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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
The east
Rock-cut architecture
Early Christian churches
Middle Ages
15th - 16th century
     The arts in Florence
     Brunelleschi and the Duomo
     The Renaissance style
     Inca architecture
     Age of the palace
     Age of the dome
     Glazed domestic windows
     Indian and Japanese castles
     Villa and country seat

17th - 18th century
19th century
To be completed

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Art and architecture in Florence: 1411-1430

Three Florentine friends, an architect, a sculptor and a painter, are recognized in their own time as being the founders of a new direction in art - subsequently known as the Renaissance. In the preface to an influential book on painting, published in 1436, Alberti says that the work of these three has convinced him that the ancient arts can be revived.

They differ considerably in age. The architect, Brunelleschi, is the oldest. The sculptor, Donatello, is about ten years younger. The painter, Masaccio, is about fifteen years younger again, though he is by a wide margin the first to die.


Brunelleschi is the pioneer who first consciously applies a Renaissance curiosity to the arts. Where the humanists visit Rome and other ancient cities to copy inscriptions, he notes the dimensions and sketches the details of the ruins and surviving buildings of classical antiquity. These include the columns and arches of Rome, but also the domes of Byzantine Ravenna and even of the baptistery in Florence - a Romanesque building of the 11th or 12th century which Brunelleschi and his contemporaries believe to be a temple of Mars adapted for Christian worship.

His aim is to abandon entirely the medieval heritage, even if lack of historical knowledge makes the break less absolute than he intends.


Brunelleschi and the Duomo: 1418-1436

Brunelleschi's greatest claim to fame in his own day is connected with a medieval rather than a Renaissance building. In his childhood Florence's cathedral (the Duomo, built during the 14th century) has had only a temporary covering over the central space where the nave and transepts cross.

The intention has always been to build a dome, but the Florentines have been too eager to impress the world with the scale of their cathedral. The space to be spanned is 140 feet across, some 35 feet more than the equivalent width in Santa Sophia. Nobody can think what to do. The years drag by until a competition is held, in 1418, to find a solution.


The competition is won by Brunelleschi. His long-standing rival Ghiberti takes second place. Ghiberti had beaten Brunelleschi in a competition, in 1401, to design bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence. Brunelleschi's narrow failure to beat Ghiberti on that earlier occasion is part of the reason why he has concentrated more on architecture than sculpture.

It would be relatively easy to erect a dome above a massive temporary structure of scaffolding, but Florence is unwilling to foot the bill for this. Brunelleschi's success, and the main cause of his contemporary fame, is that he finds a way of building without any support from the ground.


His solution, using aerial scaffolding supported within the drum, involves a double skin for the dome, with the outer and inner structures held together by bonds of masonry. The double structure not only adds strength. It also enables the outer profile to be impressively high without the interior of the dome seeming too remote.

Pioneered by Brunelleschi, and completed in 1436, the double skin later becomes commonplace (it is used in St Peter's in Rome, and St Paul's in London has three layers). To the astonishment of Brunelleschi's contemporaries, there is enough space between the inner and outer skins to instal a kitchen for the masons.


Brunelleschi and the Renaissance style: 1419-1430

The creative blend of Brunelleschi's classical studies and his own imagination is first seen in a hospital for foundling children, of which construction begins in 1419. Although the ingredients of the façade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti are the familiar ones of Roman architecture (an arcade of columns, supporting rounded arches, beneath a row of rectangular windows surmounted by pediments), there is an entirely new feeling in the balance between them, the proportions, the sense of slender elegance.

This new Renaissance style, Brunelleschi's contribution to the story of architecture, can be seen in its purest form in another building in Florence - commissioned by a member of the Pazzi family of bankers.


Work begins on the Pazzi chapel in 1430. The columns and central arch on the façade of this tiny building are reminiscent of Brunelleschi's earlier foundling hospital. But here the mood of calm and perfect balance extends also to the interior.

Every surface, from floor to dome, is planned in an interacting display of curves, circles, arches, rectangles and small roundels. Texture and colour, as well as shape, create the pattern - contrasting the pale plaster of the walls, the darker grey of stone pillars and arches, and the bright ceramic reliefs (the blue and white ones by Luca della Robbia) in the roundels. This is not only a gem of the Renaissance. It is the beginning of interior design.


Inca architecture: 15th - 16th century

The Incas share with another much earlier civilization, that of Mycenaean Greece, a habit of building with massive blocks of masonry. But the precision of the Peruvian masons puts all others to shame. In their capital at Cuzco, or in subject cities where they wish to emphasize their presence, the Incas leave their trade mark in great slabs of stone, often of eccentric shape, fitting together with an uncanny and beautiful precision.

The modern city of Cuzco has grown upon and around its Inca origins. But Inca masonry can still be seen, underpropping churches or flanking streets, as a reminder of the great builders of the 15th century.


