European Architecture Series
Italian Renaissance Architecture

History and Design Characteristics.

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The Dome of Florence Cathedral,
designed by Brunelleschi.
An iconic symbol of the
Florentine Renaissance.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

For chronology and key dates
see: History of Art Timeline.
For information about terms,
see: Architecture Glossary.

For the great historians of
Renaissance art, see:
Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97)
Bernard Berenson (1865-1959)
Kenneth Clark (1903-83)
Leo Steinberg (1920-2011)

Renaissance Architecture (c.1400-1600)
History, Characteristics, Famous Buildings


Leading Architects
Renaissance Architecture in Florence
Brunelleschi's Cathedral Dome in Florence
Church of San Lorenzo (Brunelleschi)
The Medici Palace (Michelozzo di Bartolommeo)
Renaissance Palace Design
Theories of Leon Battista Alberti
The Palazzo Rucellai (Alberti)
Renaissance Architecture Outside Florence
Church of San Francesco, Rimini (Alberti)
Church of Sant'Andrea, Mantua (Alberti)
Ducal Palace, Urbino (Luciano Laurana)
Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri, Prato (Sangallo)
Renaissance Architecture in Rome and Its Environs
Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio (Donato Bramante)
Renovation of the Piazza del Campidoglio (Michelangelo)
Renovation of the Palazzo dei Conservatori (Michelangelo)
Saint Peter's Basilica
Giacomo Barozzi/Vignola
Villa Farnese at Caprarola (Vignola)
Renaissance Architecture in Venice
Piazza San Marco (Sansovino)
Monastery Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (Palladio)
Villa Capra (La Rotunda) (Palladio)
List of Famous Italian Renaissance Buildings

For a general guide to the evolution of building design.
please see: Architecture: History, Styles (3000 BCE - present).

St Peter's Basilica, Rome. Symbol of
Roman Renaissance design, it was
the work of three main architects:
Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta
and Carlo Maderno, although it
also involved Bramante, Sangallo,
Fra Giocondo, Raphael and Peruzzi.


Although unable to free themselves from the engineering and design legacy of either Romanesque architecture (c.800-1200) or Gothic architecture (c.1150-1375), the architects of the Italian Renaissance sought their main inspiration from Greek and Roman architecture - making liberal use of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, combining classicism with the new principles of Humanism upon which so much of Renaissance art was based. Above all, they sought to establish the ideal proportions for a building, based on those of the idealized human body. Architecture during the Renaissance was also closely associated with urban planning and the dissemination of ideas, thanks to the new technique of printing. The 15th century quattrocento became the era of the treatise, as exemplified by Alberti's De re aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture) (1485), the printed translations of the writings of Vitruvius, the first century Roman architect, Vignola's The Rule of the Five Orders of Architecture, and Sebastiano Serlio's Seven Books of Architecture. The Renaissance was also a multi-media event: thus, architecture went hand in hand with sculpture as well as mural painting. Furthermore, some of the best sculptors (Michelangelo) and Old Masters (Raphael) became excellent architects.

Leading Renaissance Architects

The greatest architects of the Renaissance included: Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), Giovanni Giocondo (1433-1515), Giuliano da Sangallo (1443-1516), Donato Bramante (1444-1514), the theorist Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Baldessare Peruzzi (1481-1536), Raphael (1483-1520), Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546), Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559), Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Giacomo Barozzi (Vignola) (1507-1573), Andrea Palladio (1508-80), Pirro Ligorio (1510-83), Galeazzo Alessi (1512-72), Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602), the theorist Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), Carlo Maderno (1556-1629), Antonio Contini (1566-1600).

Highlights of Renaissance Architecture

Although the continuing demand for monumental religious art meant that most architectural projects involved cathedrals, basilicas, churches, chapels, sacristies, baptisteries, temples and tombs, Renaissance architects also designed a wide range of secular structures, such as palaces, villas, libraries, hospitals, piazzas, fountains, and bridges. Celebrated examples of Renaissance design include: the dome of Florence Cathedral (1420-36) and the Church of San Lorenzo (1420-69) by Brunelleschi; Palazzo Medici Riccardi (1445-1460) by Michelozzo di Bartolommeo; Palazzo Rucellai (1446-51) by Alberti; Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri (1485-1506) by Giuliano da Sangallo; Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio (1502) by Bramante; Palazzo del Te, Mantua (1525-34) by Giulio Romano; Saint Peter's Basilica (1506-1626) for which many famous Renaissance and Baroque architects contributed ideas, including Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno and Bernini (1598-1680) - the Villa Farnese at Caprarola (c.1560) by Vignola; the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1562) and the Villa Capra (1566-91) by Palladio. Highlights of architectural Renaissance sculpture include Michelangelo's David (1501-4), and the Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-2, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence) by Giambologna (1529-1608).



