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Early Renaissance in Italy

Origins --- Belief System --- Political Situation --- Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance architects --- Brunelleschi--- Alberti--- Bramante

Florence --- Santa Maria dei Fiori (Duomo)--- Florence Dome

Foundling Hospital --- Pazzi Chapel --- Florentine Arch

Palazzos ---

Outside Florence --- Sant'Onofrio---- Santa Maria della Grazie---- San Andrea --- Tempietto



Between 1348 and 1350 the Black death wiped out 1/2 of Europe. The plague continued every 20 years thereafter for over four centuries. The social and economic changes that occurred as a result were an important influence on the development of the Renaissance. As huge chunks of the populace disappeared overnight due to the plague and other ills, there were more houses, more goods and more disposable income. As a result, commerce was on the upswing. The cities of Northern Italy were at the height of their prosperity, being led by a few select families lead by merchant princes who had ousted the hereditary nobles of feudal times with vast fortunes gained in banking and commerce. The Medicis, the Strozzis, the Farnesis, the Rucellai and the Pittis, all important patrons, must share with the artists some of the credit for making 15th century Italy such a land of painters, sculptors and architects such as had not been known before and was never to be known again.

The Renaissance began in Florence in the 15th century. It spread to Rome and other parts of Italy in the early 16th century, then as the designers and artisans dispersed, the Renaissance became a phenomenon across Europe.

One positive aspect of the Crusades was that trade routes were stablished in the wake of the advancing (or retreating) armies. Muslims, Jews and Christians could make use of these trade routes for personal gain while expanding the channels of communication in all directions. Due in part to the increased communication network across Europe, innovations in arts, medicine, science, astronomy and even clocks were being shared across the continent. Scientists, artists and merchants gained a great deal from the cultural exchanges opened up during those years. In the following centuries, with the invention of the compass, technical advancements in ship building, and prosperity in part caused by the frequent devastating plagues, exploration and trade by water increased this already fertile intellectual exchange.

By the 14th century, Europeans were becoming worldly, informed, and sophisticated. Contact with other cultures made them more aware of themselves. The renaissance embraced ideas, be they artistic or scientific, regardless of the nationality of the thinker. This attitude illustrates the growing concept of the individual, a corner stone of Renaissance ideology. People in all professions started to view human life in a new way. Access to classical texts was one key element in the development of Renaissance intellectual life. Starting with the Italians, there was a renewed interest in human scale and human proportions.

The invention of the compass, unprecedented economic prosperity, and advancements in ship building all contributed to increased trade which lead to both expanded limits to the known world and the dissemination of ideas. The invention of moveable type in 1450 catapulted this exchange of ideas into

Belief System

The Renaissance period saw the integration of the Pagan mythologies left over from the Roman Empire with the growing spiritual values of the Christian era. Painting, sculpture and architectural detailing show an intermingling of these two influences. In one building, even on one detail, you can find griffins, centaurs and images of Mars or Aphrodite cohabiting with saints, prophets and even the Madonna and Child.

When the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492, they fled to areas where there was the same atmosphere of sophistication and learning that they had become accustomed to in Spain's more enlightened period. They brought with them their belief systems and customs, some of

which were embraced by the forward thinkers of the Italian Renaissance. One example of this is the Kabala, the mystical basis of some Jewish practice, that was explored and embellished by some esoteric minded Christians.

Magic and the exploration of the natural powers of the universe were very much part of Renaissance life.


Political Situation

Italy was a series of city states until the 19th century. In the 15th century, there was no central government. Instead the various cities bore rule over the surrounding towns and villages. The grouping of independent commonwealths is important for an understanding of the dispersing of Renaissance ideas. Florence, Rome, Milan and Venice were independent cities. They were constantly feuding with one another. The nobles of each city were also engaged in their own feuds, and the situation was further aggravated by occupation by France. The most powerful empire in Europe was the Ottoman Empire.

Large families had fortified houses or palazzos which contained their family and friends, personal servants, and knights for protection. Family crests were found on buildings commissioned by these families as well as on the shields and armor of their hired protectors.

Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance and Romanesque architecture are both based on Roman architecture. Romanesque architects adopted the barrel vault and the Roman arch, but Renaissance architects made a careful study of all Roman architecture and attempted to recreate spatial magnificence of the Roman era without the cumbersome sizes. Gothic architects created light filled interior space through vaulting. Renaissance architects created interior space through the harmony of perfect mathematical proportions.

When the Gothic style was being embraced throughout Europe, only the detailing and the variations of the pointed arch penetrated into Italy, and then only in the north. Italians disregarded the structural basis of Gothic architecture. Italian buildings dating from before the 14th century reflect the heavy structure and sparkling surfaces of the earlier Roman times: marble faces the walls, mosaics adorn the interiors, and the exteriors may have Gothic detailing, but the structures are basilicas and the insides have no triforium and much less interior light than the Gothic equivalents. The exception is Venice which developed its own version of Gothic.

In many parts of Italy, the Gothic simply never penetrated. Milan Cathedral is the only Gothic cathedral, the structure being distinctly different to anything found elsewhere. Sculpture and painting all through Italy show the influence of the Romans more than of the north. The figures are full bodied and muscular with minimal cloth where in the north the figures are generally fully robed, unless they are being consumed by demons.

"Concrete disappeared as Gothic architecture continued to pare down the size of its structural members to achieve pure skeletal forms, for concrete had been associated with the massive Roman wall. It is significant that Alberti, for instance, nowhere mentions Roman concrete, though he never forgets to cite the opinions of classical writers, and had himself made a careful study of Roman buildings." Siegfried Gideon

Brunelleschi, Bramante, and Alberti

Builders throughout the centuries, however brilliant, were seen as master-masons. They had a firm grasp of structure, good control of scheduling, and possibly even a fine mind for biblical texts, but the Renaissance architect had much more. Gutenburg's invention of movable type in 1450 made Classical texts available to more than a select few wealthy nobles. Vitruvius (75 BC - 15 AD) in his Ten Books on Architecture outlined the exact mathematical proportions of buildings and defined what was considered harmonious and beautiful to the Classical mind. His books were printed in the late 15th century. In addition to that was the rediscovery that "musical intervals in harmony were exactly proportional to numbers in physical proportions." Nuttgens, p. 169

Vitruvius's Ten Books is an astonishingly contemporary book that was used as a guide for similar ideas by Alberti (1500). Alberti's treatise on architecture is also entitled the Ten Books on Architecture. Both Alberti and Vitruvius were concerned with Pythagorean theories applied to buildings; numbers, fractions, fifths, eighths and twelfths. During the medieval period, mathematics was largely Euclidian, and the application of mathematics onto architecture was done largely using a compass.

Fillipo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was the first important architect of the Renaissance. He is most famous for the dome of the Florence Cathedral, but is also known for the Foundling Hospital and the Pazzi Chapel in Santa Croce.

Leone Battista Alberti ((1404 -72) Alberti was a student of classical literature. His book De Re Aedificatoria was the first architectural book published in moveable type (1485) and was instrumental in reviving the Classical style of architecture. He tried to define the Renaissance aesthetic in the same way that Vitruvius had done with the Roman in the first century BC

Donato Bramante (1444 - 1514) Bramante's idea was that if a building's design is perfect, nothing could be either added to or subtracted from it without ruining the design. He was the first great Renaissance architect in Rome, working on St. Peter's, the Vatican and the Tempietto in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome.


Santa Maria dei Fiori

This church was built in the fourteenth century and designed by Anolfo di Cambio. He had surpassed in his conception the ability of the time and had not been able to complete the cathedral dome, lacking the technical expertise of the Romans and the Byzantines. In 1420 there went out a competition to complete the dome, and people from Sicily to Venice participated.

The lower portions of the duomo show the distinct influence of the gothic trends from the north.

Santa Maria dei Fiore,Florence

Campanile - Giotto

The campanile of the Florence Duomo was designed by Giotto who is perhaps much better known for his unsurpassed frescoes (Cappella degli Scrovegni).

The tower is 275 feet high (84m) and 45 feet (14m) square. Like the main body of the church, the tower is paneled in colored marble and embellished with marble inlay and sculpted friezes. The top of the campanile has machicolations also found on the Pitti palace and the Palazzo Publico, among other buildings.




