After a prolonged period known as the Middle-Ages, a growing desire to both study and mimic nature itself began to emerge, with an inclination to discover and explore the world. Between 1400-1600 A.D. Europe was to witness a significant revival of the fine arts, painting, sculpture, and Architecture. The ‘Renaissance’, meaning ‘rebirth’ in French typically refers to this period of European history, although most closely associated with Italy, countries including England and France went through many of the same cultural changes at varying timescales.
Prior to the dawn of the Renaissance, Europe was dominated by ornate and asymmetrical Gothic Architecture. Devoured by the plague, the continent lost approximately a third of its population, vastly changing society in terms of economic, social and religious effect. Contributing to Europe’s emergence into the Renaissance, the period ushered in a new era of architecture after a phase of Gothic art, with the rise of notions of ‘Humanism’. The idea of attaching much importance to the essence of individualism. The effect of Humanism included the emergence of the individual figure, greater realism and attention to detail, especially in depictions in art.
On Renaissance humanism, ‘ The evolution of Renaissance Humanism as a method of thinking’…. Attempts by man to master nature rather than develop religious piety’ – Robert Wilde
15th century Florence, Italy heralded a period of great prosperity and marked the development of the Renaissance style of Architecture. Here the rebirth began, with wealthy patrons including the Medici family consciously reviving a golden age, kick starting a fascination with the Arts and classical learning. Becoming patrons of these artists was a popularized method for newly powerful families to demonstrate their wealth and increase their social mobility.
From its heart, its influence spread to the rest of Italy and then Western Europe. The revival of this classical learning sought influence from the highly symmetrical and geometrically proportioned buildings of classical Rome and Greece. Predominantly architectural features such as pilasters, semi-circular arches, orderly arrangements of columns, lintels and domes.
Regarded by many as the original architect of the Early Renaissance is Fillippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Described as the first building of this era is the Catthedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence’s cathedral). Headless for two centuries Brunelleschi engineered a plan to create the largest masonry Dome in the world, under Medici patronage. Retaining its Gothic ribs and pointed arches in its design, the new dome was influenced by the great domes of Ancient Rome, such as the Pantheon.
Constructed without supports or scaffolding, it uses a thorough understanding of the laws of mathematics and physics in its design. Brunelleschi proposed the construction of two domes, an inner dome with horizontal stone and chain hoops, reinforcing the octagonal dome layered above. In addition Brunelleschi initiated a novel herringbone pattern that allowed the brickwork to self-reinforce whilst being laid. A dome of this magnitude and technique had never been accomplished before and is still regarded as a significant engineering achievement. It was completed in 1436.
Another key figure in the development of Renaissance architecture was Leon Battista Alberti (1402-1472) both a Humanist theorist and designer, whose book regarding architecture ‘De re Aedificatoria’ was the first architectural formal written work of the renaissance. His work includes the Palazzo Rucellai and the façade of the church of Santa Maria Novella in 15th century Florence, both heavily influenced by architecture of the ancients and corresponded with the new individualistic thinking.
The Palazzo Rucellai (1446-51) presents the developing features of Renaissance architecture, offering the use of pilasters and entablatures in proportional relationship with each other and the classical ordering of columns. The embodiment of different classical orders creates an effect similar to that of the Colosseum, the structure becoming more elegant than previous fortress like structures of the time.
Architects during this period were influenced by Roman orders of columns including Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite and Doric as models. These orders were either structural or decorative, used as one integrated system. The dome also became popular after the Brunelleschi’s success, a feature used only very rarely during the Middle-Ages. Following its construction, St Peters Basilica (1506-1626) in Rome was constructed (designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carli Maderno). The feature became an indispensable element in Renaissance church architecture, remaining popular transitioning into the Baroque period.
The arrival of the printing press in 1440 was another key moment that heavily influenced the Renaissance period. Books could be mass produced at a far lower cost and rate than initial handwritten methods and ideas could be shared rapidly in a way that just wasn’t possible prior to its invention. Architecture was no longer just practice; it was matter for theoretical discussion not by just architects but by patrons. Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) published ‘l Quattro Libri Dell’archittetura’ in 1570 during the High Renaissance (translated as The Four Books of Architecture). Many believe the distribution of this print was responsible for spreading the ideas of the Renaissance across Europe and he remains renowned for his influence in the creation of architectural features such as the Palladian window.
Considered by scholars as the second Renaissance city, is Rome, Italy. As one of the most significant architectural and cultural centers during the period, Roman Renaissance architecture presents itself as palatial and presents strong religious themes due to the presence of the Roman Catholic Church, (differing from more Humanist themes). During the High Renaissance Donato Bramante was responsible for designing The Tempietto (1503). Regarded an architectural reliquary, the structure is circular in appearance consisting of a dome and Doric themed peristyle, topped by a balustrade. With perfect proportions and direct references to ancient architecture, the Tempietto is a premier example of the embodiment of High Renaissance architecture.
During the Late Renaissance, the use of both decorative and ornamental classical features became far more widespread. Mannerism appeared, prevailing in some areas until the transition into the Baroque period. Characterized by extreme complexity and increased sophistication, Mannerist architects remained heavily influenced by classical antiquity, yet sought other qualities within ancient architecture to exploit. This can be seen in Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi’s design for the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne (1532-1536) in Rome. The structure indicates features of Mannerism, the façade curving to fit the sit upon which it was built, rather than remaining a more passive form as demonstrated in earlier examples of Renaissance architecture. The Classical order remains limited, and elaborate mouldings upon the windows of the upper stories present more emphasis upon decorative qualities than structural relationships.
The birth of the Renaissance in Florence, Italy sent shock waves across Western Europe, as the style began to emerge in England, Bohemia, Spain, Portugal, Hungary etc. Their own variants materializing from elements of preceding Gothic styles. The end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France is also responsible for allowing Renaissance ideas to penetrate these nations, as resources once consumed in war efforts were directed into the development of art and science.
The Renaissance revolutionized the way in which architecture was perceived, it became captivated with humanism, rather than just for symbolic and religious purposes. It was a new manner of thinking and expression, both a product and cause of the period. It challenged existing mindsets giving way to an age of discovery, invention, and artistic achievement that some suggest remains unparalleled.
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