Renaissance Architecture in Florence

Travellers from across the Alps in the mid-15th century found Florence - then the centre of Early Renaissance art - very different in appearance from the northern cities. Instead of church spires piercing the sky, the Florentine skyline was dominated, as it still is today, by the enormous mass of the cathedral dome rising above low houses, smaller churches, and the blocklike palaces of the wealthy, all of which had minimal exterior decoration. See also: Renaissance Art in Florence.

One important example of pre-Renaissance architecture in Florence was the imposing Palazzo Vecchio (town hall), looking out onto the Piazza della Signoria, which was built between 1299 and 1314.

Brunelleschi's Cathedral Dome in Florence

The major civic project of the early years of the quattrocento was the still-unfinished cathedral, begun in the late trecento and continued intermittently during the fourteenth century. As early as 1367, its architects had envisioned a very tall dome to span the huge interior space, but they lacked the engineering know-how to construct it. When interest in completing the cathedral was revived around 1407, the technical solution was found by a young sculptor-turned-architect, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), one of the key early Renaissance artists in Florence. Brunelleschi's intended career as a sculptor had ended with his failure to win the 1402 competition to design new bronze doors for the Baptistry, which stands next to the Florence Cathedral. Brunelleschi declined a role as assistant on that project and travelled to Rome, probably with his sculptor friend Donatello (1386-1466), where he studied Roman architecture and sculpture.

Brunelleschi, whose father had been involved in the original plans for the dome in 1367, advised constructing first a tall drum, or cylindrical base. The drum was finished in 1410, and in 1417 Brunelleschi was commissioned to design the dome itself. Work began in 1420 and was completed by 1471. A revolutionary feat of engineering, the dome is a double shell of masonry that combines Gothic and Renaissance elements. Gothic construction is based on the pointed arch, using stone shafts, or ribs, to support the vault, or ceiling. The octagonal outer shell is essentially a structure of this type, supported on ribs and in a pointed-arch profile; however, like Roman domes, it is cut at the top with an oculus (opening) and is surmounted by a lantern, a crowning structure made up of Roman architectural forms. The dome's 138-foot diameter would have made the use of centering (temporary wooden construction supports) costly and even dangerous. Therefore, Brunelleschi devised machinery to hoist building materials as needed and invented an ingenious system by which each portion of the structure reinforced the next one as the dome was built up course, or layer, by course. The reinforcing elements were vertical marble ribs and horizontal sandstone rings connected with iron rods, with the whole supported by oak staves and beams tying rib to rib. The inner and outer shells were also tied together internally by a system of arches. When completed, this self-buttressed unit required no external support to keep it standing. For more about the Florentine duomo - the icon of Renaissance architecture - see: Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Renaissance (1420-36).

Church of San Lorenzo (Brunelleschi)

The cathedral dome was a triumph of engineering and construction technique for Brunelleschi, who was a pioneer of Renaissance architecture. Other commissions came quickly after the cathedral-dome project, and Brunelleschi's innovative designs were well received by Florentine patrons. From about 1421 to his death in 1446, Brunelleschi was involved in two projects for the Church of San Lorenzo. First, the architect designed a sacristy (a room where ritual attire and vessels are kept), completed in 1428 and called the Old Sacristy, as a chapel and mausoleum for the Medici family of Florence. He was then commissioned to rebuild the church itself. The precise history of this second project is obscured by intermittent construction and later alterations. Brunelleschi may have conceived the plans for the new church at the same time as he designed the sacristy in 1421 or perhaps as late as about 1425, after new foundations had been laid for the transept and sanctuary.

San Lorenzo is an austere basilica-plan church with elements of Early Christian art. The long nave, flanked by single side aisles opening into shallow side chapels, is intersected by a short transept with a square crossing. Beyond the crossing space facing the nave is a square sanctuary flanked by small chapels opening off the transept. Projecting out from the south transept is Brunelleschi's sacristy, today called the Old Sacristy to distinguish it from one built in the sixteenth century.

What is entirely new in San Lorenzo is its mathematical regularity and symmetry. To plan the church, Brunelleschi used a module - a basic unit of measure that could be multiplied or divided and applied to every element of the design. The result was a series of clear, rational interior spaces in harmony with each other and on a human scale.

Brunelleschi's modular system was also carried through in the proportions of the church's interior. Ornamental details were carved in pietra serena, a grayish stone that became synonymous with Brunelleschi's interiors. Below the plain clerestory (upper-story wall of windows) with its unobtrusive openings, the arches of the nave are carried on tall, slender Corinthian columns made even taller by the insertion of a favoured Brunelleschian device, an impost block between the column capital and the springing of the round arches. The arcade is repeated in the outer walls of the side aisles in the arched openings to the chapels surmounted by arched lunettes. Flattened architectural forms in pietra serena articulate the wall surfaces, and each bay is covered by its own vaulted ceiling. The square crossing is covered by a hemispherical dome, the nave and transept by flat ceilings.

