The Renaissance Inheritance and Catholic Renewal

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The Renaissance Inheritance and Catholic Renewal


In Italy, architecture and urban planning began to move in a grander direction in the years around 1600. Since the eighteenth century this style has been known as the "Baroque," a word that comes to us from the Portuguese baroco. Originally, this term referred to pearls that were rough and heavily encrusted with sediment. When the neoclassicists of the eighteenth century adopted the word to describe the architecture of the period that preceded their own, they did so to criticize the imposing grandeur and often heavily ornamented style that had been popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They found this style decadent and corrupt; in its place, they longed to develop a purer classicism with simpler and more harmonious features. The label the neoclassicists applied to the period stuck, although today it retains little of its negative connotations. While the word "Baroque" still sometimes disapprovingly suggests an art, architecture, or literature that is overly complex, stylized, or contrived, modern historians of art and architecture have come to realize that the designs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries possessed considerable variety and vitality. Today, in other words, the architecture of the Baroque has been restored to its important place in the history of Western culture, and the designs of the architects and urban planners of this period have come to be valued on their own terms as well as for their important role in shaping modern notions about cities and urban planning.

Origins of Baroque Architecture.

In sixteenth-century Italy, two important styles of building—High Renaissance classicism and the more willful and artful designs of later Renaissance Mannerism—rose to prominence. High Renaissance classicism first began to emerge in Milan, Florence, and Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and its design elements had been articulated most forcefully in the works of Donato Bramante (1444–1514). Bramante's design principles stressed restraint in ornament, harmonious proportions derived from an intellectually conceived program, and monumental scale. The period of the High Renaissance was short, lasting only for about three decades following 1490. While these years saw the construction of a number of important structures in northern and central Italy, political and financial realities frequently dogged High Renaissance projects, as did issues of sheer technical complexity and scale. Many of the great designs of the period were too large to be completed without armies of laborers and artisans, and, given the political, financial, and religious instabilities of the time, their sponsors soon shelved or abandoned them even before they moved beyond their initial stages. The largest and most important of building projects undertaken at the time were in and around Rome. At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Julius II (r. 1503–1513) signaled his determination to transform Rome into a grand capital of all Christendom. During the Middle Ages the city had grown into a tangled web of dark, winding streets filled with mud huts and brick tenements. Julius wanted to redesign Rome, to transform it into a city of squares, impressive churches, and imposing public buildings that made use of developing architectural ideas. While few of his projects fulfilled his lofty vision, he set the agenda that would dominate architecture in Rome for the century that followed by demolishing the ancient St. Peter's Basilica, a structure that had stood since the fourth century on the Vatican Hill outside the city. He chose Bramante to serve as the chief designer for the church's rebuilding, and although neither figure lived to see the project carried forward beyond its initial stages, Bramante and Julius fixed the scale and proportions of the church by constructing four great piers to support its planned dome. In the century that followed, the greatest architects of the age, including Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Gianlorenzo Bernini, perfected and enhanced Bramante's plans. At times, political realities, religious crises, financial problems, and sheer technical complexity stalled the project. And in an indirect way, the construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica even contributed to the rise of the Protestant Reformation, since Julius's successor, the Medici Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521), resorted to corrupt and unscrupulous sales of indulgences in order to carry on construction of the new building. The marketing of these indulgences prompted Martin Luther to attack the church in his famous Ninety-Five Theses, one of the documents that precipitated the rise of religious controversies throughout Europe. Those disputes, as well as the Sack of Rome at the hands of German armies in 1527, cooled for a time the artistic and architectural ambitions of those within the church's capital. Despite the controversial nature of the project and the problems that stalled its completion, the construction of the building dominated architectural achievements in Rome until the mid-seventeenth century.

Mannerist Complexities.

