Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Architecture and Design

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.


Tradition and Change

In 1300 most Europeans lived in cities that resembled fortresses more than the spaces modern people would associate with urban life. Long-standing warfare and insecurity in medieval Europe had caused people to huddle together closely within the confines of towns protected by walls and battlements. Inside these fortifications, functional houses and tenements crafted from rustic stone, timber, or brick were built close to the street, choking out light and the flow of air from above. Poor or inadequate sanitation was usually the norm, and smoke from family hearths filled the cities. The largest public buildings in a medieval city were almost always churches, and around 1300, the Gothic style—notable for its height and intricate complexity—dominated their construction. These buildings, the largest architectural monuments of the Middle Ages, were not only centers of worship and Christian ritual, but also objects of local civic pride, and towns avidly competed to outdo each other in their construction. Three hundred years later the situation had changed dramatically in many places, as Renaissance Europeans built churches, public buildings, broad squares, and urban palaces that expressed new and strikingly different attitudes towards urban space and design. In creating these projects architects found inspiration in the buildings of classical Antiquity. The revival of knowledge about ancient styles, proportions, and construction techniques deepened tremendously during the Renaissance as architects studied the buildings and urban spaces of ancient Rome more systematically than before. The birthplace of this revolution in architecture was Italy, and as in many other areas of Renaissance life, it was in Florence that the new classicism first developed. There the new projects that architects built in the early fifteenth century made use of the language of classical Roman architecture, while developing a native style that would be imitated elsewhere. As the fifteenth century progressed, architectural innovations appeared in a number of other cities throughout the peninsula.

The High Renaissance

By 1500, Italy’s architects, drawn mostly from the guilds of sculptors and carpenters in the cities, had achieved a remarkable mastery of the elements of ancient design. They had used ancient inspiration to create buildings that functioned well under the quite different circumstances of life in Renaissance cities. During the first quarter of the sixteenth century, architecture, like painting and sculpture, underwent another rapid transformation. This period, known as the High Renaissance, saw painters like Leonardo da Vinci, Donato Bramante, Raphael Sanzio, and Michelangelo Buonarroti entering into the planning of buildings with increasing frequency. As painters trained in the Florentine tradition of disegno, that is, draftsmanlike design, each brought with them a new sophistication about the use of light, line, and mass in the construction of buildings. Although natives of Tuscany and central Italian towns, each of these figures worked in Rome at different points in their careers, and that city benefited from the construction of most of the grand projects of the High Renaissance. This style was notable for its great simplicity, harmonious proportions, and unified design. Julius II, the commanding “Warrior Pope,” employed Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael, among many other artists, to fashion his grand rebuilding and renewal projects in the church’s capital. By far the greatest of the pope’s ambitions was his plan to demolish and rebuild the ancient Basilica of St. Peter’s, a building originally constructed by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The scale of this project was unprecedented in European history, and in Bramante, Julius found an architect whose designs were equal to his goals. Bramante designed the new structure to be a central-style church that radiated from a commanding dome. Like many of the projects that Julius began, however, the rebuilding of St. Peter’s was too immense to be completed in a single lifetime. The pope accepted Bramante’s designs and had his workmen begin the demolition of Constantine’s basilica. He also ensured that the central piers that were to support Bramante’s dome were begun before his death in 1513. Thus Julius laid down the proportions for a truly grand structure that later consumed the energies and creativity of the finest artists and architects of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The High Renaissance in Rome was also a time of creative and often frenzied building projects undertaken throughout the city. In domestic architecture, Bramante, Raphael, and others created new edifices notable for the complete integration of classical decoration as well as their harmonious beauty. Toward the end of the period the sculptor-painter Michelangelo began to turn to architecture as well, applying the skills that he had acquired in the planning and execution of Julius II’s massive tomb project. During the 1510s he returned to Florence, where he designed several projects for the Medici family. Increasingly these designs took on a willful nature, that is, Michelangelo violated certain tenets of classical design in order to create structures of greater imaginative creativity. In his Laurentian Library at Florence, in particular, the artist created spaces that inspired later Mannerist architects to search for new and innovative ways to use space and decoration.

The Later Renaissance in Italy

Rome had been the great stage on which High Renaissance architects had designed their new monumental and heroic structures. It had been Julius II’s aim, and that of his successors Leo X and Clement VII, to remake the city into an imposing showpiece that celebrated Rome as the very center of the Christian world. Even as this monumental rebuilding of the city was underway in the High Renaissance, Rome’s position on the international political scene grew more precarious. In 1527, the great period of creative activity in the city came to an abrupt halt with the Sack of Rome carried out by imperial forces of Charles V. Almost all of the artists and architects who had been active in the High Renaissance fled to work in other cities, carrying with them the skills they had acquired while working in the church’s capital. During the 1530s and 1540s Rome experienced a slow recovery from the massive destruction and psychological distresses the Sack had caused. Construction resumed on the new St. Peter’s, but not until the 1560s was the building of another large church, the Gesù, begun. During the brief pontificate of Sixtus V (r. 1585-1589) Rome again became a great center of architectural and artistic endeavors. Like Julius before him, Sixtus employed an army of designers, painters, and sculptors to beautify the city. He brought new sources of public water to the town; forged broad, straight avenues through Rome’s ancient maze of streets; and built public spaces with attractive architectural focal points. Rome became a model for urban planning and renewal that would be imitated throughout Europe in subsequent centuries. Elsewhere in Italy the sixteenth century was a time of great architectural vitality. In Florence, the Mannerist painters and designers of the mid- and late century created new projects characterized by a style of intricate complexity and repetition. Many of the city’s artists worked for the Medici, who now ruled the city as dukes. For inspiration, these figures turned to the architectural works of Michelangelo at the Church of San Lorenzo, notable for its willful violations of classical design tenets. Their projects inspired other designers in Rome and central Italian cities, although their influence rarely spread into the world of northern Italy and Venice. Here a refined and elegant classicism, best articulated in the architecture of figures like Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio, continued to dominate both public and private construction. This classicism, characterized by a greater lightness and delicacy and balanced symmetry, was eventually widely imitated throughout Europe, but most notably in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Palladio’s illustrated architectural treatises even influenced American architecture such as the graceful structures that Thomas Jefferson and other colonials designed for the new Republic.

The Architectural Renaissance Throughout Europe

Around 1500, European architecture outside Italy remained traditional. The first buildings inspired by the Renaissance of architectural design occurring in Italy were not in Western Europe, but at the continent’s eastern fringes. In the second half of the fifteenth century King Matthias Corvinus encouraged the development of humanism in Hungary, and brought to his kingdom a small group of Italian artists and architects to remodel his castles and to build several new projects. In Russia, Grand Prince Ivan III did likewise when he lured a group of Italian craftsmen and architects to Moscow to beautify the Kremlin complex. In Western Europe the spread of humanism similarly encouraged patrons and designers to adopt elements of Renaissance classicism, but this process of integration occurred slowly throughout the sixteenth century. In Western Europe, Spain was among the earliest places to show signs of a classically influenced architectural Renaissance. In Northern European countries, building in the early sixteenth century usually proceeded along late-Gothic lines. In its late phase, Gothic architecture embraced a highly ornate and decorative style, with highly elaborate piers and vaulted ceilings being among its most distinctive elements. As the Renaissance affected styles throughout the region, Northern Europeans often borrowed ancient decorative elements to create highly ornate decorations that were more Gothic than Renaissance in their overall effect. The presence of Italian architects and painters in France, Germany, and Spain, as well as the journeys of craftsmen to Italy, gradually helped to develop a more complete understanding of classical architecture, its design elements, and its uses, as did the spread of architectural treatises written by Italians like Serlio, Palladio, and Vignola. These works, with their engraved illustrations, deepened the appreciation of classicism among European architects working outside Italy. One notable holdout, though, was England, where a native style of Gothic architecture continued to be popular throughout much of the sixteenth century, with very few attempts at Renaissance classicism. In most of Northern Europe, a shift in the type of building was also evident. In France, the Netherlands, and England, religious controversy between Catholics and Protestants had a dampening effect on the building of new churches in the sixteenth century. At the same time the era was one of great achievement in the building of royal palaces, country châteaux, and public buildings. These structures illustrate the gradual appropriation of Renaissance classicism that occurred throughout the region. At the beginning of the century most projects continued to be built in native and traditional styles with classical and Gothic elements appearing on the same structure. As the sixteenth century progressed, a new sophistication and rigor developed in the uses of ancient design, sponsored by changing tastes, a deepening knowledge of antique architecture, and the spread of humanistic ideas. By 1600, all Western European countries, with the exception of England, had developed vigorous new patterns of building that combined native traditions with Renaissance classicism. These edifices played an important role in expressing the power of the church and state, even as they expressed a new longing for balance, harmony, and order.

The Birth of the Renaissance Style


The development of a uniquely Renaissance style centered on the city of Florence, the town often called the “birthplace of the Renaissance.” While the citizens of Florence did not single-handedly create the revival of culture and learning that occurred in Europe during the period, they did nevertheless pioneer new architectural styles imitated first in Italy and later abroad. This revival was evident to visitors to the city in the fifteenth century, as they saw the town’s urban fabric being transformed through the building of a host of new architectural monuments, most of them created in a style that imitated the buildings of Antiquity. During this period the building of Renaissance Florence was a significant industry, and one whose foundations can be traced to the peculiar circumstances of the town’s history in the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance.


During the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries Florence’s population expanded rapidly, more rapidly than most European cities at the time. Around 1200, for example, the town was smaller than nearby Pisa. A little more than a century later in the time of Dante and Giotto, its numbers had increased at least fourfold. The city’s population was then probably around 90,000. Although small by modern standards, the city ranked among the largest in Europe. This great expansion created a building boom, beginning with the new walls constructed to defend the town. A new system of fortifications had been built around Florence in the late twelfth century, but a century later, another was already necessary. These new walls, begun around 1284, were not completed until the mid-fourteenth century. When complete, they increased by five times the area enclosed within the city’s fortifications. Such ambitious plans proved unnecessary, however. Between 1347 and 1351 the Black Death struck Florence hard, as it did other European cities at the time; Florence experienced a sudden and dramatic decline in its population as the disease moved quickly through densely packed streets and overcrowded dwellings. Florence’s population may have fallen by as much as one-half after the Black Death, and the city’s numbers remained depressed from their pre-plague levels in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, in part because of renewed outbreaks of the disease.


Although the Black Death produced sudden economic dislocation in Europe’s towns and countryside, it is more difficult to generalize about the epidemic’s long-term economic effects. The population decline affected Europe’s various industries differently. Activities that required a great deal of labor, for instance, tended to experience a rise in the real wages of their workers, since there were fewer laborers than before the Black Death. In many parts of Europe nobles and peasants converted their lands to pastoral purposes, raising sheep and other animals that required less manpower than other kinds of farming. The increase in the production of wool this transformation provided presented producers in towns like Florence with a steady source of cheap raw materials to refine into finished cloth. While many wealthy families had died out during the epidemics of the fourteenth century, those that survived now faced ideal circumstances in which to consolidate their control over the local economy. By 1400, all evidence suggests that an extraordinary amount of wealth had accumulated in the hands of Florence’s wealthy merchants, bankers, and industrial producers. Over the coming years a large part of this wealth funded the construction of buildings designed to glorify and immortalize the city’s most prominent families. As a result, the building trades witnessed unprecedented expansion, as cities throughout Italy—but most particularly in Florence—devoted significant capital resources to construction.

Lure of Antiquity

Florence, like many Italian cities in the early fifteenth century, was a republic that had long been dominated by an oligarchy comprised of prominent families. During the fifteenth century the Medici family, in particular, increased its control over Florence’s political structure, while at the same time upholding Florence’s pretensions to being a republic. The town’s control extended into the surrounding countryside, and during the fifteenth century Florence continued to conquer many neighboring towns in Tuscany, bringing them under its control. These conquests, which had been occurring for years, were now increasingly necessary to protect the town from the threat of outside invasion. Around 1400, Florence narrowly averted a major threat to its independence from the duchy of Milan when a sudden outbreak of plague struck the enemy’s armies. A decade later another threat loomed, this time from the Kingdom of Naples to the south. Disease again prevented the town’s conquest. In this situation of constant endangerment the image of the city as a David that stood up against the greater Goliaths of Italy became a potent symbol in the town’s mythology. At the same time the town’s humanist philosophers, artists, and architects were studying the antique worlds of Rome and Greece, finding a kinship with the urbane sophistication and republican values of Greek, Etruscan, and early Roman civilizations. In the decades after 1400 Florence’s wealthy families surrounded themselves with the trappings of Antiquity, not only in their intellectual culture but in their art and architecture as well. While this taste for Antiquity was certainly a distinctive element of Florence’s Renaissance, it was also at the time becoming a general phenomenon throughout Italy. Even in towns and cities ruled by despotic princes, rulers and ruled were coming to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the ancient world. In Florence, though, the revived classicism of Renaissance architecture played a vital role in expressing the values of independence, civic involvement, and local identity.

Medieval Projects

Despite the falloff that had occurred in Florence’s population as a result of the Black Death, many public building projects had continued in the fourteenth century unabated. Some of these projects were still under construction even as the new architecture of the Renaissance transformed the cityscape. Around 1300, the city’s government had begun construction on a new town hall. Today known as the Palazzo Vecchio (or Old Palace, to distinguish it from another civic complex dating from the sixteenth century), the building was constructed in a thoroughly medieval style, with heavily rusticated walls and a crenellated tower. Toward the end of the fourteenth century the town had also opened a new square outside this town hall by demolishing medieval houses that had stood at the site. Florence’s governmental square was notable for its size and attractive shape, and although medieval in origin, the plaza displayed sculptural works by the town’s most prominent artists throughout the Renaissance, a practice that has continued to the present day. A second major project of the fourteenth century, the town’s grain market, began in 1336. When completed, the covered market of Orsanmichele was the most elaborate in Europe. Constructed in stone, the building was over 120 feet high and had two floors of vaulted space for merchants’ sales. Even prior to the structure’s completion, Florence’s town fathers converted the building, allowing it to be used by the city’s confraternities and guilds as a center for their charitable works and religious devotions. The decoration of the new religious complex consumed the energies of many Florentine artists and sculptors during the early Renaissance. Although their design was still medieval in nature, the scope of Orsanmichele and the Palazzo Vecchio went far beyond the scale of other projects built in Florence in previous centuries. They, in turn, were soon to be dwarfed by the building of the town’s cathedral, the single largest project ever undertaken in the city and still one of the world’s largest churches.


Although work began on the Florence cathedral in 1296, it took over a century and a half to complete the mammoth structure. From the first, the cathedral’s creators conceived it as a public monument, rather than an ecclesiastical project. The town’s government and the local guilds, for instance, financed the church’s construction, and Florence’s archbishops had little say in how the structure was built. Over time the city’s most powerful guild, the Arte de Lana or “woolmaker’s guild,” controlled the cathedral’s construction, establishing a special Board of Works of the cathedral charged with supervising all matters concerning the building. This board appointed many of the city’s famous artists and sculptors to decorate the project, including Giotto Bondone (c. 1277-1337), who has long been credited with designing the cathedral’s graceful campanile or bell tower, to serve as the director of the work during the final years of his life. Most European cities with similar projects underway at the time of the Black Death abandoned or radically pared down their plans in the years following the epidemic. This was not the case in Florence where construction continued on the cathedral despite the decline that occurred in the city’s population after the Black Death. During the 1350s builders completed the structure’s campanile, and soon after Florentines laid down the piers of the church’s massive crossing, the area between the nave and the choir. The massive scale laid out for these piers committed Florence to the construction of a building of truly enormous size. For years the project continued, even though no one had any idea how the structure’s crossing—more than 130 feet in diameter wide—was to be roofed over.