San Lorenzo was an experimental building combining old and new elements, but Brunelleschi's rational approach, unique sense of order, and innovative incorporation of Classical motifs were inspirations to later Renaissance architects, many of whom learned from his work firsthand by completing his unfinished projects.

The Medici Palace (Michelozzo di Bartolommeo)

Brunelleschi's role in the Medici palace (now the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi) in Florence, begun in 1444, is unclear. According to the sixteenth-century painter, architect, and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), Brunelleschi's model for the palazzo, or palace, was rejected as too grand by Cosimo de' Medici the Elder, who later hired Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (1396-1474), whom most scholars have accepted as the designer of the building. In any case, the palace established a tradition for Italian town houses that, with interesting variations, remained the norm for a century. The plain exterior was in keeping with political and religious thinking in Florence, which was strongly influenced by Christian ideals of poverty and charity. Like many other European cities, Florence had sumptuary laws, which forbid ostentatious displays of wealth - but they were often ignored. Under Florentine law, for example, private homes were limited to a dozen rooms; Cosimo, however, acquired and demolished twenty small houses to provide the site for his new residence.

Huge in scale (each story is more than 20 feet high), with fine proportions and details, the building was constructed around a central courtyard surrounded by a loggia, or covered gallery. On one side the ground floor originally opened through large, round arches onto the street. Although these arches were walled up in the sixteenth century and given windows designed by Michelangelo, they are still visible today. The facade of large, rusticated stone blocks - that is, with their outer faces left rough, typical of Florentine town house exteriors - was derived from fortifications. On the palace facade the stories are clearly set off from each other by the change in the stone surfaces from very rough at the ground level to almost smooth on the third. The Medici Palace inaugurated a new monumentality and regularity of plan in residential urban architecture.

Renaissance Palace Design

Noble families of the Early Renaissance in Italy built a number of magnificent urban palaces, many of which were designed to look imposing and even intimidating. The front face of a building (the facade), offers clues as to what lies behind it: a huge central door, for instance, suggests power; rusticated stonework suggests strength and the fortifications of a castle; precious marbles and/or relief sculpture indicates wealth; a cartouche, accompanied by a family coat-of-arms, is an emphatic symbol of nobility.

The majority of Renaissance palaces used designs derived from ancient Greek architecture or ancient Roman buildings - columns fashioned in the Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian orders, decorated entablatures, and other such elements - in a style known as classicism. The Palazzo Farnese in Rome, for instance, was built for the Farneses, one of whom, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1468-1549), became Pope Paul III in 1534. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo, and Giacomo della Porta, this immense building stands at the head of and dominates a broad open public square, or piazza. The palace's three stories are clearly defined by two horizontal bands of stonework, or string courses. A many-layered cornice sits on the facade like a weighty crown. The moldings, cornice, and entablatures are decorated with classical motifs and with the lilies that form the Farnese family coat-of-arms.

The enormous central door is emphasized by elaborate rusticated stonework (as are the building's corners, where the shaped stones are known as quoins), and is surmounted by a balcony suitable for ceremonial appearances by the owner, over which is set the cartouche with the Farnese arms. Windows are treated differently on each story: on the ground floor, the twelve windows sit on sturdy scrolled brackets, and the window heads are topped with architraves. The story directly above is known in Italy as the piano nobile, or first floor (Americans would call it the second story), which contains the grandest - or "noble" - rooms. Its twelve windows are decorated with alternating triangular and arched pediments, supported by pairs of engaged half columns in the Corinthian order. The second floor (or American third story) has thirteen windows, all with triangular pediments whose supporting Ionic half columns are set on brackets echoing those under the windows on the ground floor.

Renaissance palaces were typically oriented inward, away from the noisy streets. Many contained open courtyards. Classical elements prevailed here, too. The courtyard of the Palazzo Farnese has a loggia fronted by an arcade at the ground level. Its Classical engaged columns present all the usual parts: pedestal, base, shaft, and capital. The progression of orders from the lowest to the highest story mirrors the appearance of the orders in ancient Greece: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

Theories of Leon Battista Alberti

By the middle of the fifteenth century, more artists had become students of the past, and a few humanists had ventured into the field of art theory and design. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), a humanist-turned-architect, wrote about his classical theories on art before he ever designed a building. Alberti studied at the universities of Padua and Bologna, then worked as a Latin scribe for Pope Eugene IV. This position, which involved diplomatic travel and thus put Alberti in contact with the best potential patrons in Italy, was critical to his later career as an architect. Alberti's various writings present the first coherent exposition of early Italian Renaissance aesthetics, including the Italian mathematical perspective system credited to Brunelleschi and ideal proportions of the human body derived from Greek art. With Alberti began the gradual change in the status of the architect from a hands-on builder - and thus a manual labourer - to an intellectual expected to know philosophy, history, and the classics as well as mathematics and engineering.

