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Renaissance Architecture – Unique Examples and Characteristics

Renaissance Architecture(1400-1600) is the European Architecture in the period between the 14th and 16th centuries. It demonstrates a revival and development of certain elements of ancient Greek and Roman thought and material culture. It is followed by Gothic Architecture and succeeded by Baroque architecture.

Filippo Brunelleschi is considered the founding father of Renaissance architecture, developed first in France and the style quickly spread to other parts of Europe. Renaissance architecture is based on the principles of symmetry, Geometry, and Proportion. The new architecture perceived a balance between horizontal and vertical elements in forms reflecting human proportions. The architectural style and its significance were to provide basic human needs and not religious principles, unlike Roman and Gothic styles.

Renaissance artists firmly adhered to the Pythagorean concept “All is Number.” . . .Architecture was regarded by them as a mathematical science which worked with spatial units: parts of that universal space for the scientific interpretation of which they had discovered the key in the laws of perspective. Thus they were made to believe that they could re-create the universally valid ratios and expose them pure and
absolute, as close to abstract geometry as possible. And they were convinced that universal harmony could not reveal itself entirely unless it were realized in space through architecture conceived in the service of religion

—Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles
in the Age of Humanism, 1949

Renaissance architecture is in three phases:

  • Early Renaissance – c.1400 onwards
  • High Renaissance – c.1500 onwards
  • Mannerism (Late Renaissance)


  • A classical architectural style.
  • Reserved and Simplified
  • Balanced, composed, and Graceful Sculptures.
  • Rhythm, Symmetry, and Proportion
  • Harmony and Consistency

Characteristics of Renaissance Architecture

The forms and purposes of the structures during the Renaissance period had changed adopting a few features of Roman and Gothic Architecture.

  • Plan: The plan was typically a square with proportions and a symmetrical appearance based on a module.
  • Facades: The Facades of Renaissance architecture are symmetrical about their vertical axis. Facades, especially of churches were surmounted by pediments and organized by pilasters, arches, and entablatures. The columns and openings seem to progress toward the center. The need to integrate the plan with the façade is introduced by architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Domestic buildings are surmounted by cornices with a repetition of openings on each floor, whereas central doors are marked by special architectural features.
  • Columns: During the Renaissance – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite, and Tuscan orders of Roman and Greek are used. However, the architects aimed to use columns and pilasters as an integrated system.
  • Arches: Arches are in the form of semi-circle or segmental.
  • Vaults: Vaults were simple like barrel vaults with semicircles on the square plan.
  • Domes: Dome functions as a large structural feature externally and for small roofing spaces internally.
  • Roofs: Roofs are either flat or coffered and they are painted or decorated.
  • Openings: Openings were usually with a square lintel or surmounted by pediments.
  • Walls: The external walls were constructed of brick and faced with ashlar masonry, with corners emphasized with rusticated quoins. The internal walls are plastered with lime wash.

Major Patrons of Italy – Merchants, Cardinals, Popes, and Bankers, commissioned buildings, sculptures, and paintings for themselves. Renaissance architects clearly expressed numerical relationships in their designs recalling Pythagoras’ principles. The circle was an attractive form for Renaissance designers since it symbolizes the perfection of God.

Examples of Renaissance Architecture

1. Florence Cathedral

  • Building: Brunelleschi’s Dome, Florence Cathedral
  • Function/Use: Cathedral
  • Location: Florence, Tuscany, Italy
  • Date of construction: completed in 1436
  • Architect: Arnolfo di Cambio, Filippo Brunelleschi
  • Key Features: Dome
  • Materials Used: Marble, Brick
  • Structure: The dome of the cathedral in Florence, Santa Maria Della Fiore boldly exemplifies the building achievements of the ancients in the works of Filippo Brunelleschi. The largest dome rises over the city with its magnificent glory. To build this Dome, he studied various domes of Rome, particularly the dome of Pantheon. Humanist scholar and theorist “Leon Battista Alberti” praises Brunelleschi’s achievement as “unknown and unthought of among the ancients.
  • Façade: Construction of the great dome began in 1420; its construction method is similar to Gothic construction. The dome is actually two domes, one nested inside the other, a thicker one inside, and a thicker one outside. It has a steep pointed profile and an enormous eight-sided cloister vault.
    • The main frame of the dome is composed of stone arches, thick ones at eight corners, and two smaller ones at each of the main ribs. These ribs tie the inner dome and outer dome shells together. The eight curved sides were built of brick, several laid horizontally and then one positioned vertically, creating a spiraling herringbone pattern.
    • The main and secondary vertical ribs are connected by circular nine horizontal stone rings. A white stone lantern covers the top of the dome. Its ingenuous and original construction techniques mark it as a Renaissance creation.
Renaissance architecture
FLORENCE in Italy with the great dome of the Cathedral called Duomo di Firenze; Image source – istockphoto.com
Renaissance Architecture
Brunelleschi’s dome; Image source – metalocus.es
Renaissance Architecture
Image source -www.nationalgeographic.com

