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Renaissance Architecture – Examples and Characteristics

Renaissance Architecture is the European Architecture in the period between 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 as the founding father of Renaissance architecture, developed first in France and the style quickly spread to the other parts of the Europe. Renaissance architecture is based on the principles – 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 significant was to provide the 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)

Characteristics of Renaissance Architecture

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

  • Plan : The plan was typically a square with proportions and symmetrical appearance based on a module.
  • Facades : The Facades of Renaissance architecture are symmetrical about their vertical axis. Facades, specially of churches were surmounted by pediments and organized by pilasters, arches, and entablatures. The columns and openings seem to progress towards the center. The need to integrate plan with the façade is introduced by architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Domestic buildings are surmounted by cornice with 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 vault with semicircle 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, corners emphasized with rusticated quoins. The internal walls are plastered with lime wash.

Major Patrons of Italy – Merchants, Cardinals, Popes, 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. Brunelleschi’s Dome

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.

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 enormous eight sided cloister vault.

Renaissance architecture
FLORENCE in Italy with the great dome of the Cathedral called Duomo di Firenze; Image source –

The main frame of dome is created of stone arches, thick ones at eight corners, two smaller ones at each of 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.

Brunelleschi’s dome; Image source –
Renaissance Architecture
Image source

The main and secondary vertical ribs are connected by circular nine horizontal stone rings. White stone lantern covers the top of the dome. Its ingenuous and original construction techniques mark it as a Renaissance creation.

2. Brunelleschi Foundling Hospital In Florence

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. The arcade features monolithic Corinthian columns that carry semi-circular architraves and a stretched entablature and draws 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 so proportionately placed equally, defining squares in elevation.

Renaissance Architecture
Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital; Image source –

3. Church of Santo Spirito

Filippo Brunelleschi successfully developed, formulated and created 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.

Renaissance Architecture
Church of Santo Spirito; Image source :
Plan ; Image source : Wikipedia

The plan of the church is in the form of 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 one half the length of the nave. It is composed of 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 central nave is twice exactly its width.

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