Brunelleschi’s Dome

In the years after 1400 the architect Brunelleschi worked to solve this puzzle. Originally trained as a sculptor, Brunelleschi had been a finalist in a competition to create new doors for Florence’s cathedral baptistery in 1401. The judges were unable to decide between Brunelleschi’s and his competitor Lorenzo Ghiberti’s submissions, and awarded the commission to be shared by both. Brunelleschi, according to a long-standing legend, refused to accept this plan, and from this point onward he turned away from sculpture to devote himself to architecture. He traveled to Rome where he studied the buildings of the ancient world, measuring their proportions and analyzing their structural elements. By 1420, he had perfected his skills as an architect. His designs for a dome to complete the city’s cathedral had been accepted and work began on his novel conception. The existing structure, a Gothic-styled cathedral, shaped Brunelleschi’s plans for this work, and except for the lantern that sits atop the structure, there are few classical influences in the architect’s dome. The ingenuous solutions that Brunelleschi developed to cover this enormous space, though, point to his great skill as an engineer, skills that he would put to use later in a series of churches, chapels, and public buildings he designed in Florence. Brunelleschi directed the cathedral project for a number of years, supervising work crews and resolving thorny issues of design and building on a daily basis. His solutions to the practical problems of building show the strongly inventive strain of his mind. One of the problems of constructing a dome of this magnitude proved to be the issue of scaffolding. It had been estimated that it might consume the wood from several forests to build a scaffold large enough to construct the structure’s dome. Brunelleschi instead devised an innovative system in which the scaffolding positioned at the top of the dome’s drum could be moved up as new sections of the structure were completed. He also created a device whereby building materials could be hoisted up to these scaffolds as needed, an invention that reduced the number of workmen needed to ferry materials. The dome’s structural elements consisted of eight ribs that supported both an outer and inner skin. Patterned brickwork between the ribs added strength to the structure, allowing the two elements—the stone ribs and brickwork—to support the dome’s interior skin. A series of buttresses arranged around the base or drum of the dome also gave further support to the entire project’s mass. This solution allowed the structure to soar with commanding simplicity almost 40 stories over the skyline of Florence. Since its completion in 1436, Brunelleschi’s dome has become the most famous and readily recognizable symbol of the city.

Other Projects

As construction on Brunelleschi’s dome reached completion, the city of Florence witnessed a building boom of unprecedented proportions. For the architect Brunelleschi, managing the cathedral project was a full-time job that required his presence on a dayto-day basis. Even though the demands of this work were considerable, Brunelleschi still found time to design a number of structures elsewhere in the city. These projects helped forge a distinctive Renaissance architectural style imitated by later architects. In these designs Brunelleschi put to even greater use the classical language he had learned from his study of ancient architecture in Rome. The architect’s plans for the Ospedale degli Innocenti show the artist’s first attempts to develop a complete style influenced by classical proportions and design elements. Founded in 1410, the Ospedale was a foundling hospital or orphanage—one of the first European institutions to deal with the problem of abandoned children. The design that Brunelleschi crafted for the institution’s orphanage was similarly innovative. In it, he created an arcade of eleven slender columns that supported rounded Roman arches. One of the most significant things about the architecture the artist created here was its use of a geometrically regular system of proportions. Each column, for instance, was as high as the width of the arch it supported and equal, too, to the distance between the outer colonnade and the interior wall. Brunelleschi made similar use of regular proportions throughout his plans, thus producing a work that was simple, elegant, and visually balanced. The only decorative elements he included in his original plans were the acanthus-leafed Corinthian capitals that crowned the colonnade’s columns. Thus in contrast to the complexity of Gothic architecture being constructed at the time in most of Europe, his designs for the Ospedale were a model of restraint, clarity, and simplicity. A key feature of Brunelleschian architecture was its use of numerical relationships. On the building’s façade the proportions he relied upon made use of the relationships one to two, one to five, and two to five. Brunelleschi repeated these same numerical relationships in the building’s interiors. These numbers were not haphazardly chosen, but were religiously significant: one being the number associated with God the Father, two with Jesus Christ, and five with the number of wounds the Savior suffered during his crucifixion. Further, the multiple of two and five equals ten, the number of the Commandments, which were an important set of strictures used in raising the orphanage’s children. In this way Brunelleschi’s mathematical relationships, which were readily intelligible to the astute fifteenth-century observer, expressed certain underlying religious ideals, a feature of his architecture that became one of the hallmarks of Renaissance design. In both the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries architects would use numerical relationships, proportions, and shapes not only to create harmonious designs but to express underlying philosophical and religious truths.


In a series of churches and chapels designed throughout Florence the architect perfected his new classical idiom. Work on Brunelleschi’s plans for the Church of San Lorenzo commenced in 1421. The Medici family, which was rising to prominence at the time, financed much of the construction of this project, and their ties to the church remained strong throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In his designs for San Lorenzo, Brunelleschi pioneered the first use of an architectural system of single-point perspective. Looking down the church from the high altar back to the end of the nave, the church’s lines and columns are designed so that they diminish and converge at one point in the rear of the structure. In place of the mystery of a Gothic church, Brunelleschi here expressed an architectural system in which the interplay of light on simple refined surfaces recalled the grand interior spaces of ancient Rome. In place of the traditional Latin cross usually relied upon in Western church architecture, the architect substituted the T-shape of the ancient Roman basilica. On both sides of the nave, a colonnade of Corinthian columns supporting Roman arches sets off side aisles, in which the church’s chapels are recessed again into Roman arches. Above these arches round windows known as oculi admit light into the space. Throughout the structure Brunelleschi restricted his use of materials to the gray stone known in Italy as pietra serena and white plaster. Although the resulting effect is severe, it is also rational, harmonious, and altogether appealing. The use of the two-tone palette of gray and white, found in Brunelleschi’s earliest creations, became a long-standing feature of Tuscan design, surviving well into the nineteenth century. The architect perfected this new classical style of church architecture further in his plans for a new Church of Santo Spirito, a building that eventually replaced an older medieval structure on the spot. Here Brunelleschi relied on a different set of proportional relationships to produce a structure that appears more massive and imposing than the lighter and more elegant San Lorenzo. In the case of both churches Brunelleschi planned to situate the structures within impressive piazzas that would serve as a focus for civic life. Unfortunately, neither design was executed in the way in which the artist had wished, although later architects studied his plans. Thus they had an indirect impact upon developing ideas about urban design in the Renaissance. For the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, Brunelleschi designed a third architectural masterpiece, the small Pazzi Chapel that is a free-standing structure on the church’s grounds. In this building the contrast between the late-medieval architectural world and that of the developing Renaissance becomes even more evident. In contrast to the complexity and mystery of Gothic spaces, Brunelleschi’s plans for the chapel are at once clear, graceful, and harmonious. They give expression as well to the developing sensibilities of the humanist movement, with its emphasis on the notions of a universe filled with divinely inspired harmonies and proportions that could be understood by the human mind. At the Pazzi Chapel, the artist again relied on the color scheme he chose for Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo: cool gray and white. Yet within this space, touches of blue—from the terracotta medallions designed for the chapel by the sculptor Luca della Robbia—relieve the severity inherent in the earlier structures. In addition, Brunelleschi altered his proportions so that he diminished the scale of each of the chapel’s three stories. The result makes the Corinthian pilasters, which serve as a decorative element upon the chapel’s walls, take on an even greater visual importance.


All Brunelleschi’s completed buildings in Florence were public in nature. At the same time a revolution was also underway in domestic architecture led by the architect’s younger competitor, Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (1396-1472). Michelozzo and his studio designed numerous chapels, churches, and monastic buildings in and around the city of Florence, along with urban palazzi (palaces) and country villas. The quality of domestic architecture in medieval Florence had been low, consisting mostly of medieval tenements filled with crowded apartment-styled dwellings. Even the wealthiest families in the town had long clung to fortress-like houses, which in the uncertain and insecure world of the Middle Ages had often been sited around a massive defensive tower. During the 1440s Cosimo de’ Medici, the head of the wealthy banking family and the backdoor manipulator of Florence’s politics, commissioned the architect Michelozzo to design a new family palace or palazzo. At that time, as now, the word “palazzo” in Italian referred to all kinds of substantial urban buildings. The Medici Palace that Michelozzo designed became the nerve center of the Medici banking and business concerns as well as the family’s domestic residence. At the time the Medici was a family of comparatively new wealth that lacked a noble title. Cosimo de’ Medici consequently wanted to use his new palazzo to project the right image. We know, for instance, that he had originally approached Brunelleschi to design the building, but he rejected the architect’s plans because he felt that they were too ostentatious and elaborate. Since Florence was a republic (although ostensibly one largely controlled by Cosimo) he desired a palace that would bolster the image of his family as cultured and substantial private citizens of the city. The Michelozzo design he chose has been somewhat altered over the centuries. It consisted of three floors. The first floor, which was the center of the Medici bank during the Renaissance, originally had large Roman-styled arches that were open to the street so that merchants and businessmen could gain free access to the structure. The exterior walls of this floor are finished with rustic blocks of stone, while above on the second and third floors, the masonry becomes progressively more refined. At the top of the structure a classical cornice crowns the building. Although the Medici Palace is more than 70 feet high, the overall effect is not one of grandeur, but of squatness. The interior courtyard fills the structure with light and relieves the fortress appearance of the exterior. The colonnade that surrounds this courtyard shows the influence of Brunelleschi’s designs for the Ospedale, although Michelozzo used columns that were shorter and more massive to support the heavy weight of the floors above. To modern minds, the appearance of the Medici Palace appears far from homey since its high ceilings and forbidding rusticated exterior seem to connote more the appearance of public rather than domestic spaces. Such distinctions, however, played little role in the overheated commercial world of fifteenth-century Florence, as most families lived and worked in the same space. The Medici Palace, by contrast, offered the family a greater degree of privacy and comfort than was usually present in the dark and damp homes in which even many of the city’s wealthiest citizens lived. The building’s rusticated exterior, too, duplicated the surviving monuments of ancient Rome rather than medieval models, in order to give the Medici family a degree of greater respectability. To the fifteenth-century observer, the palace’s exterior likely conveyed an impression of dignity and solidity. Observed from this direction, it is not difficult to see why the palace exercised an influence over the construction of many similar structures for Italy’s notable families.


Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was the finest fifteenth-century architect to follow Brunelleschi in Florence. One of the great “universal men” of the Renaissance, Alberti was a humanist by training who worked in Florence during the mid-1430s. Although he was a member of one of the town’s most distinguished families, the young Alberti had been born illegitimate and was brought up in Venice during one of the periods of his father’s exile from the city. His father died during Alberti’s student years, ultimately leaving the young scholar without sufficient resources to support himself. Thus Alberti sought patrons in the wealthy, cultivated families of Italy, numbering among his distinguished supporters the Este of Ferrara, the Gonzaga of Mantua, at least two popes, and the Rucellai family in Florence. He designed a number of structures for these patrons, and in 1450 he finished his Ten Books on Architecture, a work that revived the ideas of the ancient Roman scholar Vitruvius about architectural proportions. While his architectural ideas were not widely influential among Florentine builders in the fifteenth century, architects elsewhere in Italy imitated his design tenets.


At the invitation of Pope Nicholas V (1459-1557), a scholarly pope whom Alberti met during his student days, the architect completed the first plans for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although that project stalled for almost another half century, Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo—the Vatican’s chief sixteenth-century builders—all studied his plans. Alberti’s ideas about architecture maintained that beauty was a truth, and that buildings must be designed rationally to provide people with space that was harmonious and beautiful. At the same time he was conscious of the functionality of the spaces he created, insisting that buildings must serve practical uses and consequently be designed for their inhabitants. Alberti’s theories on architectural beauty are evident in the palace he designed for the Rucellai family during the mid-1440s. The architect rejected the heavy fortress style of Michelozzo’s slightly earlier Medici Palace, and instead created a façade that was altogether more refined. Unlike Brunelleschi who used columns to support his graceful colonnades and arches, Alberti liberated the column and the pilaster to become mere decorative elements. The arch itself, he insisted, was an opening in a wall, and most of his designs preserved its essential nature. Alberti, for instance, did not create colonnades of columns that supported Roman arches in the way that Brunelleschi had done before him. He developed these ideas in a number of commissions he completed for Italian princes, amassing a distinctive list of creations that influenced the development of the later High Renaissance style. One of the most unusual buildings he designed was for the notorious despot Sigismondo Malatesta, at the time lord of Rimini. Alberti was then working within the papal household and was also a member of a religious order, but this did not dissuade him from helping Malatesta in his plans to build a temple that glorified pagan learning and humanist scholars. Originally, Malatesta had planned to remodel a local church to suit his ambitions for a pagan shrine. At Alberti’s instigation, though, the tyrant began to completely encase the former church within an entirely new skin of marble. Unfortunately, Malatesta’s fortunes changed before the shrine’s completion, and work on the structure ceased. The exterior of this structure, though, shows Alberti’s successful assimilation of classical elements of design, an assimilation that was also expressed in the architect’s plans for the Church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua. The architect finished designing this project in 1470, shortly before his death, and most of its construction occurred following his death. Here he relied on a traditional Latin cross layout for the structure, although in his writings he advocated the use of central style, in which none of a church’s radiating wings was larger than another. Instead of the rows of columns that Brunelleschi and other fifteenth-century architects had used to support their vaulted ceilings, Alberti created a single-aisle church with side chapels recessed into the walls within gigantic Roman arches. Further he designed the ceiling of this church as a single rounded barrel vault that moves toward the crossing and is met by similar barrel vaults in the transepts and choir. The overall effect of the design produced is at once harmoniously proportioned and majestically beautiful. It is little wonder, then, that elements of Sant’Andrea’s barrel-vaulted style had numerous imitators, most notably in both Bramante’s plans for the new St. Peter’s Basilica and the Jesuit Church of Il Gesù, important sixteenth-century projects in the city of Rome.

After Alberti

The impact of Alberti’s harmonious creations inspired many designers in the second half of the fifteenth century. In Rome, Alberti’s work for Pope Nicholas V created a new urban design for the city centered on St. Peter’s and the Vatican complex. A number of buildings constructed after 1450 seem to be influenced by his ideas and designs, although their architects are unknown. These nameless figures copied Alberti’s plans for the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence at several Roman churches during the 1470s and 1480s. In addition, Alberti’s architectural ideas are evident in the courtyard built for the Palazzo Venezia in Rome sometime after 1455. Although the architect’s influence upon subsequent designers was profound, innovators also continued to appear on the Italian scene. One of these, Giuliano da Sangallo, was the first of a distinguished family of architects. Like Brunelleschi and Alberti, Sangallo studied the buildings of ancient Rome, recording a number of buildings that have since disappeared. In Prato, a suburb outside Florence, he designed the Church of Santa Maria dell Carceri that drew imaginatively on elements from Alberti and also from Brunelleschi’s plans for the Pazzi Chapel. In this structure he placed a ribbed dome similar to those Brunelleschi had designed in Florence. Sangallo designed the church itself in the central style, a departure from the traditional Latin cross used throughout most of the Middle Ages. Alberti’s theoretical writings on architecture had stressed that the central style—in which the radiating transepts of the building were of equal size—was more harmonious and beautiful. Sangallo’s integration of Albertian and Brunelleschian styles continued throughout the interior and exterior of the building. Inside he decorated the structure with the palette of pietra serena and white plaster typical of Brunelleschi. On the exterior of the church, however, the architect played off brilliant white and green marbles, similar to the façades that Alberti had crafted for his structures. Sangallo established a popular design practice in Florence, and during the late fifteenth century he produced plans for a number of charming structures, including a new country villa for the Medici at Poggio a Caiano.

Palace Building

The years between 1450 and 1500 saw a great boom in the construction of urban palaces for the wealthy merchants and nobles of Italian cities. In Florence the town’s patrician class rushed to imitate the Medici and other families who had already constructed domestic palaces during the first half of the fifteenth century. The façades of these structures were either constructed from rusticated stone or finished with rough plaster known as intonaco. In a few cases both materials were combined on the same façade. Like the Medici Palace, the impression most Florentine palaces made from the street was not one of opulence or grandeur, although such buildings would have stood out in a cityscape filled with monotonous and undistinguished medieval houses. Inside, though, the interiors were flooded with light from the stylish courtyards that usually served as the central focus of the building. The contrast between the dark spaces typical of medieval houses and those of the Renaissance was probably striking to fifteenth-century observers. Over time, the palazzi grew larger and more elaborate, as families competed to outdo each other. In the 1490s, for instance, the prominent Strozzi family began construction on a palace that they hoped would outshine all others in the city. Not completed until 1507, the Palazzo Strozzi was, like many of these palace projects, an early exercise in urban renewal that necessitated the demolition of many preexisting structures. The family demolished a huge city block that included a massive medieval tower that belonged to a noble count, several shops, and at least four other houses in order to build its new home. While the interiors of these dwellings offered definite improvements in comfort over most medieval structures, a palace’s walls were frequently plain and unadorned. The amassing of collections of art, a custom that grew more popular at the time, did much to relieve the monotony of Florence’s new interior spaces. Even with these great collections, though, a palace was not a homey structure in a modern sense.