Dome 1420 - 1461

The two finalists, Donatello and Brunelleschi both submitted designs that were influenced by their trip to Rome where they studied the great domes, including that of the Pantheon.

The dome triumphantly blended a Renaissance dome with a gothic building. 138'6" in diameter.

Brunelleschi's design entailed the building of a huge octagonal vault, a sort of eight sided dome, with deep solid stone ribs at the corners, and intermediate structural ribs to give strength, and two thin shells between - one inside and one out. A stone lantern caps the building, and in this lantern the old Roman orders - base, shaft, capital, architrave, frieze, and cornice, for the first time appear.


Dome 1420 - 1461

The Duomo from a distance with San Lorenzo in the background.



Foundling Hospital 1421 - 1445

The façade of the Foundling Hospital illustrates the serenity and simplicity of the Renaissance. The façade is composed of slim Corinthian columns supporting a graceful arcade of round-headed arches making a graceful street front columnar arcade. Centered above each arch is a rectangular window with a simple triangulated pediment.

Hospital of the Innocents

Foundling Hospital Della Robia

Both bas reliefs and frescoes were used extensively on Renaissance buildings.

Hospital of the Innocents

San Miniato 1018 - 1062

San Miniato has the type of banded and paneled black and white marble that was popular in Italy during the middle ages. The façade, as shown here, has a blind arcade with the same proportions used in the Foundling Hospital. What the Italians did during the Early Renaissance was integrate the traditions that were part of their culture with the new Humanism that was resulting from a study of the Classical years. This church was, in part, a precursor to the Foundling Hospital.

Hospital of the Innocents

Foundling Hospital

This arcaded loggia maintains but simplifies the Florentine tradition of street front arcades. Within each spandrel is a glazed terra-cotta medallion.

Foundling Hospital

Foundling Hospital Interior

The interior courtyard of the Foundling Hospital shows the simple and serene nature of early Renaissance design. On all four sides are graceful arcades with slim Corinthian columns and generously proportioned round-headed arches. Perfectly centered above each arch is a rectangular window with a plain triangular pediment. Between the windows is a design utilizing simple geometric shapes.


Foundling Hospital

Pazzi Chapel - Brunelleschi

What St. Denis was for the Gothic architects, the Pazzi Chapel was for the Renaissance architects. It was a revolutionary building based on perfect proportions. It is a square covered by a rib vaulted dome on pendentives as in the Hagia Sophia. There are clerestory lights on the dome and it is crowned with a lantern.

The chapel faces into the cloisters of Santa Croce. The entrance is a stone barrel vault centered on a six-column portico.

Pazzi exterior

Pazzi Chapel

The center of the dome is the center of the building. The drum of the dome has circular windows centered on each rib.

The dominant shape is the circle. On the intrados of the barrel vault shown is a pattern of squares centered on circles, echoing the theme of the design.

The design is s based on perfect geometric proportions. The harmonic ratios of this design reflect the fundamental laws of nature and of God.

Pazzi Chapel


Banking was frowned upon by the church during the middle ages, but by the 15th century it was an accepted practice. In Florence, banking and trade were the basis of a strong economy. With money comes power. The nobles were soon ousted by the banking families such as the Medici, the Strozzi, the Rucellai and the Pitti whose commercial empires spread through Europe. In Florence these families built palazzos like this one from which to rule.

The palazzo form is square with a high first floor where the carriages and horses of friends could enter. The second floor was the public area where the family would greet and entertain their guests. The third and top floor was reserved for the bed chambers. The square shape is always crowned by a large cornice.



The Uffizi was built for Cosimo I de Medici in the mid-16th century as a large office building. It was designed by Georgio Vasari and completed, with minor changes, after his death.

The interior façade has a simple, elegant design created with alternating triangular and Florentine pediments, and a precise but subtle treatment of the wall surface with decorative geometric bands and windows in regular sizes.

The Uffizi now houses one of the most important art collections in the world.



The Classical proportions used in the Roman times and written about by Vitruvius were intended for monumental buildings that would last for eternity. The buildings were designed to please the Gods as well as the people who formed the republic.

