Architecture and Urban Landscape

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Architecture and Urban Landscape


Palaces. During the fifteenth century, extensive domestic building projects were undertaken in many Renaissance Italian cities. In Florence, for example, the banking and commercial elite employed architects to design palazzi (palaces) as markers of their political, social, and cultural power. In the mid fifteenth century, Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi to build a family palace near the center of town, not far from a cluster of older family houses. The design turned out to be too grand for de’ Medici’s taste, and Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, a collaborator of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello, was called upon to design the palace, which still exists. Architects wanted to express the humanist value of magnificence, conflating architectural design with the dignity and social standing of the owners. In the early fourteenth century, they continued to employ designs that fortified the palace against public attacks and rebellions, but they gradually drafted plans that expressed an increasing refinement of form based upon classical motifs. Renaissance palazzi usually featured an interior courtyard with open loggias (galleries) for the reception and entertainment of guests and foreign dignitaries. These loggias were also the site of family festivities such as wedding feasts. Often several generations and branches of the family lived in the palazzo, a domestic arrangement that reinforced patriarchal power and authority in Italian city-states. Members of the immediate family usually lived in rooms on the piano nobile (the floor with the largest rooms on the second story). The third story was reserved for or used by servants. In the sixteenth century a new domestic building type was the villa suburbana, where the secular and sacred elite retired for a day of leisure. The design of most villas was inspired by classical texts, by such authors as first-century B.C.E. Roman architect Vitruvius, who described ancient villas and the arrangement of rooms. Architects exploited the natural topography, especially outside Rome, building hidden grottoes, fountains, and theaters that intensified the pleasures of rural life.

Northern Palaces. Whereas Italian palazzi were essentially urban structures, in northern Europe palaces were built in the countryside. French palaces constructed in the Loire Valley during the reign of Francis I incorporated new architectural elements inspired by the classical vocabulary of galleries or loggia. The galleries at Fontainebleau were intended for the display of tapestries and paintings, many of which mythologized Francis’s achievements. In Spain the palace of Charles V in Granada was situated within the Alhambra. The square plan and circular court, designed by Spanish architect Machuca, recalled the Renaissance ideals of perfected form and magnificence.

Town Halls. Toward the end of the thirteenth century the establishment of communal governments led to a building boom in new town halls, which symbolized the emergence of popular sovereignty. In Siena, Florence, and other Tuscan cities these town halls signaled a new definition of power and authority in Italian society. The Palazzo Vecchio in Florence set the pattern for Italian civic architecture during the fourteenth century. Like its counterpart in Siena, it featured battlements decorated with the coats of arms of the commune, which were typical of the fortification of the secular buildings after the emergence of free communes. The instability and factionalism of communal life often made it necessary for members of the government to seek refuge beyond the fortified facade of the palazzi. Town council chambers were often located above the level of surrounding streets and squares. Bell towers were also an important architectural element in these palaces and a powerful symbol of the new governments. They tolled warnings during times of unrest and danger and summoned citizens for public meetings. Decorative schemes inside these buildings celebrated communal history and politics. In the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Ambrogio Lorenzetti created a series of frescoes that illustrated the consequences of good and bad government.

Churches. Renaissance cities vied with each other to build and recast their cathedrals as markers of civic pride. Humanist scholars and historians such as Leonardo Bruni praised their native city and their architectural structures. Cathedrals such as the Duomo in Florence (Santa Maria del Fiore) were focal points of the urban skyline. Brunelleschi’s successful design for the Duomo was an engineering feat based upon his trial-and-error efforts, which he worked out in his 1418 model supplied for the competition. The architect subsequently developed a new aesthetic for Renaissance churches based upon a Latin-cross plan (a long nave and short cross arm or transept) that used a

square module. The simple use of stucco and stone, as evidenced by his designs for Santo Spirito (completed after his death) and San Lorenzo, changed the dynamics of interior decor, eliminating expansive fresco cycles and replacing them with small panel altarpieces.