The construction of so many great structures within such a short time transformed the Florentine cityscape. Palace construction displaced huge numbers of people from their residences, as wealthy families bought up large tracts of land within the city and demolished former tenements. As poor residents were dispersed into other areas of town, fashionable and unfashionable neighborhoods emerged. The city’s wealthiest families crowded into particular areas and even certain streets, while the poor sought housing at the boundaries of the town’s developed areas. The result produced more notable distinctions between rich and poor in the city. Writing about 1470, a prominent Florentine observed that thirty imposing urban palaces had been constructed during his lifetime. A half century later another observer noted an additional twenty structures that had been added to the city, but he also remarked that anyone who would want to list all of the town’s major palaces would have a difficult job indeed. The construction of such a large number of imposing structures required an equally large number of designers and trades-people. Among the architects who frequently designed and supervised construction of these buildings were Giuliano da Sangallo, his brother Antonio, and their nephew Antonio. The Sangallos maintained a popular and profitable business constructing domestic palaces. But Florence also produced a number of competent designers at this time, men who met the demands of wealthy citizens for new accommodations. Most of these figures had risen in their respective guilds—goldsmithing, carpentry, and stonecutting—and had acquired notable expertise in the arts of construction. Around 1500, painters, too, ranked among those who designed urban buildings, and the long list of sixteenth-century artists who planned such buildings included Raphael Sanzio, Michelangelo, and Giorgio Vasari. But in most cases architecture was not a self-sustaining profession, as in the modern world. Most designers practiced other crafts besides designing buildings, and many merely designed one or two structures at the request of their patrons.

Urban Planning

From Brunelleschi’s days onward, architects had often envisioned plazas and squares surrounding the structures that they built; but like the oft-unfinished façades of Renaissance churches, few of these plans ever came to fruition during the fifteenth century. The experience of seeing the Roman forum, even in its dilapidated and ruined state, suggested to Renaissance scholars, architects, and artists, the public vitality of ancient life. In an effort to recover this kind of use of urban space, architects in the fifteenth century increasingly turned to study the ancient designer Vitruvius as well as the works of Polybius. They often envisioned entirely new cities planned along lines suggested by these antique writers. Although they rarely produced results, these plans had avid students in the artists and designers who came later. The fifteenth century, though, did produce one fine example of a planned city. During the 1460s Pope Pius II had his native village south of the city of Siena rebuilt along the lines suggested by contemporary Renaissance architects. Eventually named Pienza in his honor, the town featured a plan in which streets and subsidiary squares radiated out from a central plaza. Within Pienza, different architectural proportions established a visible hierarchy among the city’s various structures. Architects and artists admired this kind of centralized, rational planning. The Urbino court artist Luciano Laurana designed one of the most famous plans for an ideal city of this sort. In a plan from around 1475 the architect grouped all structures in a large city around a central square in which he placed a classically styled round “temple” inspired by the architectural writings of Alberti. The central Italian painter Piero della Francesca immortalized Laurana’s visually appealing plans in a famous panel painting, Vision for an Ideal City. Most fifteenth-century architects, Laurana included, had to be satisfied with far more limited successes, such as the design of the small squares that surrounded their architectural creations.


The fifteenth century also witnessed a revival in interest in the theory of architecture. Brunelleschi and other architects had studied the buildings of ancient Rome, measuring their proportions and analyzing their structural and design elements. This initial interest gave rise to a heightened interest in architectural theory. The humanist scholar and artist Alberti had been among the first to comb the pages of the ancient builder Vitruvius’ works on architecture. In his On the Art of Building, completed around 1450, he had codified the ancients’ ideas about decoration and proportion into a set of architectural “laws.” Vitruvius had insisted that the human body was the primary model for architectural design, and he had based the building of his structures on proportions and design elements drawn from the body. Alberti similarly argued that beautiful buildings arose from principles that were similar to those of the human body’s design. According to Alberti, beauty arose from the interplay of design elements within a building so that, like the human body, no part could be taken away without diminishing the effect of the whole. Alberti’s treatise, however, was primarily a literary work. He provided, in other words, no illustrations to make clear just exactly how buildings designed with these principles might look. For clues to the application of his ideas, his later students studied the many he had planned throughout Italy.

Filarete and Di Giorgio

Shortly after the completion of Alberti’s treatise, On the Art of Building, the Florentine sculptor and architect, Antonio Averlino (1400-1469), who was widely known as Filarete, completed a similar work of theory. Unlike Alberti’s work, though, Filarete illustrated his Treatise on Architecture with examples of the buildings he envisioned. The architect wrote the work for the duke of Milan and, although it was not printed in the next generations, it was widely circulated in manuscript form. Filarete wrote his theory with an evangelical tone, trying to convert his readers to the Florentine way of construction. He celebrated the revival of Antiquity that had recently occurred in his hometown and tried to convince his readers of the supremacy of antique styles of building. Along the way he advised on topics about ornament, decoration, proportions, and urban design. He did not write his work, though, with designers in mind, since he addressed his comments not to architects and artists but to princes and nobles. He hoped to encourage these figures to patronize the new architecture. He used a complex and contrived style throughout the work that included a narrative plot in which a court architect educates a young prince in the arts of building. By contrast Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1501), a Sienese painter, sculptor, and architect, was more systematic in his Treatise on Civil and Military Architecture, which he probably wrote sometime during the 1480s and later revised in a completely new manuscript edition. As a painter, di Giorgio laid great emphasis both on the inventiveness and drafting skills that were necessary for those who hoped to practice architecture. Like Filarete, di Giorgio illustrated his work, but he did so more systematically than the earlier theoretician. His illustrations, in other words, elaborated upon issues he had discussed in the text, even as they conveyed additional technical information necessary to the practitioner. This technical strain recurs in the text as well, since di Giorgio included a great deal of practical information on methods for measuring heights and depths, military engineering, and hydraulics. Like many artists of the period, di Giorgio also desired to elevate the practice of his discipline and to promote it as an endeavor equal in intensity and seriousness to the liberal arts. His treatise praised the skills that were necessary in the architect, including sophistication in geometry and arithmetic. These he celebrated as signs of the nobility of the calling. Together with Filarete’s and Alberti’s works, di Giorgio’s treatises helped establish a body of architectural theory studied by later sixteenth-century practitioners in Italy and throughout Europe.


Fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance architects had many accomplishments. Early in the century Filippo Brunelleschi had made the pilgrimage to Rome to study the structural elements of Antique buildings and to measure their proportions. Returning to his native Florence, he had used the insights gained there, as well as his own skills as a sculptor and stonecutter, to create a dome of stunning beauty for the town’s cathedral. In works undertaken throughout the city, he had also relied on his new knowledge of classical Antiquity to design buildings notable for their graceful harmonies and proportions. The success of his initial structures had inspired other figures to create monuments that made use of the visual language of classical buildings. These architects, at first drawn mostly from the stonecutters’, goldsmiths’, and carpenters’ guilds, produced works for the ever-intensifying building boom that occurred in Florence during the later fifteenth century. The results of this swell in construction clothed the town in new marble-clad churches, domestic palaces, and civic buildings notable for their size and elegance. Florence, in other words, developed from a medieval town filled with monotonous, fortress-like buildings, into a city punctuated by great squares, imposing churches, and dignified residences. These developments did not go unnoticed elsewhere in Italy. Throughout central and northern Italian towns, architects observed the elements of Florentine design and imitated some of its innovations. While the influence that the city cast was great, designers native to other cities—figures like Luciano Laurana and Francesco di Giorgio—point to the growing vitality and originality of centers outside Florence. By the end of the fifteenth century, this productivity had prepared the stage for an even greater era of architectural accomplishment that unfolded in the following century.

The High Renaissance


By the end of the fifteenth century Italian designers had developed a new sophisticated architectural language that relied on elements culled from the monuments and buildings of Antiquity. They had used this knowledge to create daring new structures that were unparalleled in the centuries that preceded the Renaissance. In Florence and other Italian cities, the new knowledge of classical style had also been used to create imposing urban palaces for wealthy families. For most of the fifteenth century architecture had been a craft largely practiced by sculptors, masons, and carpenters. Around 1500, though, painters began to design buildings with increasing frequency. Painters brought new skills to the practice of architecture, including a surer sense of draftsmen’s skills acquired in their craft. They also used light and mass in building in bold new ways. Although none of his structures were ever built, Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for several buildings point to the vibrancy of this new trend. Both his imagined designs as well as the writings and buildings of Alberti—all of which emphasized harmonious beauty and elegant refinement—were major influences on the development of High Renaissance architects. This period, which began around 1500 and ended abruptly with the Sack of Rome, produced many fine designs for buildings planned on an enormous scale. As in painting and sculpture, the High Renaissance in architecture produced new structures that were more heroic and grand than those of the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, the relatively slow progress of building construction doomed many of the High Renaissance’s monumental architectural plans to incompletion. Some builders abandoned projects altogether; other builders truncated their projects or modified them to fit changing tastes. The High Renaissance in architecture, then, frequently presents us with a picture of great promises, but promises that were often left unfulfilled.

Shift to Rome

Around 1500, the center of architectural innovation also shifted in Italy from Florence to Rome. The pace of construction in the city had already picked up during the second half of the fifteenth century, but with the election of Pope Julius II in 1503 a great period of expansion began. Julius was an impetuous and fiery personality. Known as the “Warrior Pope” he faced friends and foes alike with equal determination. Abroad, Julius marched into battle with his troops, pronounced public curses against his enemies, and beat recalcitrant cardinals who refused to march into battle with him with his cane. At home in Rome, he turned his steely will upon the face of the city, razing whole districts and rebuilding them to suit his desires for a grand capital. The tentative renewal plans of previous Renaissance popes paled in comparison with the building campaigns he waged during his ten-year pontificate. Julius called a host of artists to work in the city and refused to live in the papal apartments that had been recently refurbished by his predecessors. Instead he commissioned Raphael to provide him with new monumental frescoes that might equal the forcefulness of his personality. He hired Michelangelo to work on his enormous tomb, and then only a few years later, redirected the artist to painting the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. His greatest endeavor of all, though, was his decision to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, a structure originally constructed by the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century. To create the new church, which he stipulated must outshine every other church in Christendom, he demolished one of the largest surviving buildings from the ancient world. Summoning the architect Bramante, he soon began the greatest building project of the sixteenth century. Along the way to completion, the new St. Peter’s Basilica consumed the efforts of the greatest architectural minds of the age, not to mention enormous sums of money. The project also lasted for more than 175 years, long beyond the scope of the pope’s life. Before his death in 1513, Julius oversaw the partial destruction of the old basilica and the construction of the piers of the new building’s crossing in order to commit future popes to follow through with his ambitious plans, even when those plans ran counter to the best interests of the church. During the reign of his immediate successor, Leo X (1513-1523), the demand for money to continue St. Peter’s construction actually contributed to the great crisis of the Protestant Reformation when Leo arranged for the sale of an indulgence in Germany to finance the building’s construction. Similar crises throughout the sixteenth century threatened the building’s completion, although it was, and it remains, an indubitable testimony to Julius’ initial inspiration.


Donato d’Agnolo, who was better known as Bramante, (1444-1514) became the chief aid to Julius in attaining his greatest architectural ambitions. A native of a small town near the central Italian city of Urbino, Bramante had a successful career as a painter before beginning to practice architecture in his forties. At that time he worked for the Sforza duke Lodovico il Moro and he designed several churches in their capital Milan. The architecture of Alberti (particularly in its use of Roman barrel vaults) and the architectural drawings of Leonardo, with their emphasis on the use of the central style and geometric shapes, both influenced Bramante’s style. In 1499, French forces conquered Milan, however, and Bramante was left without employment. He traveled to Rome, where he soon found work because of his connections with the Sforza dynasty. In the city a member of the family, Ascanio Sforza, commissioned him to build his tomb, and over the following years Bramante designed and supervised the construction of a cloister in the city. In 1502, he created the small Tempietto, a memorial commissioned by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to mark the site upon which St. Peter supposedly had been crucified. This small domed structure, considered one of the finest of High Renaissance architectural creations, perfects the central style of construction to a point of high finesse. Everything in the small building radiates outward from the memorial’s center point, and shows that Bramante had now taken full advantage of his recent viewing of ancient Roman monuments firsthand. Although more severe than the architect’s earlier designs, the work points forward toward his plans for the new Basilica of St. Peter’s, a commission he won in 1506.

St. Peter’s

For that great construction project the artist may have considered several possible plans, although he settled eventually on a central-style church, created in the shape of a Greek cross. The architectural drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, which Bramante had studied years before in Milan, influenced his plans for a building constructed as a Greek cross in which each of the church’s four radiating wings were of exactly equal size. Eventually, the church’s later architects abandoned the Greek cross in favor of a more traditional Latin cross design in which the nave was longer than the other three wings. Bramante’s plan, however, called for each of the four corners of the building to be crowned with a large tower, and a dome—envisioned from the very first—was to sit atop the central crossing. Inside the structure Roman barrel vaults, drawn from the architecture of Alberti, were to cover each of the wings, a design feature that was also later achieved. The dome Bramante designed was innovative by Renaissance standards, and shows his growing mastery of the architectural forms of Antiquity. Until Bramante’s time architects had relied on the ribbed-style dome first used by Brunelleschi at the cathedral of Florence. In that structure, floating ribs of stone had supported panels of masonry. Bramante’s plans for the new St. Peter’s stipulated a circular structure, an exact hemisphere based upon the still-standing ancient Pantheon in Rome. To give the dome’s unusual shape greater height, Bramante placed the structure atop a drum, a structure that was one of the Renaissance’s chief design innovations in constructions of this nature. In sum, the plans Bramante crafted for the new St. Peter’s were monumental, and befit the enormous ambitions of the “Warrior Pope” Julius II. At the same time the design was too large to be completed in a single person’s lifetime. At the time of Julius’ death only the eastern portion of the ancient Roman structure at the site had been cleared away. Many of the features of Bramante’s design never came to fruition, including his plans for a perfectly hemispherical dome and other elements of his interior and exterior plans for the church. The imaginative design that he envisioned can best be seen not in Rome but in the small central Italian town of Todi. Here in 1508 Bramante designed the much smaller Santa Maria della Consolazione, a small pilgrimage church, which made use of the ideas he was developing for the new St. Peter’s around the same time. The building sits on a small plain and is not surrounded by any other structures, a site that provides an excellent vantage point to observe the harmonious aspects of its design. Like many of Bramante’s other plans, the structure functions organically, almost as if it were a sculptural, rather than an architectural creation. It is here that one can observe the Renaissance’s desire to develop an architecture based upon the design principles of the human form.

Other Projects

Even as he was at work upon the designs for the new St. Peter’s, Julius II deployed Bramante to plan other projects. One of these was the rebuilding of the Vatican Palace. Julius wished to join two structures—the small hilltop house known as the Belvedere and the Vatican Palace—which stood more than an eighth of a mile apart across undulating terrain. Bramante planned two enormous corridors that were more than a thousand feet long and two hundred feet wide. These corridors enclosed three garden terraces filled with fountains and grand staircases designed to follow the rolling shape of the site’s hills. The scale of the project was immense, and like many of Bramante’s buildings it was left unfinished at his death. Subsequent alterations changed the face of those parts of the work that Bramante designed, destroying the grand vistas that the architect had envisioned for the Vatican complex. Not until Louis XIV’s building program at Versailles in the seventeenth century, though, did another monarch attempt anything quite so grand as Bramante’s design, and the partial realization of the surviving plans for the gardens of the complex influenced garden planning for several centuries to come. A similarly important work from the architect’s later years in Rome was his design for the Palazzo Caprini, a structure that is sometimes referred to as the House of Raphael, since the artist purchased it in 1517. In that building Bramante made full use of the concept of a screen or decorative façade filled with classical elements that masked the building’s underlying structural elements. The ground floor of this structure was heavily rusticated and contained a succession of Roman arches. Above this, the living quarters featured decorative balustrades and grouped columns that supported a classical cornice. None of these elements played a structural role, but were design touches that evoked Roman Antiquity and granted an air of refinement to the building. The elegance of the design (the house itself has long since been demolished) affected later architects, including the Venetian Andrea Palladio. Palladio so admired Bramante’s Roman buildings that he observed that the artist had single-handedly brought “the light of architecture” back into the world. This hyperbole was far from correct, since a number of great and innovative designers had preceded Bramante. Nevertheless, his grand Roman designs instituted and continued to shape architecture in the style of the High Renaissance throughout the sixteenth century.