2. Brunelleschi Foundling Hospital

  • Building: Brunelleschi Foundling Hospital
  • Function/Use: Previously as a hospital, At present – the base of operations for the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre
  • Location: Florence, Italy
  • Date of construction: 1419-1445 (In phases)
  • Architect: Filippo Brunelleschi
  • Key Features: The building’s simple proportions, regularity, and geometric order
  • Materials Used: grey stone,
  • Structure: The first building to demonstrate mathematical proportions was Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence. The ideal of pure circles, squares, and cubes is clearly seen in the arcade across the front of the building.
  • Façade: The arcade features monolithic Corinthian columns that carry semi-circular architraves and a stretched entablature and draw one’s attention from left to right and vice-versa. Accordingly, as one stands in front of the piazza, one can see that the columns are proportionately placed equally, defining squares in elevation.
Renaissance Architecture
Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital; Image source – wga.hu

3. Church of Santo Spirito

  • Building:  Church of Santo Spirito
  • Function/Use: Church
  • Location: Florence, Tuscany, Italy
  • Date of construction: 1444-1487
  • Architect: Filippo Brunelleschi, Antonio Manetti, Giovanni da Gaiole, Salvi d’Andrea
  • Key Features: Mathematical schemes in detail
  • Materials Used: stone
  • Structure: Filippo Brunelleschi successfully developed, formulated, and created a mathematical scheme in all the details and sub-divisions in the church of Santa Spirito in Florence, Italy. It is one of the most attractive and impressive churches designed by him.
    • The plan of the church is in the form of a cross with a central cubical bay surmounted by a dome on pendentives. From here, the duplicate cubes extend to form the choir and transept arms. The length of the transept is one-half the length of the nave. It comprises identical squares in the choir, transept, and nave. The collateral naves are lined with thirty-eight small chapels and are decorated with works of art.
    • The vertical section is also in perfect proportion; where the height of the central nave is twice exactly its width.
Renaissance Architecture
Church of Santo Spirito; Image source: tripadvisor.in
Renaissance Architecture
Plan; Image source: Wikipedia

4. Piazza San Marco

Renaissance Architecture
Image source: en.wikipedia.org
  • Building:  Piazza San Marco
  • Function/Use: Public Square
  • Location: Florence, Tuscany, Italy
  • Date of construction: construction started in 1537
  • Architect: Giovanni Antonio Antolini, Andrea Tirali
  • Key Features: Rhythmic façade of arches and colonnade
  • Materials used: Stone, Granite
  • Structure: Piazza San Marco is famous for its larger scale and is most impressive among other Piazzas of Italy and one of the fine examples of Renaissance Architecture. The Piazzetta lies between the Doge’s Palace on the east and Biblioteca Marciana (Library) on the west.
  • Façade: The arcade houses shops, cafes, and also an entrance to the Archeological Museum, Biblioteca Marciana, and National Library which occupy the upper floors. The Rhythmic sense, and excellence in proportions in the design of the façade with columns, arches, openings, as well as balconies mark it as a unified building.

5. Basilica Palladiana

Renaissance Architecture
Image source: pedestal-eternoivica.com
  • Building: Basilica Palladiana
  • Function/Use: Previously served as the seat of government, At present as an exhibition hall for civic events
  • Location: Vicenza, Veneto, Italy
  • Date of construction: 1549-1614(phases)
  • Architect: Andrea Palladio
  • Key Features: Loggia
  • Materials used: Marble
  • Universal Value: UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Structure: The elements of the structure are repetitive with round arches flanking rectangular openings or bays.
  • Façade: The loggia in the exterior façade is a fine example of symmetry, proportion, and geometry which are the key features of Renaissance Architecture. The loggias on the lower floor were in the Doric order whereas Ionic order was in the upper floors. An entablature connects with a frieze that alternates metope and Triglyph. On the other hand, beautiful statues adore the parapet.