The Palazzo Rucellai (Alberti)

The relationship of the facade to the body of the building behind it was a continuing challenge for Italian Renaissance architects. Early in his architectural career, Alberti devised a facade - begun in 1455 but never finished - to be the unifying front for a planned merger of eight adjacent houses in Florence acquired by Giovanni Rucellai. Alberti's design, influenced in its basic approach by the Palazzo Medici, was a simple rectangular front suggesting a coherent, cubical three-story building capped with an overhanging cornice, a heavy, projecting horizontal molding at the top of the wall. The double windows under round arches were a feature of Michelozzo's Palazzo Medici, but other aspects of the facade were entirely new. Inspired by the ancient Colosseum in Rome, Alberti articulated the surface of the lightly rusticated wall with a horizontal-vertical pattern of pilasters and architraves that superimposed the Classical orders: Doric on the ground floor, Ionic on the second, and Corinthian on the third. The Palazzo Rucellai provided a visual lesson for local architects in the use of classical elements and mathematical proportions, and Alberti's enthusiasm for classicism and his architectural projects in other cities were catalysts for the spread of the Renaissance movement.


Italian Renaissance Architecture Outside Florence

Church of San Francesco, Rimini (Alberti)

The spread of Renaissance architectural designs beyond Florence was due in significant measure to Leon Battista Alberti, who travelled widely and expounded his views to potential patrons. As a result he undertook an unusual project in Rimini, fitting for an artist steeped in classical knowledge: to transform an existing medieval church, the Church of San Francesco, into a Renaissance "temple" honouring the local ruler, Sigismondo Malatesta, and his mistress Isotta degli Atti. Although the project, designed in 1450, was never completed, the partly altered exterior shell nevertheless provides an encyclopedia of Albertian architectural ideas. The facade, set in front of the original church wall, combines forms derived from a Classical temple front and a Roman triumphal arch such as the nearby Arch of Augustus. The high podium with the Corinthian order of attached columns and the entablature supporting a triangular pediment constitute the temple front. The triple arches, attached columns, roundels, and heavy projecting cornice carry the triumphal-arch motif. This layering and combining of motifs and references is typical of humanistic thinking and similar in concept to the treatment of mythologies, devised by Botticelli (1445-1510).

Church of Sant'Andrea, Mantua (Alberti)

Another patron, the ruler of Mantua, in 1470 commissioned Alberti to enlarge the small Church of Sant'Andrea, which housed a sacred relic believed to be the actual blood of Jesus. To satisfy his patron's desire for a sizable building to handle crowds coming to see the relic, Alberti proposed to build an "Etruscan temple." (See also: Etruscan Art.) Work began on the new church in 1472, but Alberti died that summer. Construction went forward slowly, at first according to his original plan, but it was finally completed only at the end of the eighteenth century. Thus, it is not always clear which elements belong to Alberti's original design.

The Latin-cross plan - a nave more than 55 feet wide intersected by a transept of equal width; a square, domed crossing; and a rectangular sanctuary on axis with the nave — is certainly in keeping with Alberti's ideas. Alberti was responsible, too, for the barrel-vaulted chapels the same height as the nave and the low chapel niches carved out of the huge piers supporting the barrel vault of the nave. His dome, however, would not have been perforated and would not have been raised on a drum, as this one finally was.

Alberti's design for the facade of Sant'Andrea echoes that of the Tempio Malatesta in Rimini in its fusion of temple front and triumphal arch, but the facade now has a clear volume of its own, which sets it off visually from the building behind. Two sets of colossal Corinthian pilasters articulate the porch face. Those flanking the barrel-vaulted triumphal-arch entrance are two stories high, whereas the others, raised on pedestals, run through three stories to support the entablature and pediment of the temple form. The arch itself has lateral barrel-vaulted spaces opening through two-story arches on the left and right.

Neither the simplicity of the plan nor the complexity of the facade hints at the grandeur of Sant'Andrea's interior. Its immense barrel-vaulted nave extended on each side by tall chapels was inspired by the monumental interiors of such ancient ruins as the Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius in the Roman Forum. In this clear reference to Roman imperial art Alberti created a building of such colossal scale and spatial unity that it affected architectural design for centuries.