Domestic Building

The first decades of the sixteenth century witnessed a dramatic surge in the building of great urban palaces and suburban villas for Rome’s wealthiest citizens and foreign dignitaries. This boom, similar to the great construction bonanza that occurred in fifteenth-century Florence, resulted in the erection of a number of new and innovative domestic structures. The finest painters and architects of the age worked on these projects, including Raphael, Baldassare Peruzzi, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, and Giulio Romano. By contrast to the solidity and weight of most Florentine palaces of the previous century, an elegant refinement characterized these Roman structures. In the years after Bramante’s death in 1514, Raphael entered the arena of Roman architecture. He became director of the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, a project on which he accomplished little since the building program slowed in the years after 1515 because of lack of funds. His most ambitious design program, outside of his involvement in the great basilica, was the construction of the Medici Villa or, as it is now known, the Villa Madama, a large suburban house near the Vatican intended for the use of Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. Raphael designed the structure with a number of intriguing and fantastic details, including circular courtyards and domed ceilings. He made use of the sloping hillside site and planned to set the villa within a series of delightful gardens. As in the case of many ambitious Renaissance projects of this nature, circumstances forced Giulio de’ Medici to divert his attentions from the project, and little of Raphael’s ambitious design saw completion. One section of the villa, the Great Hall, still stands today, allowing us to observe Raphael’s skills as an architect. He designed the room with a series of arches that supported a dome; the room’s arches also frame the exterior gardens. Both the interior and exterior space thus work as part of a harmonious whole; later sixteenth-century architects imitated Raphael’s design at the Villa Madama.


Another domestic project from the early sixteenth century merits mention. In 1517, the influential Cardinal Alessandro Farnese commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to remodel a palace he had bought in Rome. Sangallo, a member of the Florentine dynasty of builders and designers, had originally served as a carpenter at the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The majestic structure he crafted for Farnese established Sangallo’s reputation; he received numerous commissions and even served as the chief architect of St. Peter’s during the years between 1539 and 1546. The architect planned a huge masonry palace for the cardinal that abandoned the long-standing use of rusticated stone on its façade. Rough stone appears only at the arches that grant entrance into the building’s massive interior courtyard. On the first floor he used low-rising windows, similar to ones that Michelangelo had designed to be installed a few years before on the façade of the Medici Palace in Florence. On the story above he relied on the Corinthian columns to frame the windows, which are alternately topped by rounded and triangulated pediments. Above on the structure’s final floor, he mixed elements from the lower two floors before capping the entire structure with a cornice. Michelangelo, who supervised the later years of the building’s long construction period, made this element grander and more prominent. The Palazzo Farnese was a huge building, massive in size, severe, yet refined in its effect. It influenced the design of many public and private buildings in European cities for years to come. The Palazzo Farnese also shaped American architecture. With the Renaissance architectural revival that occurred in North America in the late nineteenth century, numerous buildings resembling Italian palaces appeared in American cities. The style of the Farnese became popular. Perhaps it is for this reason that, in 1944, the United States purchased the Palazzo Margherita, another palace closely constructed upon the model of the Farnese, to serve as its embassy in Rome.

Pleasure Palaces

The sixteenth century in Rome also produced a spate of pleasure palaces, buildings designed as retreats for their owners and as the backdrop for impressive banquets and other entertainments. The artist Raphael, who had already designed the suburban Villa Madama, also played a role in the decoration of one of these projects, a pleasure palace constructed for Agostino Chigi, the pope’s banker. This structure is now known as the Villa Farnesina (since the Farnese family later bought it and connected it to their town Palazzo by a suspended walkway). Originally, the villa stood in a quiet country setting on the outskirts of the city. Chigi chose Baldassare Peruzzi as the project’s architect. The building has two stories with a large façade of Roman arches in the center facing the surrounding gardens. Originally, delicate ornamentation carved into the stucco plaster or intonaco decorated the façade. Today, these decorative details survive only on the building’s frieze, the others having been covered up since the sixteenth century. The delicacy of these decorations suggested the building’s role as a pleasure palace, a building intended for the amusement of Chigi, his wife, and their guests, as opposed to a dwelling. The villa had only a few major rooms, but these were sumptuously decorated and used to entertain. At Chigi’s banquets, guests were said to have imitated the customs of ancient Rome by throwing their gold plates out the villa’s windows (although Chigi’s servants soon reclaimed them below). The interior walls of the villa were filled with ornate and sumptuous decorative cycles painted by Peruzzi, Raphael, and other artists in a style that imitated ancient Roman frescoes. The illusionistic details of the frescoes suggested the architecture of ancient Rome, and their erotic and classical imagery impressed Chigi’s guests not only with the size of his fortune but the depth of his learning. The example of Chigi’s pleasure villa inspired other members of Italy’s ruling classes to build similar structures in the decades that followed.


The artist Michelangelo had the longest and most varied career of any figure of the Renaissance. He lived until 1464 and his art underwent a progression from the idealized, heroic forms of the High Renaissance to the more willful and turbulent creations that inspired Italian Mannerism. As the greatest artistic genius of the age, his development affected other figures who avidly imitated his design innovations. Originally trained as a painter in the studio of the prosperous Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo also studied sculpture, and throughout his life he felt most at home in this medium. It was as a sculptor that the artist made his first decisive marks on Renaissance art. The carving of his Roman statues Bacchus and the Pietà established his reputation. Following these masterpieces, Michelangelo returned to Florence to complete, among many other works, his colossal David, the largest free-standing statue since Antiquity. Michelangelo continued to work in Florence, but with the accession of Julius II to the papacy, he was soon called to Rome to work on the pope’s tomb project. The plans for the Julian tomb called for a massive independent structure that would contain scores of sculptures, architectural niches, and a bronze frieze. The tomb was never completed on this ambitious scale and it took more than thirty years for a greatly scaled-down memorial to be finished. But in the years between 1505-1508, Michelangelo was at work on the project, and from these initial experiences he began to acquire the skills necessary to be a successful architect and project supervisor. The tomb project required the quarrying of enormous amounts of marble and the supervision of large work crews. Although Michelangelo worked on the project for several years full time, Julius II soon moved him to work on the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, a commission he completed in the years between 1508 and 1512. The election of the Medici pope Leo X in 1513 confirmed Michelangelo’s papal patronage, and by 1517 the artist was back in Florence, undertaking an important project for the pope: the construction of a new façade for the Medici’s family church of San Lorenzo. During the fifteenth century the family had richly showered this site with patronage. By the time that Michelangelo worked there, the Medici had weathered several challenges to their control over Florence and they had now allied themselves through marriage to the kings of France. The family now turned again to San Lorenzo, to shower it with new projects that underscored their rising status. Just before Michelangelo had arrived in Florence the venerable architect Giuliano da Sangallo, the uncle of the Roman architect Antonio, had made several drawings for plans for the project, although he had died before progressing further on the project. One of Sangallo’s designs created an imaginative solution to the problem of the façade. Sangallo created a two-story Roman temple flanked by enormous towers to hide certain of the unattractive exterior elements of Brunelleschi’s original design. In this drawing he planned to mass classically-styled sculptures of the saints atop the façade’s upper story, in effect creating a screen similar to that with which Baldassare Peruzzi was experimenting in Rome at the Palazzo Caprini around the same time.

San Lorenzo

The Medici chose Michelangelo’s plan for the church’s façade instead. In keeping with the grand pretensions of the church’s patron family, Michelangelo intended his design to be a “mirror of architecture and sculpture of all Italy” and he labored on the plans for over three years. The design he formulated was also for a two-story structure, although Michelangelo designed his structure without towers to cover the entire area of the church’s edifice. Like the earlier project for the building of Julius’ tomb, the San Lorenzo project was overly ambitious; it included eighteen statues in bronze and marble as well as fifteen carved reliefs. A surviving model of the façade shows shallow niches, from which the planned statues were to have projected outward. The use of marbles and bronze together would have created a dramatic interplay of color. Michelangelo set himself to the task quickly, supervising the quarrying of stone, a project that eventually required him to build a road through a portion of the Apennine Mountains outside Florence. But although the artist worked feverishly on the project for several years, the Medici cancelled the commission for the façade abruptly in 1520, deciding to expend the family’s resources on a chapel and family tomb at the church instead. They chose Michelangelo again to direct this commission, and the chapel he designed was made to harmonize with a sacristy Brunelleschi had built for the opposing side of the church in the fifteenth century. Work was frequently interrupted on the tombs, and the chapel was never finished as it had been designed. But among Michelangelo’s architectural creations it ranks as one of his most completely realized creations. To secure better lighting for the tombs, Michelangelo raised the roof of the chapel by adding a third story that brought the structure’s roofline above those of surrounding houses. In other respects he relied on the traditions of Brunelleschian architecture, including the use of gray pietra serena set against white stucco. In this structure Michelangelo’s carved tombs, with their more delicate and refined High Renaissance architectural frames, seem out of place with the surrounding fifteenth-century style of the chapel.

Laurentian Library

Michelangelo was soon to develop a more unified style, one that was notable for its willful violations of the traditional canons of classical design. In 1524 the Medici pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534) awarded the artist the commission to design a new library for San Lorenzo. This site was intended from the first to be dedicated to the use of humanist scholars and was to house the Medici’s large collection of rare manuscripts. Michelangelo planned an entire complex at the site, including an Entrance Hall, Reading Room, and a rare-book chamber, although he never lived to see the structure completed. The site itself was problematic since it was irregularly shaped, and the building had to be made to fit overtop and in between other structures that already stood on the church’s grounds. Michelangelo’s design solved these problems brilliantly, although the building was not executed completely in the manner in which he had planned. He designed a stately entrance to the library with a high staircase set in an imaginative architecture that bent the rules of traditional classical design. Michelangelo lined the walls of these spaces with pilasters that appear to support the ceiling, but which are instead set in niches, so that on second glance they appear like mere decorative sculptures that taper as they move downward. Below these niches the architect placed classical stone scrolls that again serve, not as traditional supports, but as mere sculptural or decorative elements placed on the walls. The effect of these design elements seems to make the room cave inward, although other features counteract this effect. The architect, for instance, divided the large staircase—the focal point of the room—into three sections and he bowed the stairs of the central section outward in a bold hemispherical shape. These hemispheres wage battle against the downward tapering pilasters that are placed within the wall’s niches. Once above within the Reading Room the first impression is at once more traditional. The columns that line the room actually appear to support the ceiling, and its other elements seem to be drawn from a traditional classical architectural language. On closer inspection, though, Michelangelo seems to repeat the elements of the room’s design ad infinitum, so that the windows and transepts that are above them, as well as the endless rows of reading desks and the patterned floor, take on the same dimension of a Herculean struggle as occurred outside in the entry hall. One appears, for instance, to be caught in a cage in which the room’s design elements are constantly being repeated without relief. Unfortunately, the last element of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library design was never built. The architect had planned a final culmination to the architectural battle he had presented in the library’s first two spaces: a dramatic triangular-shaped rare-book room designed to fit inside the spaces between buildings on the library’s exterior. This conclusion to the Laurentian Library’s strange and challenging architecture might have presented one of the most unusual spatial solutions of the Renaissance. But like many architectural plans of the period it was not constructed when the patron’s interests shifted elsewhere.

Changing Tastes

The Laurentian Library reveals a new taste for creative experimentation, a taste shaped by artist and patron alike. As the High Renaissance period drew to its conclusion at the end of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, architectural design came to be affected by changes similar to those underway in painting, sculpture, and literature. During the course of the fifteenth century architects had fastidiously studied classical Antiquity, and in the High Renaissance had achieved a mastery over ancient styles that allowed them to produce designs and structures notable for their complete assimilation of classicism. These details had been used to grant a human scale to projects that were heroic and monumental in nature. In his Laurentian Library complex Michelangelo showed a new direction, and the structure influenced later architects who used the language of classical Antiquity in a boldly willful and creative way. The violations of the canons of ancient design that Michelangelo displayed at the Laurentian were intentional, and they helped to give rise to the new movement in Renaissance architecture known as Mannerism.

The Later Renaissance in Italy


The High Renaissance of the early sixteenth century was notable both for its amazing level of artistic achievement and its brevity. By 1520, artists and architects were already in search of new styles that made the heroic and idealized paintings, sculptures, and buildings of the early years of the sixteenth century appear to many connoisseurs as dated. In architecture, Michelangelo had shown a new willful creativity that inspired later designers, particularly in Rome, Florence, and Central Italy. Even here, though, High Renaissance architectural styles persisted alongside the new Mannerism. The path of architectural development in Venice was slightly different. There, figures like Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio created a classical style notable for its elegance and refinement as well as its faithful use of the elements of ancient design. The very multiplicity of styles that coexisted at the time provided a wealth of inspiration as Renaissance design moved from Italy into other parts of Europe.


Although the first two decades of the sixteenth century had been a time of incredible productivity, artistic activity and construction in Rome slowed dramatically in the later 1520s and 1530s. This falloff in production was largely the result of the Sack of Rome that occurred in 1527. During the 1520s the Medici pope Clement VII had tried increasingly to maintain the autonomy of the city of Rome and the Papal States he controlled in Central Italy. These policies had brought him increasingly in conflict with both the Habsburg emperor Charles V and the king of France. In May of 1527, a force comprised of mostly German, French, and Italian soldiers laid siege to Rome and conquered the city within a day. The army’s commander soon died, and his successor was unable to control the force. Over the next few months the invading armies raped local women, tortured and ransomed citizens, and plundered Rome’s villas and palaces. Many of the attacking soldiers were Germans who acted on anti-Italian sentiments fueled by the rise of the Reformation and its distaste for religious art. They desecrated the city’s most venerable churches, plundering their gold and silver and destroying their religious art. Forced to take refuge in the papal fortress, the Castel Sant’ Angelo, Clement VII was completely unable to stop this wanton destruction and carnage. Eventually, he surrendered, and to regain control over the city he paid a ransom of more than 400,000 ducats, an enormous sum that required him to melt down papal crowns and other ornaments. As a result of the Sack, Rome’s ambitions to be an autonomous and powerfully independent state ended. A spate of prophecies that interpreted the crisis as signs both of God’s judgment on papal immorality and warnings of the coming end of the world followed the attack. At the same time scholars in both Protestant and Catholic camps throughout Europe expressed regrets about the event since numerous libraries and important monuments had been destroyed. Rome gradually regained political and economic strength during the reign of Paul III (1534-1549), but most of the artists and architects who had worked in Rome during the golden years of productivity before the Sack packed up and left to work in other Italian centers. Slowly new artists and architects arrived, while others returned. Michelangelo was the most notable of those who returned to Rome. He arrived even in the relatively dark days of 1534, and he stayed in the city for the rest of his life. In part from his inspiration, as well as the arrival of other enormously creative figures, Rome’s culture flowered again in the second half of the sixteenth century. Yet even then, a growing realization of the city’s dependence upon other major European powers helped to breed a kind of nostalgic longing for the early years of the sixteenth century. This nostalgia can be seen reflected in many of the grand and monumental church and secular projects that were undertaken at the time. These late sixteenth-century monuments, impressive in their grandeur, formed the foundations for the flowering of the Baroque in the first half of the seventeenth century in Rome.


The first commission Michelangelo undertook upon his return to Rome was the project for his famous Last Judgment, which he painted on the wall behind the High Altar of the Sistine Chapel between 1534 and 1541. While he was involved at the Sistine, the artist also began to take on architectural projects. In 1538 he won the commission to redesign Rome’s Capitoline Hill, the center of the ancient city. Although the Capitoline was not completed until after his death, it reflects the intentions of Michelangelo’s late style. During the late 1530s the artist made several tentative steps toward refurbishing the famous plaza on the Capitoline Hill, and in 1561, shortly before his death, he returned to the plaza’s designs. At this time he planned a dramatic square, and in the pavement to this plaza, he created a circular pattern filled with trapezoids, triangles and diamonds, at the center of which he placed an ancient Roman equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. At the time Romans believed that this statue was of the emperor Constantine, the figure who had converted the empire to Christianity. It had long stood nearby at the Church of St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral church within the city of Rome. Although Michelangelo resisted moving the statue to the Capitoline, he eventually relented and created his dramatic plans for the square to frame the sculpture. His new design glorified Rome’s position as the center of the world, a position that by the time was only symbolic, since the city’s political powers had grown increasingly circumscribed by the greater European states of France and Spain. Michelangelo designed two palaces for the site that served as the center of Rome’s civil government, and he sited these structures so that they radiated outward at angles from the pre-existing Palace of the Senate at the back of the plaza. The result produces a trapezoidal-shaped courtyard notable for its warm and enveloping feel. Despite poor eyesight and bad health, Michelangelo managed to keep up an astonishing level of productivity during his later years in Rome. During the 1540s, he undertook the decoration of the Pauline Chapel, a private papal chapel, within the Vatican with two large frescoes. At the same time Pope Paul III appointed him to serve as the official architect for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1546, and in 1547, he took on supervision of the final stages of the Farnese Palace’s construction. On this building he added a massive decorated window above the palace’s central entrance and increased the size of the cornice, two features that softened the severe effects of the original architect Antonio da Sangallo’s design. In the interior courtyard his revisions inspired later seventeenth-century Baroque architects. On the courtyard’s third story, for instance, he superimposed pilasters on top of each other and added broken moldings and lions’ heads to the windows, features that played an important role in the language of seventeenth-century architecture.

