Italian Renaissance architects based their theories and practices on classical Roman examples. The Renaissance revival of classical Rome was as important in architecture as it was in literature. A pilgrimage to Rome to study the ancient buildings and ruins, especially the Colosseum and Pantheon, was considered essential to an architect’s training. Classical orders and architectural elements such as columns, pilasters, pediments, entablatures, arches, and domes form the vocabulary of Renaissance buildings. Vitruvius’ writings also influenced the Renaissance definition of beauty in architecture. As in the classical world, Renaissance architecture is characterized by harmonious form, mathematical proportion, and a unit of measurement based on the human scale.
During the Renaissance, architects trained as humanists helped raise the status of their profession from skilled laborer to artist. They hoped to create structures that would appeal to both emotion and reason. Three key figures in Renaissance architecture were Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, and Andrea Palladio.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) is widely considered the first Renaissance architect. Trained as a goldsmith in his native city of Florence, Brunelleschi soon turned his interests to architecture, traveling to Rome to study ancient buildings. Among his greatest accomplishments is the engineering of the dome of Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo). He was also the first since antiquity to use the classical orders Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian in a consistent and appropriate manner.
Although Brunelleschi’s structures may appear simple, they rest on an underlying system of proportion. Brunelleschi often began with a unit of measurement whose repetition throughout the building created a sense of harmony, as in the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Florence, 1419). This building is based on a modular cube, which determines the height of and distance between the columns, and the depth of each bay.
Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) worked as an architect from the 1450s onward, principally in Florence, Rimini, and Mantua. As a trained humanist and true Renaissance man, Alberti was as accomplished as an architect as he was a humanist, musician, and art theorist. Alberti’s many treatises on art include Della Pittura (On Painting), De Sculptura (On Sculpture), and De re Aedificatoria (On Architecture). The first treatise, Della Pittura, was a fundamental handbook for artists, explaining the principles behind linear perspective, which may have been first developed by Brunelleschi. Alberti shared Brunelleschi’s reverence for Roman architecture and was inspired by the example of Vitruvius, the only Roman architectural theorist whose writings are extant.
Alberti aspired to re-create the glory of ancient times through architecture. His facades of the Tempio Malatestiano (Rimini, 1450) and the Church of Santa Maria Novella (Florence, 1470) are based on Roman temple fronts. His deep understanding of the principles of classical architecture are also seen in the Church of Sant’Andrea (Mantua, 1470). The columns here are not used decoratively, but retain their classical function as load-bearing supports. For Alberti, architecture was not merely a means of constructing buildings; it was a way to create meaning.
Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) was the chief architect of the Venetian Republic, writing an influential treatise, I quattro libri dell’architettura (Four Books on Architecture, 1570; 188.8.131.52). Due to the new demand for villas in the sixteenth century, Palladio specialized in domestic architecture, although he also designed two beautiful and impressive churches in Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore (1565) and Il Redentore (1576). Palladio’s villas are often centrally planned, drawing on Roman models of country villas. The Villa Emo (Treviso, 1559) was a working estate, while the Villa Rotonda (Vicenza, 1566–69) was an aristocratic refuge. Both plans rely on classical ideals of symmetry, axiality, and clarity. The simplicity of Palladian designs allowed them to be easily reproduced in rural England and, later, on southern plantations in the American colonies.
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