Ducal Palace, Urbino (Luciano Laurana)

The court of Urbino was an outstanding artistic center under the patronage of Federico da Montefeltro, who actively sought out the finest artists of the day to come to Urbino. In 1468, after failing to find a Tuscan to take over the construction of a new ducal palace (palazzo ducale) begun about 1450, Federico hired one of the assistants already involved in the project, Luciano Laurana, to direct the work. Among Laurana's major contributions were his closing the courtyard with a fourth wing and redesigning the courtyard facades. The result is a superbly rational solution to the problems of courtyard elevation design. The ground-level portico on each side has arches supported by columns; the corner angles are bridged with piers having engaged columns on the arcade sides and pilasters facing the courtyard. This arrangement avoided the awkward visual effect of two arches springing from a single column and gave the corner a greater sense of stability. The Composite capital (Corinthian with added Ionic volutes) was used, perhaps for the first time, on the ground level. Corinthian pilasters flank the windows in the story above, forming divisions that repeat the bays of the portico. (The two short upper stories were added later.) The plain architrave faces were engraved with inscriptions identifying Federico and lauding his many humanistic virtues. Not visible in the illustration is an innovative feature that became standard in palace courtyard design: the monumental staircase from the courtyard to the main floor.

Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri, Prato (Giuliano da Sangallo)

A fifteenth-century Florentine architect whose work was most important for developments in the sixteenth century was Giuliano da Sangallo (c.1443-1516). From 1464 to 1472, he worked in Rome, where he produced a number of meticulous drawings after the city's ancient monuments, many of which are now lost and known today only from his work. Back in Florence, he became a favourite of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a great humanist and patron of the arts. Soon after completing a country villa for Lorenzo in the early 1480s, Giuliano submitted a model for a new church in Prato, near Florence, on which he began work in 1485. In 1484, a child had claimed that a painting of the Virgin on the wall of the town prison had come to life, and plans were soon made to remove the image and preserve it in a votive church (a church built as a special offering to a saint), to be named Santa Maria delle Carceri (Saint Mary of the Prisons).

Although the need to accommodate processions and the gathering of congregations made the long nave of a basilica almost a necessity for local churches, the votive church became a natural subject for Renaissance experimentation with the central plan. The existing tradition of central-plan churches extended back to the Early Christian martyrium (a round shrine to a martyred saint) and perhaps ultimately to the Classical tholos, or round temple. Alberti in his treatise on architecture had spoken of the central plan as an ideal, derived from the humanist belief that the circle was a symbol of divine perfection and that both the circle inscribed in a square and the cross inscribed in a circle were symbols of the cosmos. Thus, Giuliano's Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri, built on a Greek-cross plan, is one of the finest early Renaissance examples of humanist symbolism in architectural design. It is also the first Renaissance church with a true central plan; Brunelleschi's earlier experiment in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, for example, was for an attached structure, and Alberti's Greek-cross plan was never actually built. Drawing on his knowledge of Brunelleschi's works, Giuliano created a square, dome-covered central space extended in each direction by arms whose length was one-half the width of the central space. The arms are covered by barrel vaults extended from the round arches supporting the dome. Giuliano raised his dome on a short, round drum that increased the amount of natural light entering the church. He also articulated the interior walls and the twelve-ribbed dome and drum with pietra serena. The exterior of the dome is capped with a conical roof and a tall lantern in Brunelleschian fashion.

The exterior of the church is a marvel of Renaissance clarity and order. The ground-floor system of slim Doric pilasters clustered at the corners is repeated in the Ionic order on the shorter upper level, as if the entablature of a small temple had been surmounted with a second smaller one. The church was entirely finished in 1494 except for installation of the fine green-and white-marble veneer above the first story. In the 1880s, one section of the upper level was veneered; however, the philosophy of twentieth-century conservation requires that the rest of the building be left in rough stone, as it is today.

Renaissance Architecture in Rome and Its Environs

Benefiting from the achievements of 15th-century designers and inspired by studying the monuments of antiquity, the Renaissance architects who worked in Rome developed ideals comparable to those of contemporary painters and sculptors. The first-century Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius's ten-volume work on classical architecture continued to be an important source for architects during the High Renaissance in Italy. It inspired several encyclopedias of Renaissance design and practical manuals on classical style, as did Giacomo da Vignola (1507-1573). Whereas religious art and architecture was a major source of commissions, some of the best opportunities for innovation were urban palaces and large country villas. For more about art in the city, see: Renaissance in Rome (c.1480-1550).

Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio (Donato Bramante)

Born near Urbino and trained as a painter, Donato Bramante (1444-1514) turned to architectural design early in his career. Little is known of his activities until about 1481, when he became attached to the Sforza court in Milan, where he would have known Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). In 1499 Bramante settled in Rome, but work came slowly. The architect was nearing sixty when he was commissioned in 1502 to design a small shrine over the spot where the apostle Peter was believed to have been crucified. The Tempietto Iseo ("little temple"), known as Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio, has been admired since it was built as an early perfect Renaissance interpretation of the principles of Vitruvius. Without copying any specific ancient monument but perhaps inspired by the remains of a small round temple in Rome, Bramante designed the shrine, only 15 feet in diameter, with a stepped base and a Doric peristyle (continuous row of columns). Vitruvius had advised that the Doric order be used for temples to gods of particularly forceful character. The first story of the shrine is topped by a tall drum, or circular wall, supporting a hemispheric dome (no longer original) recalling ancient Roman round tombs. Especially notable is the sculptural effect of the building's exterior, with its deep wall niches creating contrasts of light and shadow, its Doric frieze of carved papal emblems, and its elegant balustrade (carved railing).