6. Château de Chambord

Renaissance Architecture
Image source: en.wikipedia.org
  • BuildingChâteau de Chambord
  • Function/Use: Previously as a luxury residence and hunting lodge, At present – exhibition halls
  • Location: Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France
  • Date of construction: 1519-1547
  • Architect: Domenico da Cortona
  • Key Features: Rounded towers
  • Materials used: Stone, Masonry
  • Universal Value: UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Structure: Château de Chambord is one of the greatest examples of French Renaissance and Classical Renaissance architecture that presents its rich architectural splendor. Extensive landscapes and water features such as moats surround the edifice. It resembles a typical castle with fortified towers and corner towers defended by moats. The internal layout is an early example of Renaissance architecture with that of the French and Italian styles of grouping rooms into self-contained suites. The château features 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 84 staircases. Four rectangular vaulted hallways on each floor form a cross-shape.
  • Façade: The château also features 128 meters of façade, more than 800 sculpted columns, and an elaborately decorated roof. The keep’s façade is asymmetrical, with the exception of the northwest façade, latterly revised, when the two wings were added to the château.

7. Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (Masterpiece of Renaissance Architecture)

Renaissance Architecture
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org
  • Building: Basilica of Santa Maria Novella 
  • Function/Use: Church
  • Location: Florence, Tuscany, Italy
  • Date of construction: 1279- 14th century
  • Architect: Leon Battista Alberti
  • Key Features: definite proportions, symmetry, geometry
  • Materials used: Green and white marble
  • Structure: The church, the adjoining cloister, and the chapter house contain a multiplicity of art treasures and funerary monuments.
  • Façade: The façade is a great example of Renaissance architecture with definite proportions, symmetry, geometry, and the use of the golden ratio.

8. Teatro Olimpico 

Renaissance Architecture
Interior of Teatro Olimpico (Vicenza) scena; Image source: en.wikipedia.org
  • Building: Teatro Olimpico 
  • Function/Use: Olympic Theatre
  • Location: Vicenza, Northern Italy
  • Date of construction: 1580-1585
  • Architect: Andrea Palladio, Vincenzo Scamozzi
  • Key Features:  trompe-l’oeil onstage scenery
  • Materials used: Wood, Stucco
  • Universal Value: UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Interiors: Scamozzi’s stage set was the first practical introduction of perspective views into Renaissance theatre. One of the most famous and striking features in the edifice is the design of trompe-l’oeil onstage scenery that gives the appearance of long streets receding to a distant horizon. Even the lighting plays an important role in the design – this gives an illusion of real streets.

 9. Tempietto of San Pietro

Renaissance Architecture
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org
  • Building: Tempietto of San Pietro
  • Function/Use: Church
  • Location: Piazza di S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome, Italy
  • Date of construction: 1502
  • Architect: Donato Bramante
  • Key Features: Symmetry and Harmony in design, Dome
  • Materials used: Masonry
  • Structure: Even though Tempietto is a small church with a narrow courtyard, it is a great masterpiece of High Renaissance Italian Architecture.

10. Villa Farnese

Renaissance Architecture
Image source: en.wikipedia.org
  • Building: Villa Farnese
  • Function/Use: Mansion
  • Location: Province of Viterbo, Lazio, Italy, Rome
  • Date of construction: 1515-1530
  • Architect: Vignola
  • Key Features: use of ornamentation for proportion and harmony
  • Materials used: Reddish gold stone
  • Structure: Villa Farnese is a pentagonal mansion, a five-sided plan built using reddish gold stone and buttresses supporting upper floors. As an expression of Farnese power, it was the centerpiece of vast Farnese holdings and an example of massive Renaissance architecture.
    • The plan features a pentagonal shape around a circular colonnaded courtyard. Paired Ionic columns flank niches in the galleried court, while the niches contain busts of Roman Emperors.
  • Façade: The entrance to the Villa is designed such that the stairs ascend to a series of terraces that begin from the basement leading to the terrace above. The basement floor features a massive central column with a series of buttresses and retaining walls. The baston-like floor, which appears in the elevation as a second ground floor, is rusticated, the main door a severe arch flanked by three windows on each side. The façade at this level is terminated by massive solid corner projections.

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