large is, consequently, some specific information as to the general backwardness of northern Europe, as compared with Italy for the given time. For American and English readers the best work on this subject is Douglas Campbell’s ” Puritan in Holland, England, and America.” When we understand that even an English queen had to send to the Netherlands for a salad; when we can fix the date when starched and properly laundried linen was first procurable in England, and how it came there; or the time when window glass was generally introduced from the Continent it is much easier to appreciate the gradual flow and gradual introduction into northern Europe of the ordinary refinements and comforts of modern life from Italy. It is true that Campbell’s book solely concerns the contrast between England and the Netherlands, but it none the less graphic-ally portrays the condition of England at this time; and what holds at one time, and in some particulars for England as against the Netherlands, holds at slightly earlier dates and in other particulars for northern Europe in general as against Italy.

It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why an Italian architecture should have so completely overrun northern Europe, and why its traditional repetition should have lasted to our own day. It is not quite so immediately obvious why the style whose dominant features are illustrated in these pages should have sprung up in Italy itself.

In so far as we have attempted to describe Italian civilization of the Renaissance, it has been by emphasizing its modern character and by asserting the absence of this modern quality in northern Europe before Italian influence introduced it there. Why, then, should this modern quality have disguised itself in Italy by that imitation of ancient Roman art and architecture which is the one essential feature of the Renaissance style ? Before answering this question, let us verify this essential feature in details and by examples (Figs. 12-29, inclusive).

In its developed examples we specify as the most obvious characteristic of the Renaissance style the use of the ” Greek Orders,” and of the classic columns, capitals, and details as continued by the Roman Empire; the regular or frequent employment of the “engaged ” columns and ” en-gaged ” entablatures, that is, of the simulated Greek colonnades familiar on Roman ruins; and the gable-shaped or curved pediments, likewise familiar as decorations over niches in Roman art, and originally borrowed from the construction of the front of a Greek temple. (In this derivation we do not include the curved pediment as having been directly borrowed from Greek forms; this is a Roman decorative variant of the gable-shaped pediment. )

Otherwise we emphasize in Renaissance surface ornament a revival of the scroll ornaments, “honeysuckles,” anthemions, lotus trefoils, egg-and-dart mouldings, and “acanthus” ornaments ; of the griffins, masks, cupids, and tritons, which were the decorative stock in trade of the later Greeks and their Roman copyists. The “bead mouldings,” guilloche, and meander (key pattern or Greek fret), and rosette are also constant or familiar ornaments of the Renaissance copies of the Greco-Roman patterns.

Let us finally lay especial stress on the revival of the round arch and the entire abandonment of its pointed form. This again was due to the Roman influence.

In the matter of these various details which specify Renaissance style in architecture, the greatest difficulty of the learner is his great familiarity with their constant repetitions in nineteenth century use. This seems a strange assertion and yet it is strictly true. It is not always easy to under-stand that with which we are most closely in contact. The constant traditional repetition of Renaissance pediments in furniture, of Renaissance ornamental details in street cars or on silverware, of Renaissaince pediments, ” engaged ” columns and entablatures to be everywhere seen on public and private buildings, cultivates a presumption that such details are a necessary feature of our surroundings, a matter-of-course appearance. As now used they have generally lost the artistic quality which they once possessed, either of composition or execution or both. To indicate some distinctions between the average Renaissance forms of our own art and the first Italian originals is one important task of my book, and is best apparent from the illustrations themselves. These modern traditional repetitions rarely attract the eye by the beauty of the older originals, and by force of constant repetition they have become commonplace unnoticed because they are too familiar.

We have then, as learners, two distinct points of view and two points in view. One is to grasp the great lesson of modern history involved in this constant repetition the lesson that our civilization still carries with itself this mute witness and evidence of its Italian origin and coloring. On the other hand our effort must be to place ourselves at a point of view where these architectural ornaments and forms would be an absolute novelty, to conceive the time when they were unknown and unfamiliar, and then finally to grasp the causes which led to their re-adoption and exclusive use.

Whatever may be the facts of to-day, the eye of Europe in the Middle Ages was not accustomed to Greco-Roman forms in art. In Spain, France, Germany, or Britain, the Roman ruins were even then so rare, although they have become rarer since, that any knowledge of them, even in an antiquarian sense, was out of question. In Italy Roman ruins were no rarity, and in Rome they were abundant, but the idea of copying their architecture never suggested itself to an Italian of the Middle Age. That antiquarian and historic interest in relics of the past which is so natural to us, is an interest which dates from the Renaissance. To the Middle Age the ruin was a quarry; nothing more. This was its use and interest until the ruin disappeared, and an-other was sought to be destroyed in its turn.

We have then this problem. For a thousand years, from the fifth to the fifteenth century, the Roman ruins of Italy, and especially of the city of Rome itself, were an even more familiar feature of the daily surroundings of the people than they are to-day (for many have been destroyed since the fifteenth century, and even the use of the Colosseum as a quarry was not stopped till the eighteenth century) yet no one had taken an interest in them. Least of all had any architect undertaken to transplant their ornaments, and their constructive details, to a modern building. Then, about the middle of the fifteenth century we find new buildings in which every ornamental detail and many constructional forms are directly borrowed from the Roman ruins. By the beginning of the sixteenth century it is impossible to point to any Italian building which does not show their influence. Half a century later and all which make pretensions to architectural effects are borrowers from end to end and from top to bottom of Greco-Roman de-tails.

To comprehend the sweeping character of the revolution in art and history which had thus taken place, we need above all to familiarize the eye with the appearance of the northern medieval or Italian Gothic buildings which pre-ceded. Our present illustrations are too precious to be allotted to these earlier buildings. None the less must the reader bear them constantly in mind and make use of all accessible illustration for them.

Examine the house, Middle Age first in northern Europe. The house was a plain but picturesque utilitarian structure; often showing its timber frame-work, which thus became at once a decorative and constructive feature, often with overhanging upper stories thus economizing ground space, enlarging upper rooms, and contributing to picturesque effect. The castle was a stern and massive pile of masonry. The church was a miracle of stone lace-work, of lofty spires, pointed pinnacles, rising buttresses, grotesque gargoyles, furrowed piers, stained-glass windows, and sculptured door-ways. In the great town halls of Flanders or of northern France we find such details transferred also to the secular public buildings.

Compare the Italian Renaissance buildings. The frowning castle is displaced by a mansion, a country-seat, a villa, a palace, or a university. It is not only in the appearance, but in the uses and purposes of buildings, that we find a change. As regards s e cula r architecture and private architecture, we have an enormous revolution in society thus implied. The decorative exteriors of domestic architecture and private buildings are one sign of that modern life in Italy which was then beginning there.

In the private dwellings of Italy we begin, then, to recognize the modern mansion as distinct from the picturesque but generally unadorned house of the medieval burgher. In churches, the Italian could not abandon the Gothic dizzy interior altitude, the deeply furrowed and clustered pier, or the series of exterior perpendicular buttresses with crowning pinnacles, because in the Italian Gothic he had already rejected them. What he did abandon was the pointed arch, which the Italian Gothic had in common with the North, the exterior panelling in horizontal stripes, or in lozenges, of vari-colored masonry and the beautiful decorative details which he had himself worked over and adopted from the northern Gothic. What he introduced we have already said was the classic ” Orders ” ; columns, entablatures, niche, door, and window pediments, and the whole catalogue of ancient Greco-Roman ornaments.