Architecture and Public Space

   Throughout the Gothic period in the middle ages, when architecture in France and England was dominated by architecture executed on the grandest scale in Western history, with immense and airy cathedrals representing one of the highest points of European architectural genius, Italian architecture was an uninspired and relatively small affair. Although there was Gothic architecture in Italy, the sweep, genius and grandeur seemed to have passed those city-states by. The Renaissance, however, saw the development of a new architecture from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries that was the first "modern" architecture. When we look at Renaissance buildings, they look familiar, almost as if they were built one hundred years ago. The architectural language invented by the Italian Renaissance architects became the dominant architectural language of the modern world, displaced only by the advent of modernist architecture in the twentieth century.

   The architects of the Renaissance derived their architecture in part from a revived interest in Roman and Greek ruins, from the recovery of classical texts on architecture, particularly the Roman writer Vitruvius's ten books on architecture. They also, however, invented new forms and new visual language that was not derived from the classical period. In the process, the architects, humanists, and painters of the Renaissance (for architecture was considered a universal art in the Renaissance) invented a new idea of public space in which civic pride and organization would be organized on a city-wide scale.

   In the Renaissance, architecture was seen as the supreme art. Theorists on architecture believed that architectural design arose out of human experience, like all arts, but that it also represented the highest artistic achievement a human being could attain. Architecture, though, was not considered a specialist profession, as it is now. Architectural design was carried out by professional architects, painters, sculptors (such as Michelangelo), humanists, masons, and just plain amateurs with alot of time and money.

Italian Renaissance
in "Visual Arts in the Renaissance"
   The art rested on several principles derived ultimately from Vitruvius's books on architecture. The most important of these was symmetria, or symmetry, which demanded that the parts be geometrically balanced. There is in the earliest Renaissance architecture a mania for order and symmetry. In addition, the various parts of the architectural whole must be congruous or harmonious with one another—in architectural theory this was called dispositio, or disposition. As architecture developed, however, designers began to rebel against the strictures of Vitruvian theory. In the 1530's, particularly in the work of Michelangelo, architects began to go crazy with dysymmetry and wildly incongruous mixtures of architectural elements. This rebellious style of architecture is called mannerist architecture after a similar phenomenon in Renaissance painting.


   The invention of the uniquely Italian style in Renaissance architecture is typically given to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1466), who is also credited with inventing the principles of linear perspective in drawing and painting. In 1419, he was commissioned to build the dome over the cathedral in Florence, which had been started in 1296. In 1419, the building was still unfinished for no-one could quite figure out how to build the dome. Brunelleschi solved the problem by inventing a new type of dome. Rather than a hemisphere, Brunelleschi's dome is conical and high. It has eight sides and Brunelleschi built white ribs on the outside of the dome to call attention to these eight sides. It was the first dome ever built since the classical period to exist largely for the outside of the building rather than the inside. In medieval architecture, domes were designed to be visible from within the structure. Brunelleschi's dome, however, could be seen from all over Florence—in fact, it still dominates the skyline today. There are several innovations here: the design with its eight sides draws attention to its mathematical proportions and symmetry; in fact, Brunelleschi's dome is perhaps the best example of the Renaissance architectural principle of symmetria, which the classical architect Vitruvius claimed was the highest virtue of architecture. By being as much an exterior architecture as an interior one, the dome is about the public space in Florence and serves as a visual gravitational center to the civic life of the city.

The Fifteenth Century

   The fifteenth century saw a dramatic rise in architectural projects not only in the wealthiest cities such as Florence, but all over Italy. The Vitruvian principles of symmetry and order were applied in almost every building project. In addition, Brunelleschi's invention of perspective, a drawing technique, changed the way Italian architects constructed buildings. The Renaissance architecture of the fifteenth century is dominated by flat surfaces and strong lines which emphasize the principles of architecture.

