What is the renaissance architecture? The answer lays in its very name- the word is originally French, from term la rinascita “to be reborn”. If we want to describe this era, we could say, that renaissance is “a self-conscious break with the past and search for the new forms of expression”. And it’s fully true- renaissance is an entirely new turn in the History of Architecture, but at the same time it’s a return to and exalt of antique forms of roman art. It is said, that “Renaissance architects and their patrons considered architecture of their time to be modern and scientific”- which first sounded strange to me, because it’s said that renaissance appeared by recreating the antique roman forms. But aren’t we thinking about our modern architecture the same way? We repeating over and over again already existing styles, but by combining and improving it, using our knowledge and new technologies we can create something completely different and startling. Ancient Roman architecture was worth to become an example for a new architectural style: it brought big open space (Colosseum, Rome), aqueduct for comfort, technology (unreinforced concrete dome in Pantheon, Rome). If fact, Gothic architecture also brought a lot of innovations, but in Italy, full of antique roman architecture, appeared a condemnation and neglect attitude towards Gothic.
Renaissance architecture also differed by application of scientism- a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific methods and approach. The whole history of renaissance is the history of the appropriation of ancient Greek and Roman architectural principles, forms and types. Therefore it means that renaissance art must imitate nature and must be rational, using defined method and rules in respect of natural laws. Architecture, in turn, must not only imitate nature, but it must imitate it in scientific manner, such as linear perspective, and not just to imitate, but to understand very principles, after which nature made them. Renaissance architecture was very anthropomorphic- human body used as a basic principle of proportion. We could even trace it to our time- in the long tradition of Leonardo Da Vinchi’s Vitruvian Man, Le Corbusier created his Modulor. Considering materials, it is said that they should be used where it is most appropriate and its nature should not be hidden. So, we could say, that architecture appeared as a result from learning the world around- beginning from our own body to appropriation of foreign cultures, which became the base for western civilization.
All this conditions had a great impact on renaissance architecture form in general along with its decoration. The most common decorative elements used in Renaissance were orders and rusticated masonry.
Decoration with Rusts
Rustication- is the masonry, made of rectangular stones which were uncouth from the front. This way of decorating facades came from Roman architecture, where rustication was used to give an impression of solidity and strength. But also in ancient Rome using of rusts had a practical solution- it worked as an effective isolation from moisture and noise. It is said: the more ancient architecture was known, the less intense was aspiration to imitate it. So, in Renaissance architecture it was used only as a decoration to create an impression of fortress-type building. Unlike the Roman, Renaissance architects applied illusory effect in masonry. To strengthen this impression, the relief of rusts and height of the row were decreasing with each floor. So this way, we get an impression of homogeneous masonry, which is reduced with the distance. In Palazzo Strozzi, relief is becoming more flat with each floor.
This masonry is used widely in Toscana during the whole XV century. In XVI century this strict decoration was used only for the ground floor, as in palace of San Michele in Verona. At last, rusticated masonry was used only on the edges of the walls. One of the first example of such decoration we can see on Palazzo Pandolfini in Florence, built by Raphael Santi around 1520. There the height of masonry row is decreasing even on the same floor, to achieve illusory effect like in Palazzo Strozzi. This is example of scientism, the use of perspective and perception the distance by the human eye (which also may be a reference to ancient Greece- this principle was used in the Acropolis). Sometimes only pilasters, windows or columns were coated with the crust of rustication, creating unfinished effect (Giulio Romano, Palazzo Te, Mantua). I think that Renaissance architects were able to achieve daintiness, despite the use of such rough decoration.
As I already said, architecture of that time was anthropomorphic, which is manifested in statement of Renaissance ideal of beauty: mathematical regularity based on a human body. This, together with the use of perfect symmetry, I think was able to create a perfect harmony and completeness, differed from the antique architecture. Early renaissance is also characterized by wide use of Corinthian order. And it acquired elegance, unknown to ancient world due to fineness of furnishing, was created by Brunelleschi. By reduction of cornice he achieved lightness, contrasting with rough look of roman architecture, which is especially seen in the interior. In Palazzo Pazzi he decorated window frames with Corinthian foliage. On buttresses in Florence cathedral he brings Corinthian motives to pilasters. In San Lorenzo church he leaves one capital without foliage. I think that all of this ancient motives gained absolutely new way of use. With his successors Brnelleschi preferences doric and ionic orders. For Palazzo Rucellai in Pienza Alberti and Rossellino use for lower floors doric order, and for upper floors they apply order with ionic capitel.