In the relatively brief period of the High Renaissance, designers like Bramante favored a language of restrained and imposing classicism and they planned buildings and urban squares that might have impressed their viewers by their austere noble proportions and sheer monumental scale. As the High Renaissance began to fade, a new fashion for buildings that were less classical in spirit developed. Historians call this style "Mannerism" and the word has long been used to refer to developments both in architecture and the visual arts. Many Mannerist artists followed the lead of the willful and highly personal style that Michelangelo developed during his middle age. During the 1510s and 1520s, he had spent much of his time working for the Medici family in Florence, designing the family's mausoleum in the Church of San Lorenzo in that city, as well as the Laurentian Library at the same site. While his architecture in this period made use of classical design elements, the artist played imaginatively with these features to create spaces that made use of repetition and a seemingly strange juxtaposition of objects. Michelangelo later rejected his own highly personal style when he became overseer of the construction of the new St. Peter's in the mid-sixteenth century. At this time his designs returned to the more thoroughly classical style of the High Renaissance. Yet his works in and around Florence inspired a taste for Mannerist design continued by architects like Giorgio Vasari, Giulio Romano, and Bartolommeo Ammanati. These figures continued to violate the norms of High Renaissance classicism in favor of designs that were elegant, willful, and often artificial. In contrast to the severity and monumentality of the High Renaissance, these Mannerist architects favored the repetition of purely decorative elements and played with the language of classical architecture, remolding it to create new and unexpected features that appeared on their façades and in their interiors. While the High Renaissance style never completely died out in Italy, Mannerism came to compete against it, particularly in Florence and other Central Italian towns. Both styles—Mannerism and High Renaissance classicism—became a wellspring of inspiration to later Baroque architects as they created a number of new buildings in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century.


introduction: The influence of St. Charles Borromeo, a leading figure in spreading the doctrines of the Catholic Reformation, touched almost every area of religious life in Catholic Europe during the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His advice to architects—that they abandon the central style of church construction much favored in the Renaissance—was not always heeded. But the seventeenth century did return to favor the traditional Latin cross he recommended. Among the most notable of the many churches that were to be finished in the shape of a Latin cross was St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, where the Renaissance plans for a central style structure were abandoned to fit with the increasingly conservative tastes of Catholic Reformers.

There are a great many different designs, and the bishop will have to consult a competent architect to select the form wisely in accordance with the nature of the site and the dimensions of the building. Nevertheless, the cruciform plan is preferable for such an edifice, since it can be traced back almost to apostolic times, as is plainly seen in the buildings of the major holy basilicas of Rome. As far as round edifices are concerned, the type of plan was used for pagan temples and is less customary among Christian people.

Every church, therefore, and especially the one whose structure needs an imposing appearance, ought to be built in the form of a cross; of this form there are many variations; the oblong form is frequently used, the others are less usual. We ought to preserve, therefore, wherever possible, that form which resembles an oblong or Latin cross in construction of cathedral, collegiate or parochial churches.

This cruciform type of church, whether it will have only one nave, or three or five naves as they say, can consist not only of manifold proportions and designs but also again of this one feature, that is beyond the entrance to the high chapel, on two more chapels built on either side, which extended like two arms ought to project to the whole of their length beyond the width of the church and should be fairly prominent externally in proportions to the general architecture of the church.

The architect should see that in the religious decoration of the façade, according to the proportions of the ecclesiastical structure and the size of the edifice, not only that nothing profane be seen, but also that only that which is suitable to the sanctity of the place be represented in as splendid a manner as the means at his disposal will afford.

source: Evelyn Carole Voelker, "Charles Borromeo's Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae, 1577. A Translation with Commentary and Analysis" (Ph.D. diss., University of Syracuse, 1977): 51–52 and 63; in Baroque and Rococo: Art and Culture. Ed. Vernon Hyde Minor (London: Laurence King, 1999): 78.

Rome Resurgent.