Patronage. The architectural patronage and financial responsibilities for most church-building campaigns was often assumed by civic and private parties. The intimate connection between religious piety and political power inspired many members of the ruling elite to commission and fund substantial architectural projects and renovations. Cosimo de’ Medici’s extensive funding of San Lorenzo demonstrates such activities. In the 1450s, Giovanni Ruccellai, a rival of the Medici, commissioned the renovation of the church of Santa Maria Novella, one of the most important Dominican churches in Italy. Underneath the triangular pediment of the exterior facade, a Latin dedicatory inscription documented his role in funding the church. On the frieze above the main entrance a line of ships with billowing sails, a well-known symbol of the winds of for-tune, also recalled Ruccellai’s patronage. This symbol had been adopted and displayed by the Ruccellai family as their personal insignia. Toward the end of his life Ruccellai wrote that spending money, especially on buildings that immortalized his achievements, had given him more pleasure than earning it.

Urban Planning. Renaissance civic and classical values inspired secular and religious leaders to reinvent the urban landscape. The most-complete transformation of urban space was the city of Pienza, named by Pius II to honor his birthplace. Leon Battista Alberti’s ideas were used in the reconstruction of the city. The center of the city was completely redesigned between 1459 and 1464, around a trapezoid-shaped piazza flanked by the bishop’s palace, the cathedral, and Pius’s private residence. Some forty buildings were constructed or refurbished. Pius was directly involved in the decision-making process, which transformed the city into a model of Renaissance urban planning. The strategic siting of public and private buildings expressed the close connection between church and state. In his commentaries Pius penned an extremely detailed description of the church and its decorations, which is one of the few surviving accounts by a Renaissance patron of his or her architectural achievements.

Renovation. The centerpiece of urban revitalization in Rome was St. Peter’s Basilica, begun in 1506. Italian architect Donato Bramante, commissioned by Julius II, totally renovated the basilica. He had to accommodate two programmatic needs: a central space for the tomb of Julius and greater space around the main altar, beneath which the relics of St. Peter were located. Bramante undertook several designs and ultimately settled on a Greek cross within a square. The cross symbolized the sacrificial Christ, while the encompassing square reflected the perfection of the church militant. Bramante’s earlier project to erect a church on the site of St. Peter’s martydom and next to the cloister in San Pietro in Montorio (1502) enabled him to explore the dynamic tensions of a centrally planned building. He derived his architectural concept from the surviving ruins of the Temple of Hercules Victor, excavated in Rome during the reign of Sixtus IV (1471-1484). After Bramante’s death in 1514 and the Sack of Rome in 1527, work on St. Peter’s was completely suspended for many years. In 1546 Michelangelo reconceptualized the project, revitalizing the Greek-cross plan to convey the majesty of earth and heaven symbolized by the square and circle. The architectural unity also recalled the oneness of the body of Christ and the Church at the point when the return of Protestants to the Catholic Church was clearly improbable.

Impact of the Reformation. The earliest Protestant assemblies took place in private homes. Where Protestants achieved a measure of political power, they appropriated public buildings and churches. On the continent, Calvinists called their meeting places “temples,” a term that recalled the ancient temple of Jerusalem and allowed the Calvinists to distinguish their place of worship from their Catholic rivals. Inside Protestant churches the internal organization of furnishings reflected their objections to images and other visual elements of medieval religious culture and doctrine. The placement of pews, pulpits, and communion table in Protestant churches stressed two key reform principles: the priesthood of all believers and the centrality of the Word. Churches provided benches or pews for the congregation, which expressed the priesthood of all believers and the equality of the clergy and laity. Protestants also considered the pulpit, not the altar, as the most important interior element in their churches. Where they constructed new churches, they followed a longitudinal or centralized plan—shortening the distance between the congregation and preachers while increasing the proximity of the congregation to the Word.


John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997).

Loren Partridge, The Art of Renaissance Rome, 1400-1600 (New York: Abrams, 1996).

A. Richard Turner, Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art (New York: Abrams, 1997).

Jane Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art (New York: Grove, 1996).