To the north of Cuzco, on the open hillside, are the three vast polygonal ramparts of Saqsawaman - a structure once believed to be an Inca fortress, but more probably a temple to the sun and an arena for state rituals.

Even more mysterious, in the jungle at the far end of the Urubamba valley, is the long-lost city of Machu Picchu. Its site is as dramatic as the story of its rediscovery (see Discovery of Machu Picchu). High on an inaccessible peak in the jungle, the Inca masons somehow contrive to place their vast dressed stones, even in this remote spot, with wonderful exactitude.


Age of the palace: 15th - 18th century

With the advent of strong European rulers, the need to live in the discomfort of a castle is removed. At the same time the mighty become increasingly eager to emphasize their status (both to their subjects and their rivals) by an impressive display of architecture.

The Italians of the Renaissance pioneer a trend towards palace buildings as architectural symbols of power and prestige. Florence takes the lead in the 15th century. A great square building within the city is begun for the Medici in 1444.


The Palazzo Medici presents itself as a vast town house rather than a fortified stronghold. Recognition that this is still a lawless age of feuding families is seen only in the relatively few openings to the outside world on the ground floor (and those few covered with metal grilles). By contrast the upper stories have plenty of spacious windows. And the centre of the building is a large and peaceful courtyard.

Equally grand palaces are soon begun in Florence for other families - for the Rucellai in 1446, the Pitti in 1458, the Pazzi in 1462 and the Strozzi in 1489.


Men of power in other Italian cities follow suit, making the Renaissance town palace an important element in Italian architectural history. Elsewhere in Europe, nation states are now emerging. In France, Spain and Britain the notion of a palace fits very well with the self-image of the powerful monarchs of the 16th century.

In England Henry VIII moves between four palaces along the banks of the Thames. In France Francis I transforms the Louvre (from a castle) and Fontainebleau (from a hunting lodge) into palaces. In Spain Philip II builds the extraordinary monastery palace of the Escorial.


Architectural and political themes peak together in late 17th-century France. The ultimate in palace architecture is created by the most absolute of monarchs. The size and glitter of Versailles reflects very precisely the power and prestige of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Rivals may attempt to match this architectural statement of French predominance (Schönbrunn, a summer palace in Vienna completed in 1730, states the case for the Habsburgs). But Versailles remains the supreme example of the palace as a gesture of power.


Age of the dome: 16th - 19th century

The tradition of the dome begins in the Roman and Byzantine empires (the Pantheon in the 2nd century AD, Santa Sophia in the 6th century AD) and is borrowed by Islam (Dome of the Rock in the 7th century AD).

During the medieval centuries it is Islam rather than Christianity which develops this most striking of architectural features. But by a coincidence both traditions achieve new marvels in this form, quite independently, during the 16th and the 17th centuries.


Rome achieves the most impressive dome of the 16th century, with the completion of St Peter's in 1590. This cathedral (still today the largest in the world) uses the dome as its main architectural statement to anyone viewing the building from the outside - and, in particular, from a distance.

As with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, 900 years earlier, the dome and its drum form half the height of the building.


From this inspiring example in Rome, and that of Florence's cathedral in the previous century, it becomes a western convention that a dome adds importance to a building, enabling it to preside over a townscape. Usually this special gravitas is spiritually based (St Paul's in London, the Invalides in Paris, both late 17th century) but it may also be secular (the Capitol in Washington).

In the centuries following the completion of St Peter's, domes become a familiar feature in all major western cities. They tend, because of their symbolic function, to be heavy and somewhat portentous. But at the same period the Islamic world is proving that domes can be graceful, colourful and even lightly floating in spite of their bulk.


The superb Islamic domes of the 17th century fall within two very different groups, even though both descend from the same tradition. In one group, associated particularly with Persia, the gentle curves of the dome are sheathed in ceramic tiles - usually blue. This style reaches its perfection in Isfahan.

The other theme, associated with India, concentrates all attention on the subtle shape of the dome itself, making its surface as sheer and simple as possible. For this, white marble is the perfect material. The style is encapsulated in the Taj Mahal.


Glazed domestic windows: 15th - 17th century

A window is in origin just an opening in a wall of a house to let in air and light, but the aperture needs closing at certain times if the house is to remain habitable. The story of the window, until recent centuries, is a balance of convenience between light and heat.

In Roman buildings thin translucent sheets of marble or mica are sometimes used to let in light without opening the room to the air. Fragments of glass found in a bronze frame in Pompeii suggests that glass windows are already in occasional use in the 1st century AD. And Stained glass is one of the glories of Gothic cathedrals from the 12th century. But the domestic glass window first becomes a practical proposition three centuries later.