Elements of Baroque style first began in the many churches under construction in Rome during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Following Rome's Sack in 1527, few great churches had been built in the city, a result not only of the depression that the attack caused, but also of the Protestant Reformation, which had criticized the costly outlays on church building that had occurred in the later Middle Ages. Toward the end of the century, though, a broad and ever-deepening movement within Catholicism gathered strength. Known as the Catholic Reformation, this movement matured in Italy sooner than in other parts of the continent, in part because of the peninsula's central position within Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation inspired a number of new religious orders, groups like the Jesuits, Theatines, Capuchins, and the female order of teaching nuns known as the Ursulines. These groups dedicated themselves to renewal in the church, and as they became officially recognized, many began to build new churches in Rome to commemorate their newly acquired status as official orders within Catholicism. As they set up institutions elsewhere in Italy and throughout Europe, groups like the Jesuits also commissioned scores of new churches throughout the continent. The stimulus that the new orders thus gave to church construction soon inspired elites in Rome and in Catholic cities throughout the continent to patronize church building projects, too. As a result, many medieval and Renaissance churches came to be rebuilt or remodeled in the new style, one that favored elaborate adornment, display, and imaginative new shapes and decorative elements. Through this style, architects aimed to impress worshippers with an image of the church as a powerful celestial and earthly institution—to capture the imagination, in other words, and lift a worshiper's mind towards Heaven. Much Baroque church architecture was thus monumental in spirit, and even when the scale of religious architecture was small, architects aimed to create spaces that might inspire and awe viewers.


introduction: Gianlorenzo Bernini ruled over the artistic life of Rome for much of the seventeenth century. A figure similar to the great Renaissance men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, he was simultaneously a sculptor, painter, architect, musician, and dramatist. His artistic vision, while more conservative than Filippo Borromini's, mingled exquisite craftsmanship with a new dynamism that had not been characteristic of the Renaissance. Like Michelangelo and Raphael, the scope of Bernini's achievements was widely recognized during his lifetime. Shortly after the artist's death, Filippo Baldinucci published a biography from sources that Bernini himself had compiled while living. Baldinucci's work continually stressed that the designer's star had never fallen from favor in seventeenth-century Rome. In truth, the architect's undertakings at St. Peter's were widely credited during his lifetime with weakening the integrity of Michelangelo's grand dome, and for a short while, Bernini did fall afoul of the papacy. Of the many creative figures active in seventeenth-century Rome, though, his influence over the Baroque style was incomparable.

The sun had not yet set upon the day which was the first of Cardinal Chigi in the Highest Pontificate, when he summoned Bernini to him. With expressions of affectionate regard, he encouraged Bernini to undertake the great and lofty plans that he, the Pope, had conceived of for the greater embellishment of the Temple of God, the glory of the pontifical office, and the decoration of Rome.

This was the beginning of a new and still greater confidence that during this entire pontificate was never to be ended. The Pope wished Bernini with him every day mingling with the number of learned men he gathered around his table after dinner. His Holiness used to say that he was astonished in these discussions how Bernini, alone, was able to grasp by sheer intelligence what the others scarcely grasped after long study.

The Pope named him his own architect and the architect of the Papal Chamber, a thing which had never before happened to Bernini because each former pope had had his own family architect on whom he wished to confer the post. This practice was not observed by popes after Alexander VII because of the respect they had for Bernini's singular ability, so that he retained the office as long as he lived.

… Bernini, with a monthly provision of 260 scudi from the Pope, began to build the Portico of St. Peter, which in due time he completed. For the plan of this magnificent building he determined to make use of an oval form, deviating in this from the plan of Michelangelo. This was done in order to bring it nearer to the Vatican Palace and thus to obstruct less the view of the Piazza from that part of the palace built by Sixtus V with the wing connecting with the Scala Regia. The Scala Regia is also a wonderful work of Bernini and the most difficult he ever executed, for it required him to support on piles the Scala Regia and the Paolina Chapel, which lay directly over the stairs, and also to make the walls of both rest on the vault of the stairs. Furthermore, he knew how to bring by means of a charming perspective of steps, columns, architraves, cornices, and arches, the width of the beginning of the stairway most beautifully into harmony with the narrowness at its end. Bernini used to say that this stairway was the least bad thing he had done, when one considered what the stairway looked like before. The supporting of these walls was the boldest thing he had ever attempted, and if, before he applied himself to the task, he had read that another had done it, he would not have believed it.

source: Filippo Baldinucci, "The Life of Cavalier Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini," (1682) in Michelangelo and the Mannerists; The Baroque and the Eighteenth Century. Vol. II of A Documentary History of Art. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1957): 117–119.