Shortly after Julius II's election as pope in 1503, he commissioned Bramante to renovate the Vatican Palace, and in 1506 Julius appointed him chief architect of a project to replace Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, the site of Peter's tomb. Construction had barely begun when Julius died in 1513; Bramante himself died in 1514 without leaving a comprehensive plan or model that a successor could complete. After a series of popes and architects and various revisions, the new Saint Peter's was still nowhere near completion when Michelangelo took over the project in 1546.

Renovation of the Piazza del Campidoglio (Michelangelo)

After Michelangelo settled in Rome in 1534, a rich and worldly Roman noble was elected as Pope Paul III (reigned 1534-1549). He surprised his electors by his vigorous pursuit of reform within the Church, including in 1545 the Council of Trent, which brought together conservative and reform factions. He also began renovation of several important sites in Rome and the upgrading of papal properties. Among the projects in which he involved Michelangelo was remodelling the Campidoglio (Capitol), a public square atop the Capitoline Hill, once the citadel of Republican Rome. The buildings covering the irregular site had fallen into disrepair, and the pope saw its renovation as a symbol of both his spiritual and his secular power.

Scholars still debate Michelangelo's role in the Capitoline project, although some have connected the granting of Roman citizenship to him in 1537 with his taking charge of the work. Preserved accounts mention the artist by name on only two occasions, however. In 1539 his advice was taken on reshaping the base for the ancient Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius. In 1563 payment was made "to execute the orders of master Michelangelo Buonarroti in the building of the Campidoglio." Michelangelo's comprehensive plan for what is surely among the most beautiful urban-renewal projects of all time is documented in prints identified as having been done from Michelangelo's plan and model for the new Campidoglio. The Piazza del Campidoglio today closely resembles the conception recorded in these prints only a few years after Michelangelo's death, although the square and buildings were not finished until the seventeenth century, and Michelangelo's exquisite star design in the pavement was not installed until the twentieth century.

Renovation of the Palazzo dei Conservatori (Michelangelo)

In 1537 the city council (the Conservatori) allotted funds to renovate the Palazzo dei Conservatori, which contained its offices and meeting rooms. Although only three bays of the new facade were finished by the time of Michelangelo's death in 1564, his repeating vertical elements were continued on the Conservatori facade and on the so-called Palazzo Nuovo facing it across the piazza. The framework of the facade is formed by colossal Composite order pilasters raised on tall pedestals and supporting a wide architrave below the heavy cornice. Each ground-level bay opens into the deep portico through Ionic columns supporting their own architraves. On the main level above, although a wide central window was added later, the original design called for identical bays, each with a narrow central window and a balcony flanked by engaged columns supporting segmental pediments. The horizontal orientation of the building is emphasized by the plain architrave below the balustrade of the roof and is then picked up below in the broken architrave above the portico.

Saint Peter's Basilica

Ever since the laying of the cornerstone for the new Saint Peter's by Julius II in 1506, Michelangelo had been well aware of the efforts of its architects, from Bramante to Raphael (1483-1520) to Antonio da Sangallo. When Paul III offered the post to Michelangelo in 1546, he gladly accepted. By this time, the seventy-one-year-old sculptor was not just confident of his architectural expertise; he demanded the right to deal directly with the pope rather than through the committee of construction deputies. Michelangelo further shocked the deputies - but not the pope - by tearing down or cancelling those parts of Sangallo's design that he found without merit. Ultimately, Michelangelo transformed the central-plan church into a vast organic structure, in which the architectural elements work cohesively together like the muscles of a torso. Seventeenth-century additions and renovations dramatically changed the original plan of the church and the appearance of its interior, but Michelangelo's Saint Peter's can still be seen in the contrasting forms of the flat and angled walls and the three hemicycles (semicircular structures), whose colossal pilasters, blind windows (having no openings), and niches form the sanctuary of the church. The level above the heavy entablature was later given windows of a different shape. How Michelangelo would have built the great dome is not known; most scholars believe that he would have made it hemispherical. The dome that was actually erected, by Giacomo della Porta in 1588-1590, retains Michelangelo's basic design: a segmented dome with regularly spaced openings, resting on a high drum with pedimented windows between paired columns, and surmounted by a tall lantern reminiscent of Bramante's Tempietto. Della Porta's major changes were raising the dome height, narrowing its segmental bands, and changing the shape of its openings.