The courtyard of this palazzo has the alternating triangular and round headed pediments that were a common motif in the Renaissance.


Florentine Door

The Florentine arch found on this doorway is also an important motif from the era. The Florentine arch has a round headed arch on the intrados and a two centered arch on the extrados.

Florentine arch

Palazzo Strozzi

1489 - 1539

Here is the classic palazzo design of large first floor with a huge entranceway for carriages, a more elaborate second floor with regularized windows, and a more refined third floor capped with a large cornice.

The interior of the palazzo has elegant tiered columns while the exterior has uniformly rusticated blocks The entrance has a Florentine arch with heavy voussoirs. The cornice projects 7 feet (2.1m) from the building. Underneath it is a astragal frieze. An astragal is a molding that is convex, and resembles a string of beads.

Palazzo Strozzi



Sant'Onofrio al Gianicolo in Rome is dedicated to St Onophrius (Humphrey) a 4th century hermit. The church is part of a monastery of the Hieronymoties built in 1439 on the site of an ancient hermitage. The door is befitting a monastery, not overly grand and discreetly decorated.

Churches represented a public statement of their belief and there is no question that the work that went into a church door was the best work possible.

Contrast this elegant doorway with the equally magnificent but decidedly different entrance to Autun Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral or Cologne Cathedral.

San Andrea


The proportions of the door are calculated in Renaissance terms. The radius of the largest arch can be completed to create a circle which is then copied below and exactly one half of the circle fits beneath it to the bottom of the doorway. Unlike the Church of Madonna Scorsa the reveal has a minimally decorated base. A smaller inside circle can be copied three times to the same dimension at the bottom of the door. The door panel itself can be divided into eight, the top and the bottom panels of the doors comprise one quarter of the total height.

San Andrea

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Bramante - 1493

Bramante's Santa Maria delle Grazie done in 1493 is a similar Renaissance masterpiece.

Within the lunette is a fresco by Leonardo da Vinci. The portico is supported by Corinthian columns. Clearly Bramante was aware of the principles set out by Vitruvius and Alberti, and he has followed the ideas of proportion very closely. The intrados of the lunette is created by a circle that can be perfectly doubled between the floor level and the intrados. The extrados creates a circle that when carried down ends in the radius of two rondels in the column base. As well, the line between the uppermost point of the capital on the right extending down to the bottom of the base on the left exactly cuts the door in two.

San Andrea

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Clearly Bramante was aware of the principles set out by Vitruvius and Alberti, and he has followed the ideas of proportion very closely. The intrados of the lunette is created by a circle that can be perfectly doubled between the floor level and the intrados. The extrados creates a circle that when carried down ends in the radius of two rondels in the column base. As well, the line between the uppermost point of the capital on the right extending down to the bottom of the base on the left exactly cuts the door in two.

San Andrea

San Andrea - Alberti

1472 - 1494

The grand entrance portico looks a bit like a triumphal arch. The building has the basilica plan.

The grandeur of the interior made possible by the unpretentious and direct use of great vaults, a dome on pendentives at the crossing, and vaulted side chapels.

The front façade illustrates the ABA design as shown in his books.

San Andrea

Tempietto - San Pietro in Montorio 1502 - 1510


At the end of the early Renaissance, because of political and economic problems in Florence, many Renaissance architects moved to Rome, which then became the center of the High Renaissance.

The Tempietto is the quintessential High Renaissance building. Built on the spot where St. Peter was martyred, it is a small circular Roman temple.

The temple is only 15 feet (5m) in diameter, surrounded by a Doric peristyle. The drum which rises above the peristyle has alternating shell-headed niches and rectangular windows. The dome is capped with a lantern.



Early Renaissance Extra Reading and Films


Bolton, Jerry, The Renaissance Bazaar, Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2002

Borsi, Franco, Leon Battista Alberti, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London, 1975, translated by Rudolf G. Carpanini 1977

Giedion, Sigfried, Architecture and the Phenomena of Transition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.1971

Maxwell, Robert, Sweet Disorder and the Carelessly Careless; Theory and Criticism in Architecture, Princeton Papers on Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1993

Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Morris Hicky Morgan, Dover Publications, New York, 1960.


Girard Depardieu, The Return of Martin Guerre

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