St. Peter’s

At St. Peter’s Michelangelo’s innovations removed many of the innovations that Antonio da Sangallo had made in the project, and he reinstated features of Bramante’s original plans. Sangallo had added a series of loggias, galleries, and towers that, had they been built, might have doubled the already colossal size of the building. Michelangelo swept away these planned additions and returned the design to a more harmonious High Renaissance style in tune with Bramante’s original plans. At the dome the architect abandoned Bramante’s idea of a simple hemispherical dome and instead adopted a shape that was more ovoid. To achieve the greater height necessary for this shape, Michelangelo’s design required the Florentine ribbed style of construction, a system that Bramante had avoided. But although most of Michelangelo’s design for the dome was realized, the wooden model he created for the structure shows that even his plans were not carried out completely in the way he wished. The huge drum that supports the dome was later lengthened and the dome itself was stretched into an even more oval shape than he had originally planned; both these features added even more height to the design than Michelangelo’s already soaring plan stipulated. Michelangelo’s designs, like Bramante’s before him, tried to make the dome the central architectural feature so that it would dominate all views of the church. During the seventeenth century the Greek style of construction that both he and Bramante had advocated was abandoned. St. Peter’s was made into a more traditional Latin cross by the addition of several bays of arches to the nave. This change increased the size of the church to truly enormous proportions, its total length from the rear of the church to the edge of the choir being almost 700 feet in length. At the same time these alterations obscure views of the dome to those who stand directly before the entrance to the church. Despite the change, the overall effect of the structure bears Michelangelo’s indubitable stamp, and the architect returned clarity and coherence to a construction that might have turned out dramatically different had Sangallo’s plans been realized. In the rich decorative elements that the architect designed for the church, which included grouped pairs of Corinthian columns and pilasters on the dome and exterior of the church, his plan also anticipated the complexity and grandeur of the later Baroque period.

The Gesù

For many years following the Sack of Rome in 1527, the construction of large churches in the city of Rome dropped off. The largest religious building program underway in the years between the Sack and 1560 had been the ongoing reconstruction of St. Peter’s, a project that proceeded by fits and starts. After 1560, the construction of new churches picked up again in the city and the most important building of the time was the new Church of the Gesù. This structure was designed to be the center of the new Jesuit order in Rome. In 1540 the pope had recognized the Jesuits, who soon became a major force in the reform of the church and in opposing the spread of Protestantism. Officials of the order sought a structure to express their organization’s rising status within the church and to present their ideas about the reform of Christian worship they believed was a necessary precondition for the reform of the church to be successful. Their plans for a Roman church proceeded slowly during the 1540s and 1550s. Finally in 1561, they secured funding from Cardinal Farnese, with the stipulation that he was to be the only person allowed a tomb within the structure. Several architects, including Michelangelo, had already created plans for the church, although construction of the interior followed a plan laid down by Giacomo Vignola. A student of Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, later assumed responsibility for the façade and the church’s dome, and under his supervision, the Gesù became a showpiece for the developing aesthetic sensibilities of the Counter Reformation. Inside the Gesù a single massive barrel vault, similar to Alberti’s Church of St. Andrea in Mantua, leads to the domed crossing and high altar of the church. Throughout the structure nothing detracts from the centrality of the High Altar, a demand that had recently been made explicit in the decrees of the Council of Trent. The exterior that Giocomo della Porta fashioned for the church was similarly innovative. As in Michelangelo’s later designs, della Porta paired Corinthian pilasters upon the church’s two-story façade, but he also incorporated fluid lines into his design above the central entrance and in the consoles that hid the vaults of the church’s side chapels. These fluid lines inspired later Baroque designers in the seventeenth century, but already in the sixteenth a number of imitations of the Gesù were begun throughout Italy and Europe. During the 1580s, for instance, the plans for the church were already being copied in Munich, where the Jesuit order used the new St. Michael’s Church to express the architectural ideas of the Counter Reformation. The heightened emphasis on visual unity and the centrality of a church’s main altar became a feature in other churches throughout Europe that imitated the design of the Gesù. Constructed elaborately in marble and often decorated later in the less restrained and sumptuous style of the Baroque, these had a profound effect on early-modern Catholicism.

Rome Resurgent

During the reign of Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-1590) the gathering strength of Rome’s artistic and architectural wealth came to fruition in dramatic new plans for the city’s renewal. The sixteenth century had already seen enormous changes in Rome, first through the offices of the High Renaissance popes Julius II, Leo X, and Clement VII. All three figures had attracted an army of artists and designers to the city with the intention of remaking the town into a truly Renaissance capital. The Sack of the city had cut this first spate of activity short in 1527. Around mid-century, Michelangelo had aided the designs of the popes for urban renewal, but even his projects paled in comparison to the great energy displayed during the reign of Sixtus V. This Counter-Reformation pope set his hand to creating a grand capital that was to make Rome the envy of European cities. During his short pontificate he set in motion the forces that transformed the town into a model early-modern capital. Sixtus concentrated his efforts on restoring the great churches of the city and on joining these ancient monuments together with the construction of a series of broad and straight streets. These new thoroughfares linked Rome’s major points of religious interest together in a circuit that was easily comprehensible for the many pilgrims who came to the city. Despite enormous expense and technical problems, he arranged for ancient Egyptian obelisks captured by Roman armies to be moved to the new squares and plazas his designers created, adding architectural focal points to the cityscape he was creating. He capped Roman columns, with their historical reliefs narrating the exploits of ancient emperors, with new bronze figures of the saints. Many of his new axis streets, broad squares, and monuments still exist as defining features of Rome today, and during the seventeenth century successive popes elaborated upon his basic plans. Sixtus, too, provided new sources of water to the city by restoring ancient Roman aqueducts and building a series of fountains throughout the city. These new projects resolved a longstanding shortage of fresh water in the city that had plagued inhabitants throughout the Middle Ages and which had often forced citizens to bring their water daily from the polluted Tiber. In all these projects Sixtus employed a group of accomplished architects and designers. Most prominent among these was Domenico Fontana, who aided the pope in his plans to construct straight streets through the city and to beautify the urban landscape. Fontana also provided technical solutions for the pope’s plans to relocate Egyptian obelisks and to make them prominent landmarks in the city, and he aided the pope by restoring the interiors of many of the city’s ancient churches. Another architect who won papal favor in the reign of Sixtus V was Giacomo Della Porta, who had already designed the new façade for the Gesù. Della Porta supervised the final stages of the construction of the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica, adding even more height to the already towering structure. The completion of the project proved to be a symbolic victory for the papacy, demonstrating to Romans and Europeans alike the power of the Roman pontiff to conquer seemingly insoluble problems of design. It is no wonder, then, that during the seventeenth century urban planners elsewhere throughout Europe looked favorably upon the Rome that Sixtus and his architects had helped to fashion. Throughout the continent architects avidly copied features typical of Rome’s renewal plan, and thus even as the city’s political power weakened on the European landscape, it took on a new role as a force for urban planning and renewal.


In the course of the sixteenth century the Medici rule increasingly dominated both the visual arts and architecture in Florence. The family had long been the most influential citizens of the town. In the fifteenth century they had at first used back-room manipulation to dominate the town’s politics, although later they increasingly abandoned these subtle measures in favor of a more overt management of Florence’s political affairs. In 1537, the family’s elder statesman Cosimo de’ Medici, known as Cosimo I, became a duke, which officially ended Florence’s long-standing republican pretensions. Cosimo secured the often unstable Medicean dominance of the city and he ruled over both Florence and its surrounding territory Tuscany until his death in 1574. During Cosimo’s long reign Florence’s major artists and architects came increasingly to serve the court. These figures—men like Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Francesco Salviati (1510-1563), Bartolommeo Ammanati (1511-1592), and Angelo Bronzino (1503-1572)—had either studied with the great master Michelangelo or with one of his pupils. They were often described as maniera (meaning “mannered” or “stylish”). In English, long-standing usage has referred to these figures as Mannerists. At its best Mannerism became known for its great elegance, profound intellectual and allegorical content, formalism, and linear complexity. At its worst, art critics through the ages have criticized the Mannerists for being artificial, intellectually arid, overly elaborate, and slavishly imitative of Michelangelo and earlier masters. In the sixteenth century, however, the principle of imitation of previous models was a venerable one. At their core, most of the arts and scholarly activities practiced in the sixteenth century proceeded from the principle of imitation, whether it was the imitation of Antiquity, or of more recent models. In verse and prose, the works of the Renaissance authors Dante and Petrarch were highly venerated models. In art, the achievements of Leonardo and Michelangelo fulfilled a similar role. Most theoreticians of the arts assured their audience that only through imitation of an acknowledged master was one really able to acquire the sure style that would harness human creativity and allow for truly great expression. Criticisms of the Mannerists’ art as derivative and unimaginative, then, represent modern, and not Renaissance, notions about taste and creativity. In architecture, as in painting and sculpture, Mannerist designers often paid homage to Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael, figures they placed at the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Florence was the leading center of Mannerism in sixteenth-century Italy, although the style appeared in many Italian courts and was prized for its elegance and sophistication. By the second half of the sixteenth century Mannerist styles were also influencing the arts and architecture of Northern Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. The foundation of the Florentine Academy in 1563 helped to establish Mannerism’s dominance within Tuscany’s capital and in the surrounding region. Cosimo I patronized and sponsored this institution, which his chief artist and architect Giorgio Vasari had helped to organize. The Florentine Academy nurtured the development of new styles and themes in the arts along the lines favored by the Mannerist artists who participated in the institution. Its members also nourished an interest in art theory and aesthetics. In the second half of the sixteenth century the two important members of the academy, its founder Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo, were the town’s most important architects.


Giorgio Vasari is better known to the modern world for his Lives of the Most Eminent Artists, a collection of biographies of the most prominent sculptors, painters, and architects of the Renaissance. He was himself an accomplished painter and architect, and his greatest construction design was for a new civic palace, the Palazzo Uffizi, in Florence. The Uffizi, as it is commonly known today, was intended to house all the offices of Florence’s civil government, as well as those of the guilds, and of the court artists who served the Medici. Vasari designed an enormous U-shaped complex whose exterior shows a clear influence from Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. Four stories tall, the building’s three sides enclose a space that is narrow, more like a street than a city square. Throughout the building Vasari achieves a grand effect by the seemingly endless repetition of details. At the street level two columns and a pier continually alternate along the two parallel sides of the building. Above, at the second floor, decorative consoles inspired by those in Michelangelo’s Laurentian Entrance Hall demarcate triplets of simple square windows. At the third floor, groups of three windows are again repeated, but this time with rounded and triangular pediments governed by a strict A-B-A pattern. On the top floor, an open loggia (now glassed in) repeats the columns of the street level. The only break in this constant pattern of repetition comes at the perpendicular wing at the end of the complex. Here three arches at the street level—the center one rounded—serve to relieve the seeming monotony of the other two façades. To build this massive government complex, Vasari made use of pre-existing buildings at the site. These various structures are visible from the rear of the complex, but are masked by the massive edifices Vasari designed for the façade. To join these disparate structures together and to build to such a height, Vasari reinforced parts of the Uffizi with steel supports. Thus, his building was one of the first in European history to rely upon a metal skeleton.

Bartolommeo Ammanati

The sculptor Bartolommeo Ammanati, a close associate of Michelangelo, also completed two notable architectural projects in Florence in the second half of the sixteenth century. First, he created designs for a remodeled Palazzo Pitti, a fifteenth-century palace purchased by Cosimo I to serve as his official residence. The original design of the palace had been massive, and included seven bays of Roman arches on the ground floor. It eventually grew to more than three times its original proportions, but the sixteenth-century remodeling plan of Ammanati consisted of lengthening the structure’s façade and in creating a beautiful interior courtyard, now known as the Cortile dell’ Ammanati (Ammanati’s courtyard). In this interior space the architect again relied on the principles of repetition inspired by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. The chief elements he used included Roman arches and rusticated stonework, which appeared on all three of the building’s floors. An interesting innovation that Ammanati made at the Pitti was his use of rusticated columns and arches. On all three floors the architect relied upon rustic stonework to outline both the arches of the court-yard’s ground floor colonnade and those of the windows on the second and third floors. Despite the palace’s monumental scale Ammanati’s use of decorative stonework tamed the colossal spaces of the interior courtyard. Rustication had traditionally been used in Florence’s palaces to grant an impression of weight and solidity. In Ammanati’s hands, however, he transformed the traditional design element into a kind of decorative ornament, a breakthrough typical of the often creative aesthetics of Mannerism. The second of Ammanati’s great architectural contributions in Florence was his Bridge of the Holy Trinity (Ponte Santa Trinita), which was begun in 1566. Here he relied on triangular pylons and flattened Roman arches to support a delicate roadway over the River Arno. He created this elegant construction after showing his original designs to Michelangelo, shortly before the elder artist’s death. Michelangelo made several suggestions that improved upon Ammanati’s original designs, and the result was a structure of great beauty. Tragically, the original structure did not survive the Second World War, falling victim to the retreating German army as they destroyed bridges to hinder the advancing Allied forces. It was, however, rebuilt according to its original plans shortly after the war’s end.

Giulio Romano

Rome and Florence did not have a monopoly on architectural innovation in sixteenth-century Italy. Throughout the peninsula designers of merit produced plans for buildings that shaped architectural tastes in Europe in the decades that followed. One influential figure was Giulio Romano, a native Roman who had originally worked as a painter in the studio of Raphael as a young man. In 1527 he moved to Mantua in Northern Italy, where he became a court artist to Duke Federigo Gonzaga. The duke deployed Giulio on a variety of projects, including the design and construction of a new pleasure palace to be situated in a meadow known as the Te outside Mantua. Duke Federigo was a breeder of horses, and the plans for the Palazzo del Te, as it is known today, situated a banqueting hall beside his stables. Soon the duke decided to expand the structure at the site to build a larger palace in which he could entertain his guests while on retreat in the country. The grand exterior that Romano designed for the palace makes the structure appear far larger than it is in reality, and similar illusions recur throughout the structure. On the structure’s façade the artist played willfully with the traditional classical orders in a way that was similar to the somewhat later structures built by the Florentine Mannerists. Doric order columns and heavily rusticated blocks of stone finished the exterior of the building, while inside a series of luxurious rooms are filled with rich illusionism. In the Salon of the Giants, for instance, the walls of the entire room have been painted without any kind of framing device, so that the viewers enter a room in which they are totally surrounded by illusion. Columns snap under the exertions of heaving Giants, clouds roll by, and everywhere Romano surrounds his viewers with a rich panoply drawn from the artist’s imagination and its interpretation of classical myth. Similar illusionistic devices occur throughout the palace, so that the façade and the interior function as one of the most fantastic creations of the later Renaissance. The dukes of Mantua entertained many visiting dignitaries with their playful palace, including the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. It is not hard to understand, then, why other designers throughout Europe turned to the structure for inspiration as they crafted similar pleasure palaces for their noble patrons.