   New types of buildings were going up. In addition to typical medieval buildings such as churches, chapels, and hospitals, Renaissance designers created two new types of buildings: the villa and the palazzo. The villa was country house that the wealthy and powerful citizens, such as the Medici, lived in. Originally fortified farms, Renaissance architects developed the villa into spacious pleasure homes. Related to the villa was the palazzo, or town house. These were the houses that the wealthy and powerful lived in when they visited the city. In the thirteenth century, these palazzi were narrow and unimperssive affairs with the first floor rented out as shops. The fifteenth century saw the rise of large, square and proportionate palazzi in which all floors were dedicated to living areas. Again, the architects were interested also in the exteriors of these palazzi; they were both private and public buildings—in their public aspect, that is, in their exterior, they expressed the wealth and power of their owners.

Italian Renaissance
Civic Humanism
in "Humanism"
   Besides Brunelleschi, the most important architect of the period was Leon Battista Alberti, who was also a significant political theorist and civic humanist. He's best known for his books on architecture; in these books, he draws up a theory of city planning and public space. His ideal city is filled with isolated, monumental buildings all perfectly balancing one another. While Brunelleschi is credited with inventing the architectural language of the Renaissance, Alberti is generally considered to have perfected it in terms of symmetry and disposition.


   As in painting and sculpture, the interest in architecture and design eventually led to an architecture in which the principles and techniques of its designs became the dominant language of buildings. Mannerist architecture, roughly contemporarneous with mannerist art, draws attention to design elements themselves particularly through visual paradox and confusion. The earliest master of the mannerist style in architecture was Michelangelo Buonarotti, whose architecture is filled with confusing and contradictory devices. In the Lauentian Library, for instance, he placed columns inside recesses in the walls rather than in front of walls, where they belonged. These columns also don't go to the floor, as columns should, but stop several feet above the floor.

   Mannerist architecture, then, threw the Vitruvian principles of congruence and symmetry on their head. There is a tension in mannerist buildings between order and disorder, between functionality and uselessness. This is all meant to draw attention to the fact that the architecture is a contrivance, a work of art, an artifice. Here we see the origins of post-modern architecture with its emphasis on disproportion and non-functionality.

   The Mannerists, however, never fully abandoned Vitruvius. Mannerist buildings are still very proportioned and rigidly designed—they don't present, however, a serenely symmetrical surface but rather draw our attention to their very use of architectural elements.

St. Peter's and the Vatican

   The work of architecture that represents the Italian Renaissance in its fullest sense is St. Peter's and the Vatican in Rome. Julius II was determined to tear down St. Peter's and replace it with a church and a palace worthy of his greatness and of expressing the political power of the Papal States. He intended St. Peter's to be the largest church in the world, and in a modesty befitting his holy office, desired his tomb to occupy a dominant position in this grand church. The first architect to work on this massive project was Donato Bramante. Bramante designed the Vatican on the epic scale that it assumes today and had drawn out the plans for a huge, cross-shaped church when he died. The commission was then given to Raphael, the painter and architect, who had studied architecture under Bramante. But Raphael never really took to the project, and the huge, central church of Bramante turned into a conventional church—Raphael's plans, however, were never carried out. The commission passed to Antonio Sangallo and then to Michelangelo.


   The Renaissance architect with the most significant influence over European architecture was Andrea di Pietro (1508-1580), nicknamed Palladio (from the Greek Goddess Pallas Athene) by the humanist poet, designer, and scholar, Trissino. Palladio combined elements of both the early Renaissance stress on balance and geometrical symmetry with the language of mannerist architecture. His buildings, however, are much more subdued than the buildings of the "wild" 1530's and 1540's. The architecture that he developed would become the dominant language of architecture all throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In particular, he turned private houses of the wealthy into structures that rivalled public buildings and churches. By making the exteriors of private houses match the exteriors of classically influenced churches and public buildings, he articulated a place for the wealthy and powerful at the very top of civic life. This would become a principle of domestic architecture throughout Europe and the colonies in America. It argued that the wealthy and powerful were the center of civic life just as public buildings and churches were; you can still drive down the street in Palo Alto and see columned exteriors on the houses of the wealthy mimicing public buildings and communicating civic power.

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World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999