Paintings of the 15th and 16th century reveal that simple houses of the time have nothing but wooden shutters to hinge across the window opening. Sometimes the shutters are divided into two or three separate sections, offering a practical control of the balance between light and air; part of the aperture can be shuttered and the rest left open, depending on the weather.

In the 15th century a refinement can be seen in the richer houses. The top third of the aperture is now glazed with small circular panes of glass set in a fixed metal frame. The lower part of the window has the usual hinged shutters. Thus some light is guaranteed, but control is not lost. This combination can be seen in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage.


In the next stage, completed by the 17th century in the houses of the richer classes, the entire aperture is glazed and at least part of it is capable of being opened. The fashion for glass windows (expensive and therefore a status symbol) is seen in extreme form in Hardwick Hall, built in England in the 1590s. The house's appearance gives rise to the jingle 'Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall'.

In vast windows of this kind, the broad aperture is first fitted with a grid of stone (formed of vertical mullions and horizontal transoms). Within each stone rectangle, a metal frame holds small circular or diamond panes of glass.


In windows such as those at Hardwick Hall, the opening sections have to be on the casement principle; a rectangular frame, holding the glass panes, is hinged along one side and opens like a small door. Hinged windows of this kind become standard from the 17th century in countries of southern Europe. The so-called French window is a large-scale example.

In northern countries it is more common to hold the panes in a sash - a rectangular wooden frame which fits into a groove. At first a sash is held in position with pegs. But in about 1675 the modern form of double-hung sash window is developed in England (such windows are first used in significant numbers in the remodelling of Ham House in Surrey).


In a double-hung sash window a frame holding a large area of glass is easily raised up or down because a weight on each side, concealed in the wall, balances the sash by means of a cord running over a pulley. With windows of this kind, the façades of ordinary town houses in England and Holland will soon include almost as much glass, proportionally, as Hardwick Hall.

With both casement and sash windows the old hinged wooden shutters remain in place - in conjunction now with glass, to provide warmth or darkness when needed. The ancient clash between the demands of light and warmth has been resolved.


Indian and Japanese castles: 16th - 17th century

By a coincidence of history some of the most spectacular castles of the world date from the same period in India and Japan. These buildings of the 16th and 17th century are fortified palaces, with superbly decorated pavilions rising above secure walls.

The Indian tradition develops from the example of Hindu princes and is brought to a peak by the Moghul emperors. The Japanese castles evolve from the small fortresses of local feudal chieftains, which are a practical necessity during the civil wars of the Ashikaga shogunate.


The best early example of an Indian castle is the fortress of Gwalior, built in the early 16th century. The entrance road, climbing a steep hill, makes its way through heavy walls to an elevated plateau and an exquisite palace of carved sandstone and decorative tilework.

The great 17th-century forts of Rajasthan, such as Amber and Jodhpur, follow the same pattern of delicacy within massively strong defences. The theme is taken to its most famous conclusion in the Red Forts of Delhi and Agra, where the Moghul emperors and their harems dwell in white marble pavilions surmounting vast red sandstone walls.


The greatest of the Japanese castles are created in the late 16th century by the warlords Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who restore unified rule over Japan after the anarchy of the previous period. The splendour of their castles, richly decorated with carved and painted ornament, reflects their power.

The most impressive surviving castle of this period is at Himeji, rebuilt on earlier foundations for Hideyoshi. Five storeys of pavilions, forming a pyramid of white walls and elegant oriental roofs, seem concerned only with the pleasures of peace - until one notices the height of the sturdy walls on which they perch.


Age of the villa and country seat: 16th - 18th century

With an increase in prosperity and stability in western Europe, from the 16th century, rich men feel the need for a house in the country - either as somewhere to move for a brief stay (sometimes as little as an evening) from their usual residence in the town, or as a comfortable home on their estates in place of the castle or fortified manor of earlier times.

The architect who most brilliantly meets these needs is Andrea Palladio. Born in Padua and trained originally as a mason, he acquires the Renaissance passion for the architecture of ancient Rome and the works of Vitruvius.


Palladio's skill in applying his classical principles brings him commissions for public buildings in Vicenza and churches in Venice. But it is his villas for private patrons which win him lasting influence and fame. Most of these villas are built in Venice's hinterland, the Veneto. Palladio's designs for them become widely known after he publishes I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura ('The Four Books of Architecture') in 1570.

The purpose of this work is to explain the principles of Roman design, following the example of his master, Vitruvius. But the second volume contains several of Palladio's own designs. It becomes widely used as a pattern book.


The single most imitated aspect of Palladio's style is his use of columns and pediment as a portico in front of a house (his model being the Pantheon in Rome). In broader terms the balance and the relative simplicity of classical design are his hallmark.

Palladio's most striking influence is seen in the great houses of 18th-century England. By then part of his appeal is in reaction against a very different and far from reserved style which has intervened during the 17th century - that of the baroque.


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