Like other Italian cities Venice in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had seen a construction boom, still visible today through the many churches and palaces that survive from this period. These early Renaissance buildings were craftsman-like without being innovative masterpieces. Venetians in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries indulged a taste for the elaborate Gothic ornamentation still in fashion in much of Northern Europe. Architects hired from other Italian regions—most notably the northern Italian province of Lombardy around Milan—had designed many of these structures. In the sixteenth century Venice continued to import its architects, and no native school of designers developed in the city until much later in the seventeenth century. By the mid-1500s, though, two architects of unsurpassed skill practiced in the city: Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio. Together they created new and innovative plans for Venice’s renewal influenced by the lessons they had learned in Rome, Florence, and other centers of the Italian architectural Renaissance. Given its enviable position as the City of the Lagoons, Venice provided a safe haven in the turbulent world of sixteenth-century Italy. Sansovino (1486-1570) was just one of many great figures who found refuge there after the disturbing Sack of Rome in 1527. Palladio was a resident of nearby Vicenza and he settled in Venice late in life, when he assumed the position of architectural adviser to the Republic after Sansovino’s death. By this time Palladio had already designed several churches in Venice as well as many country villas within Venice’s mainland territories. Together both figures helped to forge a distinctively northern Italian Renaissance style different from the Mannerist creations to the south in Florence, Rome, and central Italian towns.


When Sansovino arrived as a refugee in Venice, he was already 41 years old. He intended only to stay for a few months, but remained in the city for the rest of his life. Over this considerable span of years, his plans largely reshaped the Venetian cityscape. Trained in Florence during his youth, he had also worked in Rome during the High Renaissance, and the works of Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo had shaped his designs. The grand architecture of ancient and High Renaissance Rome affected him deeply, but in his years in Venice, he developed a new style well-suited to the broad vistas and brilliant light of this city literally on the sea. At the time of his arrival, Venice’s Doge and the Venetian Senate intended a renewal of the city that was to symbolize the town’s claim to be a second Rome. Outside forces had threatened Venice since the early sixteenth century, but at the conclusion of the first phase of the Italian Wars in 1530, the town could boast, unlike most other Italian powers, to having retained its independence relatively unscathed. Sansovino was an ideal architect for the grand plans that were underway in Venice at this time. Unlike Florence or Rome with their cramped streets and tiny plazas, Venice was a city of broad canals. Sansovino designed buildings that were not only functional, but a delight to the eye. He altered his styles and ornamentation to fit different projects and the spaces in which they were located. His first great masterpiece of design in the city was the Zecca, a building that housed the town mint. In the sixteenth century Venice’s currency, the ducat, was among the most respected in Europe. Sansovino labored to create a structure worthy of the eminent currency produced inside. A rusticated first floor, similar to those of Rome and Florence at the time, is crowned by a second and third story more delicate in design. On the façade he included banded Doric columns, similar to those in use among some Mannerist designers at the time. The elegant and overall classical effect of the building, though, differs greatly from the repetitive formalism typical of Mannerist designs. Despite the building’s gentle appearance, particularly in the upper stories, Sansovino claimed that the structure was fireproof. The structure he designed proved to be a venerable tribute to the distinguished city and its highly respected coinage.

St. Mark’s Library

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Venetians had often evidenced a taste for richly ornamented gothic façades. In Sansovino’s greatest work, the Library of St. Mark’s, he translated this traditional idiom into the world of the Renaissance. He designed two arcades, one atop the other, that made use of rich and graceful classical ornamentation in a way that fit in with the pre-existing architecture of St. Mark’s Square. The building had been necessary to house, among other things, the great collection of manuscripts given to the city by the Greek humanist Cardinal Bessarion. Like other Venetian buildings, St. Mark’s Library glitters in the brilliant sun reflected from the light blue waters of Venice’s lagoons. Sansovino’s Library and Mint, which form part of the large civic and Cathedral plaza of St. Mark’s Square, grant a dignified yet human scale to the surrounding plaza, considered one of the finest in Europe. It is interesting to note that part of the vaulting of Sansovino’s Library collapsed shortly after it was built during an unusually cold winter. Authorities blamed the artist and imprisoned him for producing shoddy designs. Sansovino’s friend, the painter Titian, eventually negotiated his release and the restoration of his reputation and fortunes. While the architect maintained a successful career designing public buildings for the Venetian Republic, he also took on commissions for domestic palaces in the city. Among these, the Palazzo Corner dell Ca Grande, commissioned by the wealthy Corner family, ranks among his greatest works. Here Sansovino introduced rigorous classical detailing drawn from the ancient architectural theoretician Vitruvius. Although thoroughly classical in design, Sansovino ensured that the palace fit in visually with the other older structures that surrounded it on its canal. For the ground floor, he designed a heavily rusticated façade and included elements of the severe Doric order. The three bays he placed in the façade served to admit merchants and businessmen into the interior courtyard, much as the arched colonnades in Roman and Florentine palaces did at the same time. On the two floors above, Sansovino used first the Ionic order and then the Corinthian. While the exterior of the structure fit neatly into the unusual canals of Venice, Sansovino also included an immense interior Roman-styled courtyard. This was an unprecedented luxury in a city in which dry land was a dear commodity.


The architect Andrea di Pietro is better known today by the classical Latin name he took in middle age, Palladio. The precise place of his birth remains an uncertainty but he first served as an apprentice to a Paduan stonemason. By 1524, he had moved to Vicenza, the site of many of his architectural masterpieces. He joined a local workshop, but by his mid-thirties he had come to the notice of a nobleman residing in Vicenza, the humanist scholar Gian Giorgio Trissino. Trissino took Palladio into his scholarly circle, exposed him to the rudiments of a humanist education and to Vitruvius’ treatise on architecture. It was under the influence of Trissino, too, that the architect adopted his classical name. With the elder humanist’s patronage, Palladio traveled to Rome many times during the 1540s. On one of these trips he met Michelangelo, and on all of his journeys he spent a great deal of time in Rome’s ruins, studying and drawing their design elements. Even as he was developing his taste for classical Antiquity, Palladio was also at work designing structures for Vicenza’s wealthy inhabitants. His first independent creation seems to be the designs for the Villa Godi in a small town near Vicenza. Within the city he also created plans for two domestic palaces as well as another country villa. These works do not yet show the secure integration of classical design elements, while one of them, Palazzo Thiene, shows that the architect toyed with some elements of central Italian Mannerism. He later rejected Mannerism of a thoroughly classical idiom. By 1549, the architect had been appointed by Vicenza’s town council to restore the city’s Basilica, or town hall. In the fifteenth century this large complex of separate buildings had been joined into a single structure surrounded by Gothic-styled arcades. One of these arcades had collapsed in 1496, and the Vicenza council had long searched for an architect who could remodel the complex along the lines of the new Renaissance classicism. In the structure that Palladio designed he displayed a thorough knowledge of Roman styles of building, and the ingenuous solution that he created for this problematic structure helped to establish his reputation as a designer of merit.

Domestic Architecture

Palladio continued to design new palaces in Vicenza during the 1550s and 1560s, and much of the city still bears his indubitably elegant stamp. He also filled the countryside in and around Vicenza with numerous villas. The most influential of these was Villa Rotonda (sometimes referred to as Villa Capra). Later it would become the model for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The Rotonda, so called because of its central dome, sits atop a hill with a view of Vicenza. The villa is a square building with a hemispherical dome shaped like that of the Roman Pantheon at the center. Each of the building’s four sides is framed with a portico whose columns and pediments show the influence of ancient temple architecture. Each portico frames a different view of the attractive countryside and distant city, and at the same time these structures provide shelter from the elements and from the harsh summer sun. In this way Palladio created a building that allowed inhabitants to spend a great deal of time outdoors at all times of the year. Palladio’s porticoes have continued to be an important design feature in houses since his day, and they are to be found not only in Europe but also in many hot regions of North and South America. Here these structures provide shelter from the elements and the sun, allowing people to spend greater time out of doors. Palladio decorated each of his structures with an arcade of Ionic columns and classical pediments. Statues atop these pediments and at the corners of the stairs leading to each portico are among the only decorative elements placed upon the structure. The window pediments, often a place upon which Renaissance designers showered great decorative attention, are restrained. The structure is elegant, yet severe, with simple unadorned plaster facing the exterior walls rather than expensive stonework. Perhaps this restraint explains the great popularity the Palladian style had for the colonial settlers of North America and for rapidly expanding eighteenth-century towns like London and Philadelphia. In these circumstances the building techniques of Palladian architecture provided structures that were pleasing to the eye, yet relatively inexpensive since they could be constructed with materials that were close at hand.


Most of Palladio’s architectural commissions were for domestic structures, and, unlike other great Italian architects of the Renaissance, he designed churches only infrequently. As he matured and his fame spread, however, he did complete designs for two famous churches in the city of Venice. The first of these, the Church of St. George Major, stands on an island away from the main center of Venice but still visible from the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square. Built for a Benedictine monastery at the same site, the church has been one of the most beautiful landmarks of Venice’s cityscape since its completion. In his architectural writings Palladio, like other sixteenth-century architects, advocated a central-style church as the most visually pleasing and harmonious space. He believed that such a shape stressed the unity and power of God. At St. George, however, he bowed to the pressure of the local church authorities and instead created a traditional Latin cross plan with a long nave. Palladio filled these spaces with light from the dome at the crossing, as well as a row of windows placed just under the vault. He crafted an arcade of Roman arches set off with columns in gray stone, and above this he included a large entablature that was among the most prominent decorative elements in the church. Designed after the conclusion of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Palladio also complied with the new dictates of the church for simple unobstructed views of the High Altar. The effect of St. George Major is at once simple, rational, and harmonious. Together with another Church of the Redeemer that the architect designed a little more than a decade later, Palladio’s church architecture inspired several generations of English designers, including Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), who relied on its appealing visual language in the churches he created in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London. A final important design from the late period of Palladio’s life was his plan for the Olympian Theater, the construction of which was overseen by his student Vincenzo Scamozzi in the city of Vicenza after his death. The architect’s designs for the theater had been influenced by architectural theory about the size and shape of ancient Roman theaters, and the building was intended for recreations of classical dramas. Fixed scenery was included in Palladio’s design, and after his death Scamozzi added perspectival street scenes. These are stepped up so that they appear to vanish at a great distance from the front of the stage. In reality, these are only tricks of perspective, for the depth of the stage from front to back is only a few feet, rather than the vast distance that it appears to be. The Olympian Theater was one of several attempts in Italy to reconstruct a historically accurate version of a Roman theater, an effort in which both humanist scholars and artists participated. Most other attempts involved temporary structures in wood or plaster, while Palladio’s more elaborate stage and theater has survived over the ages.


Palladio was also an important figure in the history of architectural theory. In 1556, Palladio created a series of illustrations for a new printed edition of Vitruvius’ ancient architectural text. Slightly later, the author published his own Four Books on Architecture, a work that he also illustrated and used to inform his readers about many of the practical problems of building in the classical style. He treated the preparation of building sites, the practical design elements of the ancient architectural orders, and discussed what types of rooms were best suited to which activities. Palladio also discussed public works and civic buildings, even as he surveyed ancient Roman designs. He also assessed and criticized the most prominent structures of his own times. The architect’s writings advocated the styles of Antiquity, not from a doctrinaire perspective, but as the most practical forms for the contemporary situation. He showed, in other words, how classical elements and designs could be profitably adapted to current realities to provide city and country dwellers alike with spaces that were visually pleasing, yet functional. Palladio’s prominent pupil Vincenzo Scamozzi, later updated and expanded upon this pragmatic dimension of Palladio’s work in a treatise entitled The Idea of a Universal Architecture (1615). In sixteenth-century Italy, Palladio’s work shared an audience with the Rules of the Five Orders of Architecture (1563), a treatise written by the papal architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola. Elsewhere in Europe Palladio’s work traveled farther and acquired a greater following, a following that eventually stretched from England to Croatia, from Scandinavia to the Americas. In these widely diverse cultures the Four Books of Architecture kept alive High Renaissance classicism, despite the simultaneous popularity of Mannerism in many of these regions. Even centuries later, Palladio’s treatise produced new revivals of classicism. The work was particularly admired in Georgian England, and one disciple, the colonial revolutionary Thomas Jefferson, relied on its canons as he planned the buildings and grounds of the University of Virginia in the new American Republic. Thus it is difficult to overestimate the importance that Palladio’s treatise on classical design exercised upon the minds of Europeans, both in the Renaissance and in the centuries that followed.


The sixteenth century in Italy was an era of amazing architectural productivity. The century opened with the ambitions of Julius II for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica and the renewal of the ancient city of Rome, plans that came abruptly to an end with the Sack of the city in 1527. In Florence, Michelangelo’s first architectural works, notable for their willful individualism and creative use of ancient design elements, inspired Mannerist artists and architects in the decades that followed. Dissatisfied with Medicean rule in his native city, though, Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1534. His later Roman works, while monumental and influential in inspiring later Baroque designers, did not continue along the path that he had laid out in his Florentine buildings. Mannerism persisted in Italy, and became a significant influence throughout Europe in the decades following 1550. The emphasis of Mannerist artists on designing complex spaces and on repeating classical elements in new formations inspired many projects in Florence, Rome, and Central Italy, and slightly later in Northern Europe. At the same time the allure of Palladio’s classicism, and of High Renaissance forms generally, survived in the second half of the sixteenth century. This rich diversity in sixteenth-century Italian design presented architects working in other European regions with a wealth of examples, styles, and possibilities upon which to draw as they integrated the new architecture of the Renaissance into buildings constructed in their own countries. While they reached out to Italy for inspiration, European designers also created their own ways to give native expression to the Renaissance’s taste for the world of classical Antiquity.

The Architectural Renaissance Throughout Europe

Spread of Classicism

The adoption of the classical style that had flourished in Italy since the early fifteenth century appeared only slowly throughout Europe. Even within Italy, the spread of classicism had been uneven in the 1400s, and had often been governed by the presence of vigorous local circles of humanists. With its love of Roman and Greek texts, humanism tended to support the revival of classical architecture, as scholars and patrons pursued an interest in all aspects of life in the ancient world. In Northern Europe, the fondness for the intricacies of Gothic style persisted everywhere during the fifteenth century, and buildings constructed in the classical style appeared first, not in Western Europe, but in Hungary and Russia. Hungary’s despotic King Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458-1490) was among the first European monarchs to import Renaissance humanists and architects to his court. He subdued his country’s nobles and established a firm but tenuous hold over the country. At Buda he rebuilt the city’s castle in the Italian Renaissance style and provided space for a library, the Biblioteca Corvina. The library housed Corvinus’ large collection of manuscripts, a collection that at the time was about the same size as that of the popes’ Vatican Library in Rome. At several other places throughout the country he deployed his Italian architects to remodel or build anew structures in the Renaissance styles of contemporary Italy. Far from the centers of Western Europe, the Grand Prince Ivan III did much the same when he called several Italian designers to plan projects for his rebuilding of the Kremlin in Moscow. One of the structures he built, the Palace of the Facets, was the first secular building to be located within the walls of the ancient fortress upon its completion in 1491. Ivan’s Italian architects also aided him in strengthening the fortifications of the Kremlin by constructing defensive works similar to those being built in Italy at the same time. In Western Europe, though, patrons and architects proved more resistant to the new style, and it was not until the early sixteenth century that a great number of buildings based on the newly revived classicism began to appear. As in Italy, the spread of humanism furthered these developments, and royal and aristocratic patrons, as well as wealthy merchants and townspeople desired buildings that expressed their newfound fondness for classical Antiquity. The political chaos of the Italian scene in the first decades of the sixteenth century also created a supply of architects available for commissions and positions as court designers in France, Spain, and elsewhere throughout the continent.

Ornamentation and Integration

Local artists, though, designed most of the Renaissance buildings constructed outside Italy in the sixteenth century. Kings and princes were usually the only figures who possessed resources considerable enough to import their designers from Italy, the wellspring of Renaissance neoclassicism. Oftentimes the new fashion for Antiquity of the early sixteenth century produced buildings that were not notably ancient in their feel or design, but which were merely decorated classical elements. The fondness for elaborate ornamentation characteristic of the late phases of Gothic architecture thus persisted, and designers produced many buildings that were a forest of classical ornamentation, but in which the overall effects lay closer to medieval than to Renaissance sensibilities. Eventually the growing body of books treating architectural theory and practice aided architects in Northern Europe and Spain, as designers and patrons were now able to read about the design principles and rationale that underlay classical architecture. Many of these works’ illustrations, along with the independent prints that circulated of classical buildings, helped to produce purer forms of architectural classicism, although the development was not without difficulty. In Northern Europe the sixteenth century was also a time of great religious and political upheaval. The protracted religious crisis had a dampening effect everywhere on the construction of new churches, one of the chief kinds of monuments upon which Italian designers had displayed their new-found fondness for Antiquity. The Religious Wars in France and the Netherlands delayed or caused patrons to abandon the completion of many secular projects as well. In England, the Reformation similarly dampened enthusiasm for church building. Despite these difficulties Northern European and Spanish architects learned many lessons from ancient and Renaissance architectural designs, and by 1600, they had developed their own forms of classicism tempered by their native traditions.