Henceforth, all types of ancient columns are being restored. And the knowledge grew; the renaissance architecture began to develop more, which I think, happened largely due to city schools. Every school started to interpret their own basic idea: Florentine school with Alberti and Rossellino continues the traditions of their teacher. Roman school for memorials together with copies of ancient orders uses octagonal columns with medieval motives. Milan school introduces fantastic variants of classical architecture. As in the door from Cremona, Corinthian column is embodied in balusters. Venice uses lush style of Milanese orders, but without its excesses. After Brunelleschi, appeared Bramante. He was reviving orders. He introduced rhythm to architecture by alternating spans of unequal width. He made facades with ledges and used orders with stylobate, which divides floors and brings clarity. All of these improvements are used in Palazzo Cancelleria and repeated in Vatican in orders of cortile Della Pigna.
After Bramante, comes an Academic period, where profiles becoming rounded, proportions fixed in canon, which had spread because of Palladio and Vignola’s writing. Colossal order, uniting several floors became widely used. I think, compare to previous periods, this one more than other resembles antique Roman architecture. It loses its liveliness and thinness, brought by Brunelleschi and Bramante. But also, I consider Palladio and Vignola’s writing as one of the most important contribution made in the Renaissance architecture. When we talk about system of orders, their canon is the first thing coming to mind. And also for me, Vignola’s book “Regola delli cinque odini d’architettura ” (“Canon of the five orders of architecture”) was the first thing I learned when began studying architecture. Arcades
In this field some changes also occurred: Renaissance arcade uses rational type of arcade, which leans on columns- compare to ancient arcades which leaned on impost of the column.
Inner shape is a semicircular arch, outer outline has lancet shape. There we can notice the trace of roman architecture- like in the XV century in Florentine windows had no other decoration than profile at the edge of jamb; again, using rustication on the edges and inside of the aperture blind arcade made of two semicircular arches, leaning on the middle column. At first in the Renaissance period windows were glazed, just like in the medieval times, with small glass in the lead frame. Palazzo Urbino, built in 1580, still retains traces of that type of glazing. But gradually, venetian cut glass started to be applied, bringing more refinement look to the whole building. From the safety point of view, windows were defenseless.
Gothic architects tried not to do windows on the lower floors, and the same was applied to Italian Palazzo in the early renaissance. Openings in the lower floors were small and narrow, located high of the ground and protected by iron lattice. But also, something changed- renaissance architects applied illusory effect similar to the one they used with the masonry. One or two rows of small rectangular windows (mezzanine) located above the big windows on the main floor. In the big halls big and mezzanine windows served for the lightning, but the same part of the building from the opposite side was separated by the ceiling to create entresol. So again, like with the masonry it was impossible to tell number of floors from the outside. I think this is another good example of scientism used in the renaissance.
In Renaissance period, quite a big attention started to be devoted to staircases, which I think was also influenced by growth of gardens and terraces. It had a big significance, unlike the medieval times. Though in Italian Renaissance they were criticized as the source of asymmetry, I think that they have become another sophisticated element of the period. For example, magnificent spiral staircase of gothic architecture appears owing to Bramante, who used it in Cortile del Belvedere, Vatican. This staircase has a fragile center, and its stairway lies on Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns.
For a conclusion, I want to say, that Renaissance justifies its name and it deserves to be the source of inspiration not only for artists and architects, but for a lot of people of different professions throughout many centuries. It was able to revive and improve forgotten traditions of antique and medieval architecture, and it also cardinally differs from all other epochs in that it reflect on itself. It’s truly unique, and it’s forms and decoration helps us to understand that.
Resources: Auguste Choisy “Histoire de lÁrchitecture” Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary Lectures