Giacomo Barozzi/Vignola

Michelangelo designed the most prestigious buildings of sixteenth-century Rome, but there were far too much money, ambition, and demand for architectural skill for him to monopolize the field. One young artist who helped meet that demand was Giacomo Barozzi (1507-1573), called Vignola after his native town, who became the most important architect of the Mannerism movement in Rome. He worked in the city in the late 1530s surveying ancient Roman monuments and providing illustrations for an edition of Vitruvius, then worked from 1541 to 1543 in France with Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570) at the Fontainebleau School (1530-70). After Vignola returned, he secured the patronage of the Farnese family, for whom he designed and supervised the building of the Villa Farnese at Caprarola from 1558 until his death in 1573.

Villa Farnese at Caprarola (Vignola)

At Caprarola, Vignola used the fortress built there by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as a foundation (podium) for his five-sided building. Unlike medieval castle builders, who had taken advantage of the natural contours of the land in their defenses, Renaissance architects imposed geometric forms on the land. Recently developed artillery made the high walls of medieval castles easy targets, so Renaissance engineers built horizontal rather than vertical structures against long-distance firepower. Wide bastions at the outer points of such fortresses provided firing platforms for the defenders' cannons.

Vignola's building rises in three stories around a circular courtyard. He decorated the external faces with an arrangement of circles, ovals, and rectangles, just as he had advised in his book The Rule of the Five Orders of Architecture, published in 1562. The building was vaulted throughout, and the interior was lighted with evenly spaced windows. The courtyard appears to have only two stories, but a third story of small service rooms is screened by an open, balustraded terrace.

The first and second stories are ringed with galleries, and like the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence the ground level is rusticated. On the second level, Ionic half columns form a triumphal-arch motif, and rectangular niches topped with blind arches echo the arched niches of the first-floor arcade. Behind the palace, formal gardens extended beyond the moat.

Renaissance Architecture in Venice

The Sack of Rome in 1527 benefited other Italian cities when a large number of High Renaissance artists fled for their livelihoods, if not for their lives. Venice had long been a vital Renaissance architectural centre with its own traditions, but the field was empty when the Florentine sculptor Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) arrived there from Rome. As a result, Sansovino became the most important architect of the mid-sixteenth century in Venice. The second half of the century was dominated by Andrea Palladio (1508-80), a brilliant artist from the Veneto, the mainland region ruled by Venice. Palladio brought Venetian Renaissance architecture to its grand conclusion with his villas, palaces, and churches. See also Renaissance in Venice (1400-1600) and Venetian Painting (1450-1800).

Piazza San Marco (Sansovino)

Soon after settling in Venice, Sansovino was appointed to renovate the Piazza San Marco, the great square in front of the Church of San Marco. In 1536 he created a model for a new library on the south side of the piazza, or open square, inspired by such classical structures as the Colosseum in Rome, which featured regular bays of superimposed orders. The flexibility of this design, with identical modules that can be repeated indefinitely, is reflected in the history of the Library of San Marco. It was opened after the first seven bays were completed at the end of 1546. Then, between 1551 and 1554, seven more bays were added, and in 1589, nearly two decades after the architect's death, more bays were added to provide office space.

Drawing upon his earlier experience as a sculptor, Sansovino enriched the facade with elaborate spandrel figures and a frieze of putti and garlands. The roofline balustrade surmounted at regular intervals by statues elegantly emphasizes the horizontal orientation of the building. Although Michelangelo never saw the library, he reinterpreted the same classical elements in his own powerful manner on the new facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome. The library also had a great impact on a young architect from Vicenza, Andrea Palladio, who proclaimed it "the richest and most ornate" building since antiquity.


Probably born in Padua, Andrea Palladio began his career as a stonecutter. After moving to Vicenza, he was hired by the noble humanist scholar and amateur architect Giangiorgio Trissino (1478-1550). Trissino made him a protege and nicknamed him Palladio, a name derived from Pallas, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and the fourth-century Roman writer Palladius. Palladio learned Latin at Trissino's small academy and accompanied his benefactor on three trips to Rome, where Palladio made drawings of Roman monuments. Over the years he became involved in several publishing ventures, including a guide to Roman antiquities, an illustrated edition of Vitruvius, and books on architecture that for centuries were valuable resources for architectural design.

Monastery Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (Palladio)

By 1559, when he settled in Venice, Palladio was one of the foremost architects of Italy. About 1566 he undertook a major architectural commission: the monastery Church of San Giorgio Maggiore on the Venetian islet of San Giorgio. His design for the Renaissance facade to the traditional basilica-plan elevation - a wide lower level fronting the nave and side aisles, surmounted by a narrower front for the nave clerestory - is the height of ingenuity. Inspired by Leon Battista Alberti's solution for Sant'Andrea in Mantua, Palladio created the illusion of two temple fronts of different heights and widths, one set inside the other. At the centre, colossal columns on high pedestals, or bases, support an entablature and pediment that front the narrower clerestory level of the church. The lower "temple front", which covers the triple-aisle width and slanted side-aisle roofs, consists of pilasters supporting an entablature and pediment running behind the columns of the taller clerestory front. Palladio retained Alberti's motif of the triumphal-arch entrance. Although the facade was not built until after the architect's death, his original design was followed.