France proved to have one of the most innovative climates for pioneering new architectural forms in the era. Although the period was not one of great achievement in church building, the country produced a wealth of new châteaux, palaces, townhouses, and civic structures during the sixteenth century. The taste for Italian design influenced many of these buildings. In the early stages of the French Renaissance, Italian designers—at first drawn from the Duchy of Milan conquered by the French at the very end of the fifteenth century—planned and executed many ambitious projects for the French crown. Among the Italians lured to France was Leonardo da Vinci, who experienced a stroke shortly after his arrival, and produced little in the last years of his life in France. Da Vinci did design a new royal château to be built at Romorantin, and although the project did not begin until after the artist’s death, it was soon given up to build the larger, still-standing Château de Chambord. Leonardo’s design ideas, nevertheless, seem to have left their impact on French design. While the artist was still living in Milan, he had developed plans for interlocked double staircases, built in a structure that resembled a double helix. These structures allowed one staircase to be used by those ascending and another for those who were descending. His designs seem to have encouraged a series of interlocked staircases in sixteenth-century French châteaux, a type of construction that was springing up on the French landscape with increasing frequency at the time.


Although the sixteenth century proved to be a time of religious warfare and chaotic political rivalries in France, the period actually opened on a note of optimism. This optimism is evident in the large number of construction projects undertaken for new and rebuilt châteaux. The English equivalent for this French word is “castle,” and originally medieval châteaux had been heavily fortified, their role being defensive. Certainly, most sixteenth-century French châteaux for the nobility and the king retained their defensive elements, but now they also took upon a refined elegance more in keeping with their residential nature. Francis I (1515-1547) was an avid builder of these country châteaux, and during the early years of his reign, he concentrated his efforts on his castles at Blois, Chambord, and Amboise. One of the most unusual of the many structures he built was a loggia at Blois, modeled closely upon Donato Bramante’s famous plans for the Belvedere Palace at the Vatican. At Chambord, he built the most imposing of his country castles, using a plan that melded French Gothic ideas with the newer design features of the Italian Renaissance. Built over a period of twenty years, the castle was notable for the layout of its central keep (the most heavily fortified part of the château). Francis had the keep designed in the shape of a Greek cross, an innovation that showed the influence of Italian ideas about the superiority of the central style of design. At Chambord, he also included paired ascending and descending staircases made popular by Leonardo’s designs, and at Chambord their construction shows a new concern with privacy, since no one is able to see those who are on the opposing staircases. But although this, the largest and most impressive of Francis’ châteaux, included some of these Renaissance details, it continued to display the traditional French Gothic taste for dormers, spires, and fanciful roof decorations. These tended to overwhelm the building’s classical details. At the same time as Francis beautified his castles, similar structures built for the country’s notable families dotted France’s countryside. While the Loire Valley contained the greatest number of châteaux as France’s nobles congregated there in hopes of being close to the king, construction of châteaux in the more refined and elegant style of the times occurred throughout the country—albeit on a distinctly smaller scale than the royal castles at Chambord and Blois. One of the most beautiful structures that traces its origins to this early boom in Renaissance châteaux construction is Chenonceaux. It was picturesquely sited above a river, where it replaced a mill that had stood upon the same spot. Later in the century, Henry II (r. 1547-1559) purchased it for his mistress, Diana of Poitier, who gave the original castle greater classical detailing and connected it to the opposite shore by the construction of a new Renaissance-styled wing. Significant additions over the centuries have altered the appearance of the castle, which today still ranks as one of the most delicate and beautiful of European buildings. The châteaux at Azay-le-Rideau, Villandry, and Le Rocher Mézanger also present examples of the various styles that were popular during the first half of the sixteenth century, and show the taste for mingling of Renaissance and Gothic ornamentation.

Italian Artists

Besides Leonardo, three other prominent Italian artists—Rosso Fiorentino, Primaticcio, and Serlio—spent significant portions of their careers in France. They were among the most influential Italian émigrés who settled in the country in the sixteenth century. Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio had begun their careers in Italy as painters during the development of early Mannerism. While they continued to paint in France, they also designed and decorated rooms for the royal palace at Fontainebleau as well as for a string of royal châteaux located mostly in the Loire River valley and in the Île de France, the countryside surrounding the city of Paris. This tradition of imported Italian designers continued in the 1540s when Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) took up residence in the country. Serlio was an architect, sculptor, and painter whose designs attracted a wide following through his publication of his architectural treatise. In France he designed several works, including the new Château Ancy-le-Franc. The building’s plan was C-shaped and enclosed a central courtyard guarded on the open side by a low rising wall. This style of construction grew popular in France over the coming centuries, as French patrons generally disregarded the central enclosed courtyards that were popular in Renaissance Italy.


Throughout his long reign Francis showered his greatest attentions on the royal palace of Fontainebleau. He commissioned a number of Italian artists to decorate the palace’s chambers, including Rosso and Primaticcio. In the rooms they decorated for the king both artists developed a highly ornamental style that made use of the design techniques that Raphael and Giulio Romano had developed in Rome at the Villa Farnesina, but which extended that pattern of decoration to an almost baroque complexity and elegant finesse. From 1528 onward, Francis also began to transform parts of the palace’s façade, relying on the native architect Gilles Le Breton as his designer. With the premature death of Rosso in 1540, Francis also coaxed Sebastiano Serlio to France. By this time Serlio’s reputation had already been established by the publication of his architectural treatise in 1537. The work was popular and appeared in French and Italian editions during the following years. Serlio’s design tenets included impressive classical colonnades similar to those Bramante had designed for the Belvedere Palace in the Vatican. His influence was widespread and gave encouragement to the construction of similar structures at Fontainebleau and at the Louvre in Paris as well as in other noble houses constructed throughout France.


The greatest achievement of sixteenth-century French architecture was the rebuilding of the Louvre Palace in Paris, a project planned and executed by mostly French, rather than Italian designers. The project began in 1546 under the direction of Pierre Lescot (1510-1578), and the rebuilding continued for centuries. Francis began by demolishing the medieval keep that stood in the center of the palace, and building on its site a series of buildings arranged around a courtyard. Lescot was unusual by the standards of many Northern European architects of the time. In France, in particular, most sixteenth-century designers came from stone-mason backgrounds. By contrast, Lescot was from a prosperous legal family, and he had received a broad education. Unlike many native French architects of the time, he did not learn his craft by traveling to Italy. Instead he applied the mathematical, painting, and architectural lessons he had learned at home in France. His chief achievement at the Louvre was the building of the Square Court. In the designs he crafted for this part of the palace, Renaissance architecture in France reached a high expression of classical finesse. Lescot’s plan shows a mastery of all the details of the classical orders, and at the same time the building’s appearance is refined and unified. It is also an elegant structure when compared against the massive palaces of Florence and Rome. Lescot also skillfully incorporated details that were typically French. In the cold climate of Northern Europe, steeply sloped roofs were a necessity, and thus the imitation of the Italian example was never to be complete. Lescot’s steeply pitched roof, however, manages to fit nicely with the other details of his design. His use of small decorative statues to ornament the façade was a design element rarely used in Italy, and points to the greater taste for ornamentation that continued to live on in France even under the guise of the classical revival. In total, though, Lescot’s classicism was more assured than any work designed by a French designer to this point. Yet at the same time he developed a native French Renaissance idiom that was free from tutelage to Italian models. It is not surprising, then, that later designers were to build upon his example.


The architectural Renaissance in Spain followed a path similar to that of France. Like its northern neighbor, Spain dominated political developments in Italy in the early years of the sixteenth century, and many of its artists traveled there to learn firsthand about the new styles in painting and architecture. Three phases occurred in the integration of Renaissance elements into the native architecture of Spain. In the first phase, a decorative style known as the Plateresque (for its affinities to work in silver and gold plate (in Spanish known as plata), incorporated classical elements as highly decorative ornaments on tombs and altars in churches. Soon this classical detailing spread to use on wall surfaces and façades, too. By the end of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, in the second phase of classical integration, a more thorough adoption of Italian influences resulted in the construction of projects that were more outrightly Renaissance in their design and construction methods. Finally, an austere classicism, known as the Herreran style (for the architect Juan de Herrera), began to appear around 1560. As in all regions in Renaissance Europe, elements of older styles continued to co-exist alongside newer innovations. Decorative Plateresque buildings, in other words, continued to appear at the same time as the more austere forms of Herreran classicism were growing popular.

Royal Patronage

The greatest architectural projects in sixteenth-century Spain were undertaken on a grand scale with royal patronage, as befitted the country’s status and the enormous wealth its government derived from New World silver and gold. Among the classically styled monuments erected under the patronage of the crown, the Royal Hospital at Santiago de Compostela was one of the first examples of Renaissance classicism in Spain. Santiago de Compostela was the site of an important pilgrimage church to which Europeans from throughout the continent came, and the hospital was intended to care and provide lodging for these pilgrims. Spain, like France, had no formal capital in a modern sense during the sixteenth century, and the monarch regularly moved from place to place, supervising the administration of the country. This annual circuit brought the king to Spain’s most important cities. Taking up residence in various parts of the country was even more important in Spain than in France or England, for the country was really an amalgamation of many kingdoms and provinces, many with very distinct customs, laws, and languages. During the later Middle Ages, two kingdoms—Castile and Aragon—had conquered much of the peninsula, and they had been linked in an uneasy alliance through the marriage of the dual monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Granada, Toledo, Madrid, and Seville were just a few of the cities the sixteenth-century Spanish kings regularly visited as they conducted their annual tour of Spain. The itinerant nature of the Spanish monarchs during much of the sixteenth century thus necessitated the construction of palaces, churches, and other governmental buildings throughout the country. After 1560, the center of royal administration of the two kingdoms became situated in the central Spanish city of Madrid, thus setting off a building boom in and around that town. Besides these royal construction projects, the crown in Spain was also a fervent supporter of universities, and in the sixteenth century Spain’s major educational centers acquired many new buildings in the various Renaissance styles flourishing throughout the peninsula. Among these, the campuses of the University of Salamanca and the new University of Alcalá acquired some of the finest Renaissance structures in Spain. In both cases, these buildings utilized the more ornate Plateresque style, rather than the severe Herreran classicism that became popular later in the sixteenth century.

The Escorial

The greatest, and at the same time most unusual, architectural project undertaken in sixteenth-century Spain was the construction of the Escorial near Madrid. King Philip II’s favorite architect, Juan de Herrera (c. 1530-1597), designed this building, which was constructed between 1563 and 1584 as a combination church, monastery, mausoleum, and royal palace. The complex expresses the fervent, unbending Catholicism of its patron, Philip, who presided over the country’s internal affairs and vast colonial empire between 1556 and 1598. The king acquired a reputation, even in his own lifetime, for being an overly scrupulous religious fanatic and a meddling absolutist ruler. In reality, Philip exercised a great deal of restraint and was far from being a zealot, but the religious wars of the sixteenth century were chiefly to blame for developing a “Black Legend” about Spain and his rule, particularly in Protestant countries where fear of the forces of the Counter-Reformation ran high. The king was an avid connoisseur of art and he maintained a long friendship with the great Venetian artist Titian. Both his taste for Italian art and his own austere religious temperament influenced his distaste for the ornamental Plateresque style of Renaissance architecture that flourished in much of Spain at the time. Herrera became the perfect architect to give expression to Philip’s tastes. Undertaking the great project of the Escorial, the king wrote to his architect, advising him that the building should have “simplicity of form, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation.” Herrera gave brilliant expression to these demands in the plans he completed for the building, although a change in the purpose of the building likewise necessitated a radical change to the architect’s original plans. In 1558, Philip’s father, the emperor Charles V, died, and his son decided to transform his palace, still in the design stages, into a tomb for his father. He added a monastery, where monks were to pray continually for the soul of his father. The church at the center of the new palace was to become Charles’ mausoleum. Herrera designed a great gray granite mass of a building with its prominent domed church for a plot at the edge of the mountains outside Madrid. Until he received the commission for the Escorial, Herrera had been living in Naples, at the time a Spanish possession in Italy. While in Italy he had studied the plans for the new St. Peter’s Basilica, and the influence of Michelangelo’s designs can be seen in his subsequent plans for the Escorial. He designed the central domed church as a simplified, even puritanical version of Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s dome. Around this he built a series of square courtyards, the surrounding wings of which house the royal palace and monastery complex. The façade of the entire structure is largely undecorated, and where ornamental elements appear, they are in the simplest of classical forms. Herrera used the Doric, rather than the more ornate Corinthian order, and on the palace’s many rectangular windows he placed mere square pediments, the only decorations that penetrated the otherwise unending granite wall surfaces. Four large spires at the four corners of the structure repeat the motif of the two central spires of the palace’s church; the overall effect of the palace bears more resemblance to the grand churches of sixteenth-century Rome than to any kind of domestic structure. Detractors have long criticized the structure as cold and monotonous, while its admirers have defended it as simple and grand. Its influence on subsequent designs in Spain was considerable, as the Escorial paved the way for a new Spanish architecture characterized by a rigid use of classical forms and massive, relatively undecorated spaces.


The influence of Italian Renaissance architecture can be seen at work in Germany from the first decades of the sixteenth century. Religious turbulence, though, characterized life in the region during much of the sixteenth century, and the disputes of the Reformation initially cast a pall over the construction of new churches. These were once the largest building projects of the German Middle Ages. In the first half of the sixteenth century, though, church building ground to a halt before reviving in the second half of the century. As in France and somewhat later in England, the greatest architectural projects that made use of Renaissance classicism were castles, palaces, and civic buildings. But in contrast to France and Spain, most German projects were on a decidedly smaller scale because of political realities. The area comprising modern Germany and Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire, a loosely knit confederation of more than 350 states, ruled over in theory—if not always in practice—by an emperor chosen from the Habsburg dynasty. In the sixteenth century this powerful family had amassed significant territories outside the region, including the kingdoms of Spain, the counties of the Netherlands, and the New World colonies. These more prosperous territories became far more important to the dynasty than the traditional seats of Habsburg power in Austria and the German southwest. Although Charles V (r. 1519-1558) ruled over the Holy Roman Empire for much of his life, his positions as king of Spain and ruler of the Netherlands consumed more of his time than the rural and undeveloped territories of Central Europe. He visited Germany only occasionally, and centuries of feudal development in the region limited his power, allowing small territories and cities to become, in effect, semi-autonomous states. Thus court life on the massive scale typical of France or Spain was largely unknown in Germany. Before his death Charles divided his massive empire into two parts, splitting off his Spanish and Italian possessions as well as the Netherlands from the ancient German heart of Habsburg power. Charles’ Spanish heir was Philip II, while his son Ferdinand (r. 1558-1564) succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor; during his relatively short reign, Ferdinand concentrated his energies on resolving Germany’s religious crisis, on his role as king of Hungary and Bohemia, and on his struggles against the incursion of the Turks into his Eastern European possessions. Despite these problems Ferdinand and his successors began to devote significant attention to the development of the court at Vienna. But this was a local phenomenon that affected only Austria and the other centers of Habsburg power in Eastern Europe. Ferdinand called several Italian artists to his court and he patronized a small circle of German masters. His successors followed this pattern, although the great age of the Austrian Habsburgs’ patronage of art and architecture lay ahead in the seventeenth century. At this time Vienna and the surrounding Austrian countryside became a great stage upon which the Habsburgs displayed their absolutist pretensions through the construction of monumental and imposing edifices. There was, in other words, no sixteenth-century Austrian Fontainebleau or Escorial, although the Habsburg emperors constructed several projects in their homelands on a decidedly more modest scale.


For most of the sixteenth century Germany may have lacked the central state authority typical of France and Spain which inspired monumental architectural projects. More than 300 territories ruled by members of the feudal aristocracy and the Roman Church produced hundreds of courts, in which German princes were increasingly concerned to safeguard their power and to demonstrate their control over the small lands they held. Architectural projects were thus a visible result of the trend toward heightened local control. To imitate the greater princes of Europe, Germany’s territorial rulers relied on building projects to express their increasingly grand pretensions. In the first half of the sixteenth century relatively few projects relied upon the innovative styles of the Renaissance. One notable exception was the remodeling of the Wittelsbach’s Residence in Landshut. Landshut today is no more than a respectably sized town about an hour’s train ride north of Munich. In the sixteenth century, though, it was an important center of the duchy of Bavaria’s government. In 1536, the local duke visited Italy, where he saw the imaginative designs that Giulio Romano had crafted for the pleasure Palace of the Te. The duke recruited a small circle of Italian craftsmen and painters to come to Landshut, where they constructed and decorated a series of rooms in the city’s palace that strongly resembled the Te. Such fervent devotion to Italian design, though, was rare among the German princes of the first half of the sixteenth century.