Catholic Reform.

The developing ethos of the Catholic Reformation also stressed the importance of the sacraments—particularly the Eucharist—as central elements of Catholic life. The movement embraced effective preaching as an important goal of the priesthood, while at the same time teaching that an individual's participation in the process of working out salvation was necessary. Catholic reformers vehemently rejected one of the central tenets of Protestant teaching—that salvation was a free gift of God's grace—and instead taught that a diligent participation in the life of the church as well as frequent good works paved the road to Heaven. Architects tried to give visual expression to these teachings as well. One of the first places that the effects of Catholic reform can be seen is in the Gesù, the home church of the Jesuit Order in Rome. Il Gesù was a massive, barrel-vaulted church completed in the city during the later sixteenth century, and later Baroque designers imitated many of its design features. The church's plan provided for broad expanses of ceiling and wall space, ideal surfaces on which seventeenth-century painters and sculptors could celebrate the richness and variety of the church's history and its teachings. At the same time the sight lines of Il Gesù led inexorably to the church's choir, the place in which the Eucharist was commemorated at the High Altar. The complex of side aisle chapels that had long existed in many medieval structures was thus downplayed at the Gesù and in the many buildings that imitated its plan. Instead the attention of worshippers who visited these places was focused on the altar and the pulpit, the sites from which the sacraments and preaching issued. Following the example of the Gesù, early Baroque architects labored to lend drama and a climactic force to their creations. Many of their constructions frequently suggested movement, underscored by the massing of decorative details at a church's door and along the path to the structure's culminating altar. Thus in contrast to the serene and often static character of High and Late Renaissance buildings, Baroque architecture was, from its very inception, dynamic—an architecture, in other words, that embraced movement.

Influence on the Cityscape.

As Rome revived from the flagging morale with which it had been afflicted in the mid-sixteenth century, the city began a host of new grand public works projects. These projects began under the reign of the "building" pope, Sixtus V (1585–1590). The enthusiasm with which Sixtus approached the reconstruction of Rome encouraged the church's major officials as well as Rome's noble families to pursue new projects as well. This program of rebuilding intensified after 1600, as one of Sixtus's successors, Pope Paul V (r. 1605–1621), brought new sources of water to the capital by restoring the ancient Roman aqueducts that had once supplied the city. Rome now had a guaranteed, sufficient supply of water that lasted for a century. To celebrate the achievement in providing fresh water, Paul began to build a series of new fountains throughout the city to call attention to this achievement. Thus he helped to create one of the most attractive features of modern Rome: its many fountains set within attractive city squares. Paul commissioned plans for many new churches to minister to the throngs of pilgrims returning to Rome at the time. His architects planned broad avenues to link the city's major pilgrimage churches, and they set ancient artifacts like obelisks as focal points within squares throughout the city. In the years following Paul's pontificate, the resurgence evident in Rome did not diminish. Instead, by the mid-seventeenth century Rome gained even more construction sites. As a result, it became a city populated with an almost incomprehensible number of jewels of Baroque architecture. These monuments included many new and remodeled churches, impressive private palaces, civic buildings, and new quarters for the church's bureaucracies. In this process of expansion and refurbishment, Rome emerged as a model for other European capitals, and rulers throughout the continent soon evidenced a desire to imitate elements of the city's revitalization.


Andrew Hopkins, Italian Architecture: From Michelangelo to Borromini (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002).

Pamela M. Jones and Thomas Worcester, eds., From Rome to Eternity: Catholicism and the Arts in Italy, ca. 1550–1650 (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2002).

Wolfgang Lotz, Architecture in Italy, 1500–1600 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).

Peter Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986).

Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600–1750 (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1999).

see also Visual Arts: The Renaissance Legacy ; Religion: Catholic Culture in the Age of the Baroque

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The Renaissance Inheritance and Catholic Renewal

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