The interior of San Giorgio is a fine example of Palladio's harmoniously balanced geometry, expressed here in strong verticals and powerful arcs. The tall engaged columns and shorter pairs of pilasters of the nave arcade echo the two levels of orders on the facade, thus unifying the exterior and interior of the building.

Villa Capra (La Rotunda) (Palladio)

Palladio's diversity can best be seen in numerous villas built early in his career. In 1550 he started his most famous villa, just outside Vicenza. Although most rural villas were working farms, Palladio designed this one as a retreat for relaxation. To afford views of the countryside, he placed an Ionic order porch on each face of the building, with a wide staircase leading up to it. The main living quarters are on the second level, and the lower level is reserved for the kitchen and other utility rooms. Upon its completion in 1569, the villa was dubbed the Villa Rotonda because it had been inspired by another rotonda (round hall), the Roman Pantheon. After its purchase in 1591 by the Capra family, it became known as the Villa Capra. The villa plan shows the geometrical clarity of Palladio's conception: a circle inscribed in a small square inside a larger square, with symmetrical rectangular compartments and identical rectangular projections from each of its faces. The use of a central dome on a domestic building was a daring innovation that effectively secularized the dome. The Villa Rotonda was the first of what was to become a long tradition of domed country houses, particularly in England and the United States. See, for instance, works by Palladio's greatest English disciple, the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652).

List of Famous Italian Renaissance Buildings

Filippo Brunelleschi
- Duomo of Florence Cathedral (1420-36)
- Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence (1420-69)
- Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence (1424-45)
- Pazzi Chapel, St Croce, Florence (1429-61)
Michelozzo di Bartolommeo
- Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence (1445-1460)
Leon Battista Alberti
- Palazzo Rucellai, Florence (1446-51)
- Tempio Maltestiano, Rimini (1450-68)
- Church of St Maria Novella, Florence (1458-71)
Friar Giovanni Giocondo
- Palazzo del Consiglio, Verona (c.1470)
Giuliano da Sangallo
- Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri, Prato (1485-1506)
- Palazzo Gondi, Florence (1490-94)
- Palazzo della Rovere, Savona (1496)
Donato Bramante
- Church of St Maria delle Grazie, Milan (1492-98)
- Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio, Rome (1502)
- Church of St Maria, Chigi Chapel, Rome (1513)
- Palazzo Pandolfini (facade), Florence (1517)
- Villa Madama, Rome (begun 1518)
Jacopo Sansovino
- St Mark's Library, Venice (1536-88)
- Loggetta di San Marco, Venice (1537-40)
- Palazzo Cornaro della Ca Grande, Venice (1542-61)
Giulio Romano
- Villa Lante, Rome (1520-4)
- Palazzo del Te, Mantua (1525-34)
- Casa Romano, Mantua (1540)
- Tomb of Pope Julius, Rome (begun 1505)
- Laurentian Library, Florence (1524-71)
- Dome for Saint Peter's Basilica (1546-64)
- Church of St Maria of the Angels and Martyrs, Rome (1563-66)
Baldessare Peruzzi
- Villa Farnesina, Rome (1508-11)
- Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, Rome (1532-6)
Michele Sanmicheli
- Petrucci Chapel in St Domenico, Orvieto (1516-24)
- Villa Soranza, Padua (1520)
- Palazzo Bevilacqua, Verona (1534)
- Palazzo Grimani, Venice (1540-62)
Giacomo Barozzi (Vignola)
- Villa Giulia, Rome (1550-53)
- Church of St Andrew, Via Flaminia, Rome (1552)
- Villa Farnese, Caprarola, Near Rome (c.1560)
- Church of the Gesu (Jesuits) Rome (1568-73)
Andrea Palladio
- Villa Polana, Vicenza (1545-50)
- Villa Cornaro, Treviso (1552-54)
- Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (1562)
- Villa Capra (La Rotunda) Vicenza (1566-91)
- Basilica (Medieval town hall), Vicenza (1617)
Pirro Ligorio
- Casina Pio IV (Villa Pia) Vatican (1559–1562)
- Villa D'Este, Tivoli (1572)
Antonio Contini
- Bridge of Sighs, Venice (1600)
Giacomo della Porta
- Church of the Gesu (Jesuits) Rome (cross-vault, dome, apse) (1568-84)
- Palazzo Senatorio, Capitol Hill, Rome (1573-1602)
- Fountain of Neptune, Rome (1574)
- St Peter's Basilica, Rome (completion of dome) (1588-90)

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "Art History" (Stokstad; Harry N. Abrams. 1995 NY).

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