Religious Controversy

The ideas of Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli spread through German cities and the surrounding countryside quickly during the 1520s. Outlawed by imperial edict, Luther’s views continued to attract significant support, particularly in the empire’s towns and among some of its most prominent nobility. Growing tension between Protestant and Catholic factions of towns and the nobility produced brief, but vicious religious wars followed by attempts at reconciliation between both sides. In 1555, leaders crafted a compromise between the two opposing religious factions. Known as the Peace of Augsburg, this treaty stipulated that German rulers possessed the power to sanction either Lutheranism or Catholicism within their territories. Although most combatants in the religious disputes that had gripped Germany over the previous decades thought of the treaty as a temporary truce, its solution to the problems of religious diversity proved to be particularly long lasting. The Peace of Augsburg forestalled religious war in Germany until 1618, introducing a period of stability that was unusual in Northern Europe at the time. One of the stipulations of the treaty had the unintended effect of producing a great flowering in church building. The Peace of Augsburg forbade Protestants from appropriating additional property belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, Protestant cities and princes constructed a number of new churches in the years after 1555.

Protestant Churches

While many important church-building projects had been underway in Germany during the early sixteenth century, new construction had generally ceased with the rise of the Reformation. Protestants had found the late-medieval trend to create ever larger and more elaborate side-aisle chapels within churches wanting, believing that such structures detracted from the central messages of the altar and the pulpit. These, their leaders intoned, were more suitable foci for the laity’s devotion. Although they initially avoided new church construction, Protestants still placed their indelible stamp on existing structures. In many places the Reformers removed side-aisle chapels, and introduced more elaborate main altars and pulpits to underscore the change in church teachings. With the conclusion of the Peace of Augsburg, and the realization of its prohibitions against the further appropriation of Roman Church property, Protestants began to build new churches. At first no single style dominated, as designers searched for a distinctive style that might express their new religious convictions. By the end of the sixteenth century, though, a new style of construction began to appear. Designers adopted Renaissance classical elements to create spaces characterized by simpler sight lines, less ornate decoration, and better-lighted, vaulted spaces for the purpose of throwing into greater relief the central messages conveyed from the altar and the pulpit. The Marian Church in Wolfenbüttel, in a town today near the northern industrial city of Braunschweig, and the City Church in the Black Forest town of Freudenstadt in southwest Germany are typical examples of this new style. Both structures date from around 1600.

Catholic Construction

Between 1580 and 1600 more church construction began in Germany than in all the other regions of Northern Europe combined. In contrast to the traditional designs of the later Middle Ages, those of the later sixteenth-century Catholic Church evidenced innovative new designs, designs that answered the calls of religious reformers, both Catholic and Protestant, for renewal in the church’s teachings and worship. These included St. Michael’s Church in Munich, the headquarters of the new Jesuit order in the Bavarian capital. Modeled closely on the designs that Giocoma Vignola had perfected for the Gesù in Rome, the St. Michael’s Church gave prominence to the High Altar by eliminating side aisles and truncating the normally long transepts that radiated from the church’s crossing. While side chapels did not disappear altogether, they were tucked inside the walls of the church, so that all sight lines in the structure led eyes inexorably to the church’s main focal point in the choir. In this way the designers of the church, and the Jesuit patrons who commissioned it, hoped to answer the call of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church for greater focus on the centrality of the Eucharist in the Mass. In Münster in northwestern Germany, the Jesuits began the Peter’s Church around 1590, a structure very much influenced by St. Michael’s. During the seventeenth century the order continued to rely on a similar style throughout Northern Europe, which they hoped might focus the attention of their worshippers closely on the important features of Roman Catholic ritual.


As in other regions of Europe, the sixteenth century in Germany was a great age in the construction of palaces and castles. Like the châteaux of sixteenth-century France, the German Schloss, (meaning literally “keep”) was more refined and elegant than the castles of the Middle Ages. They appear today more like grand homes than the fortress-like structures of the late-medieval period. Most were constructed of stucco and refined stone masonry, rather than the heavy and rustic stonewalls of the past. Although produced on a smaller scale than buildings of the kings of France or Spain, German palaces and castles often made imaginative use of the design tenets of the Renaissance, and merged the new classicism with older native styles of buildings in ways that were similar to trends in France and Spain.


The boom in construction was particularly vigorous between 1560 and 1580. Among the Renaissance projects constructed at this time were a new castle for the Dukes of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in the town of Wolfenbüttel and a grand new section of the Palatine Electors’ castle at Heidelberg. At Heidelberg, the local Duke Ottheinrich used his offices to try to introduce humanist learning into his small, but politically important territory. The new wing he constructed for his palace made use of ancient architectural forms, as well as design tenets drawn from Sebastiano Serlio’s famous architectural treatise. Further south and east in Munich, the reigning Wittelsbach dynasty set itself to remodeling their residence. Among the many important monuments they constructed at this time on the grounds of the residence was an Antiquarium, a new hall built under the family’s library and intended from the first to house their collection of antiquities. Painted by the Netherlandish artist Peter Candid, the hall became the first museum to be built in Germany. These projects in Wolfenbüttel, Heidelberg, and Munich represent only a tiny fraction of the many princely projects undertaken in the later sixteenth century. Throughout the country the second half of the sixteenth century proved to be one of particularly vigorous building on the parts of Germany’s nobles, as the country’s princes made use of the relative domestic stability to indulge a taste for construction. The aristocratic embrace of refined palace architecture continued over time. Although initially dampened by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the German princes’ support of architecture survived to become one of the defining features of the court life of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Besides the presence of numerous courts throughout Germany, there were scattered throughout the country about eighty imperial cities that were relatively independent since they owed allegiance only to the rather distant figure of the emperor. It was in these towns that Germany’s most vigorous circles of humanists had appeared in the early sixteenth century. As elsewhere in Europe, urban life proved to be one of the factors encouraging the adoption of Renaissance architecture. Germany’s wealthy merchants, bankers, and patricians favored the new styles as an expression of their solidity and their embrace of humanism. Here the imperial city of Augsburg was the leader. There the wealthy banking family, the Fuggers, had a chapel built in the Church of St. Anna around 1510. They also remodeled three existing patrician houses on an important market square in the city, adopting new classical façades for their project. The inspiration for these projects came from the family’s close association with Italy, particularly its trading contacts with Venice, although the designers for the Fuggers’ Augsburg projects were Germans. Many other notable families in towns and cities throughout Germany imitated the architectural attentions the Fugger family had showered on their native city. From Augsburg’s early embrace of classical design, Renaissance architecture spread quickly in all directions throughout southern Germany. By 1550, classically styled public buildings and houses decorated with ancient elements had appeared in Regensburg, Nuremberg, Basel, and Strasbourg, among many other cities in the region. Thereafter the taste for buildings in the Renaissance style spread even further a field throughout Germany. During the years between 1570 and 1620, for example, the towns of the Weser River valley in north central Germany experienced a building boom, and many of the new structures constructed at the time made use of the new fashion for Antiquity. While many projects undertaken during this “Weser Renaissance” had styles affected by the classicism of Renaissance architecture, older medieval patterns of building persisted, as they did elsewhere in Germany. Half-timbered houses continued to be constructed alongside the classical masonry styles favored by Renaissance designers. We would like to know more about the many architects who practiced in the Weser Renaissance, but, like most of the designers active in sixteenth-century Germany, their identities are rarely mentioned in contemporary documents. Most seem to have come from the stonemason and construction trades, and the buildings they constructed were often eclectic, mixing elements of the new classicism with those drawn from native traditions. Steep stepped roofs, a design style popular in the later Middle Ages, persisted in newer buildings that made use of Renaissance design elements. Many houses built at the time made use of Gothic and Renaissance elements simultaneously. During the Weser Renaissance, as elsewhere throughout Germany at the time, designers often built houses that ran perpendicular to the street on which they were situated. Thus in many cases the longest part of the house faced inward and was not visible to passersby, a contrast to Italy where architects had designed most domestic palaces since the fifteenth century to face the street with an impressive façade oriented to foot traffic. Urban vistas were rare in Renaissance Germany, and few great squares dotted the cityscape, as people huddled into the cramped spaces enclosed by a town’s walls. Open-air markets, often sited in front of a city’s major churches or town hall, were among the largest places in which people congregated out-of-doors. It was not until the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that many German towns began to realize plans for broader public squares and avenues like those envisioned in the works of Italian Renaissance architects.


The outlines of architectural development in the Low Countries (today the areas making up modern Belgium and Holland) followed closely developments in Germany and France, although the heavily urbanized region allowed for the construction of fewer great castles. No new churches appeared in the region between the Reformation and the 1590s, the first major structure for the new Dutch Calvinist Church being the Zuiderkerk begun around that time in Amsterdam. Although Calvinism generally discouraged the building of large and elaborate church structures, the Zuiderkerk and the structures that imitated it were truly monumental structures filled with elaborate and often ornate decorations, when compared against other Calvinist-inspired churches throughout Europe. The great age of church building in Amsterdam and other cities throughout the Netherlands lay more in the Baroque than the Renaissance period. Netherlandish designers were particularly innovative in their planning of town halls, if not in their construction of castles, palaces, or churches. In 1561 the harbor city of Antwerp in Flanders began construction of an immense town hall based upon plans by Cornelis Floris de Vriendt (1514-1575). De Vriendt had studied in Rome and published books of engravings based upon his study of classical buildings. In comparison with many Northern European buildings at the time, de Vriendt’s town hall is relatively restrained and has a simpler and more harmonious appeal. Its classical decoration shows a thorough understanding of antique building practices, and displays de Vriendt’s conscientious attempt to adapt that style to the very different climate and situation of Northern Europe. Antwerp’s new town hall was an influential building as well. Even prior to its completion, designers from other towns in the region began adapting its plans in the construction of similar town halls throughout the Netherlands.


The classicism typical of Renaissance architecture played little role in early sixteenth-century England where a vigorous tradition of building in the late Gothic style persisted. When antique elements appeared in the architecture of the island at this time, they were almost always treated as mere decorative elements to be elaborated upon in ways drawn from the Gothic tradition. A few notable exceptions to the almost universal love of Gothic architecture may have been built in the early sixteenth century. Recent theories suggest that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s massive estate at Hampton Court, a property later given to Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) when its owner was disgraced, may have originally been constructed in a style imitative of Italian Renaissance palaces of the time. A coffered ceiling and other details that survive at the site point to an original style influenced by Italian designs, albeit with rather poor craftsmanship. Whatever Hampton Court’s original style, though, Henry VIII soon set about modifying its design to fit with more native traditions of palace building. The remodeling of the massive palace, then the largest in England, continued for almost a dozen years. At Nonesuch, another royal palace later destroyed, Henry allegedly entertained his taste for a palace in the Italian style, although the images that survive of the building suggest that he based his designs instead on fairly traditional models drawn from France and the Low Countries, rather than Italy. Throughout the sixteenth century Nonesuch remained one of the most popular of English royal palaces, although it had originated in a game of one-upsmanship played against King Francis I of France. No great Renaissance classical churches survive from the sixteenth century, and the few churches and ecclesiastical building projects undertaken in the period were usually on a small scale and relied on the architecture of the past. The Reformation in England produced the same stultifying effects on church building that it did in France and the Netherlands, although in other respects Protestantism aided in the creation of a building boom. Soon after pushing his divorce from Catherine of Aragon through England’s Parliament and contracting his ill-fated marriage to Anne Boleyn, Henry imitated the actions of some German princes by seizing the property of England’s convents and monasteries. Henry’s Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell realized great gains for the crown by selling these lands to English aristocrats and wealthy merchants. These, in turn, were made wealthy by their newly gotten gains, and they built a number of great country houses throughout England during the rest of the sixteenth century. Most of these structures followed traditional lines, although several magnificent exceptions stand out. At Longleat, Sir John Thyme designed a house constructed around 1572 that is noteworthy for its elegance and restraint. Built in Somerset, the house contained a number of beautiful bay windows, a typically English feature used at Longleat to accentuate the vertical lines of the great house. Inside the house Thyme moved the traditional English Great Hall to the structure’s side, thus allowing for a central entrance hall and a symmetrical placement of the front door and many luxurious glass windows, a ridiculously expensive commodity at the time. This harmonious rationality had a number of imitators. At Hardwick Hall and Wollaton, two houses designed by Robert Smythson at the very end of the century, central entrance halls imitative of continental examples recurred. At Hardwick the design made the traditional Great Hall the center of the house, approached as it was by the building’s colonnaded entrance and interior hall. The growing importance of Netherlandish and German styles throughout Northern Europe influenced the designs of both Hardwick and Wollaton. In many respects, in other words, these houses seem to owe little to the Italian Renaissance. It was not until the seventeenth century, with the rise of figures like Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and the great designer Christopher Wren (1632-1723), that English architecture integrated fully the lessons of Italian Renaissance classicism. In buildings such as Jones’ Banqueting Hall (1619), once a part of the royal palace complex at Westminster but now a venerable monument in the governmental quarters of Whitehall in London, Jones fully integrated the lessons of Renaissance classicism in a way similar to the Louvre rebuilding projects of Lescot. He repeated this successful formulation several years later in his Queen’s House in Greenwich, a structure that demonstrates his increasing mastery of the tenets of Renaissance design, and at the same time still preserves some native elements of English architecture. Jones, a figure of the very late Renaissance, also laid out the great market square of Covent Garden along lines that many Italian fifteenth- and sixteenth-century designers might have envied. His innovative plans were to be followed a generation later by Sir Christopher Wren, who revived the architectural models of Andrea Palladio in England, and, in turn, created a native English style that today is popularly referred to as “Georgian,” in reference to the Hanoverian kings who ruled England in the eighteenth century. The origins of this widely popular style, which influenced British colonial design in the Americas, had their roots in sixteenth-century Northern Italy. Thus while the classical revival of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had little immediate impact on the architecture of England, its influence reappeared to shape British construction in the centuries following the Renaissance.


Throughout the continent the classicism that had first been born in Renaissance Italy in the early fifteenth century helped to reinvigorate native styles of architecture and to inspire new construction projects, notable for the inclusion of classical details, harmonious designs, and rationalistic proportions. The process of integrating the classical heritage into the very different circumstances of life that prevailed throughout Renaissance Europe was a long one. The rising popularity of humanism as a scholarly movement helped to encourage the adoption of classical designs, and in the first stages—as in Hungary, Russia, and France—kings and princes who had a passing familiarity with the movement imported Italian architects to design new structures and supervise their construction. Over time, though, native architects dedicated themselves to mastering the tenets of the new Renaissance modes of construction. Architectural treatises and engravings helped to broaden knowledge of the buildings of Antiquity, as did the journeys of local craftsmen to Italy. In Northern Europe until about 1550, architects merely added Renaissance elements to buildings that were more traditional and Gothic in their feel and flavor. The fashion for classicism produced buildings in which ancient columns and orders combined to create a thicket of ornamentation similar to the highly decorative styles of the later Middle Ages. In Spain, the highly decorative Plateresque style made use of classical elements to form architectural filigrees more similar to the works of silversmiths than to those of ancient architects. Over time, as knowledge of the ancient world deepened, an increasing sophistication and appreciation of the classical uses of space, mass, and ornament appeared. In France, this sophistication can be seen in the façade of Pierre Lescot’s Square Court at the Louvre; in Spain, it found expression in the austere and severe Escorial; and in Germany, it was articulated in scores of castles and churches constructed in the second half of the sixteenth century. The quest to integrate the architectural forms of the ancient world into contemporary life proved to be more than just mere fad or fashion. In the new styles of churches that Renaissance classicism inspired, a rational, harmonious attitude toward space became an essential tool for both Protestants and Catholics to enhance the worship of ordinary Christians. Similarly, the new town hall projects constructed throughout Northern Europe with designs inspired by Antiquity gave expression to notions of order and the public good that prevailed when cities were ruled by long-standing traditions of civic involvement and self-government. And finally, for Renaissance kings and princes who were increasingly jealous of their power, monumental classical buildings revived the purposes of the temples and ancient public spaces of imperial Rome. The new structures showed subjects the necessity of submitting to the growing central authority of the state.