Palaces and Townhouses

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Palaces and Townhouses

During the Renaissance, many wealthy individuals owned magnificent palaces and townhouses. The rise of a successful merchant class, along with a renewed appreciation for classical* architecture and design, led to a demand for grand private homes. The Renaissance palazzo, an elegant residence built in a specific style, first emerged in Florence in the 1400s. Eventually, architects in other cities adopted the Florentine style and added new features to suit their patrons*.

Florence. During the Middle Ages, wealthy Florentine families lived in compounds consisting of clusters of buildings. The compounds often included defensive towers, covered walkways (loggias) overlooking the street, and shops on the lower level. By the mid-1400s this design gave way to the palazzo style—a single tall building with four wings surrounding a central courtyard. The facade* was covered with roughly finished stone and decorated with ornaments such as carved molding, the family coat-of-arms, or the patrons' personal symbols.

The palazzo was a more private place than the medieval* compound. The loggias faced the courtyard instead of the street, and the family's living quarters were located on the second floor (the piano nobile) away from the public areas. The courtyard provided a space for banquets and celebrations enclosed by the rest of the building. Because many Florentine palaces belonged to prosperous merchants, the ground floor often featured storerooms and other spaces connected with the family's commercial activities.

Various architects added new design elements to Florentine palaces. The Palazzo Rucellai (1450s), built by Leon Battista Alberti, included rows of classical columns on the facade. This became a popular feature in palace design, particularly outside Florence. The Palazzo Strozzi (1489–1490), built by Giuliano da Sangallo, introduced a strict symmetry* of design that influenced the placement of windows and other features and the arrangement of rooms around the courtyard.

Rome and Venice. Roman palaces evolved from medieval castles rather than from urban compounds. As a result, they were bulkier and contained less ornamentation than those in Florence. The facade and walls of Roman palaces had few openings and featured fortified towers that suggested military strength. The layout of Roman palaces varied but often included two or more wings around an open courtyard and rear loggias overlooking extensive gardens. By the 1500s, Florentine influence led to the increasing use of symmetry and classical elements.

Venice had a palace tradition well before the Renaissance. Gothic* palaces with irregularly spaced arcades (covered passageways) and brightly colored walls lined the city's canals. In the 1400s, Gothic and Renaissance elements combined to create a Venetian palazzo style. Many of Venice's powerful families admired ancient Roman culture and had close ties with the Roman nobility. For these reasons, Venetian palazzo design borrowed heavily from the Roman style.

France. The French equivalent of the Italian palazzo was the hôtel particulier, the townhouse of a noble family. But, unlike in Italy, the occupants of these townhouses did not include members of the middle class. Sharp social distinctions in France distinguished the residences of the upper class from the maisons (houses) of wealthy merchants.

In the Middle Ages the hôtel particulier was like a castle in the city, but in the mid-1500s the Italian style became popular. Francis I (ruled 1515–1547) invited Italian designers, such as the Venetian architect Sebastiano Serlio, to his court. They applied Italian Renaissance principles to the French townhouse style.

French Renaissance townhouses consisted of a main block set between a courtyard and a garden. Wings enclosed two sides of the courtyard and a wall separated the house from the street. The facade, often decorated with classical elements such as columns, featured a large door. As in Rome, the hôtel particulier was organized in suites of rooms, such as a main hall, a bedchamber, and a study.

(See alsoArchitecture; Châteaus and Villas. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* facade

front of a building; outward appearance

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* symmetry

balance created by matching forms on opposite sides of a structure

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses

see color plate 8, vol. 3