Renaissance Architecture - Symmetry and Harmony Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Renaissance Architecture - Symmetry and Harmony

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Greek Antiquity | Roman Antiquity | Byzantium | Middle Ages | Renaissance | Baroque

The Renaissance1 was the first era of Modern History in Europe. Although, as an architectural style, it had already started in Italy in the 13th Century when the rest of Europe was still deep in the Gothic style. It was a time of great inventions and discoveries. Johannes Gutenberg invented printing with movable types, Christopher Columbus arrived in America and Martin Luther initiated the Western division of the church into Catholic and Protestant. People developed humanistic ideas and favoured individualism, education and the arts. Scholars developed more interest in the world around them, leading to the birth of modern natural sciences. In Italy autonomous city-states were powerful and the bourgeoisie had gained importance and confidence.

Until the 15th Century Italy was under French influence, which resulted in the construction of buildings in the Gothic style. This style however was never really favoured by the Italians and they therefore turned back to their antique roots as soon as they could. In 1453 the Turks took Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire - Byzantium. As a result many Byzantine scholars and artists moved to Italy, where they promoted the study of antique texts.

The most important event for architecture in the Renaissance was the rediscovery of the writings of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius. He wrote the only original comprehensive work on all Roman achievements in architecture and engineering that he knew. Copies of his Ten books about Architecture survived in medieval monasteries. In the Renaissance age they were printed, illustrated and used as a book of samples to create a new interpretation of antique buildings.

At the same time the antique ruins of Rome were studied, admired, drawn and imitated in new designs. There were even thoughts about how to protect the ruins from destruction. This study of the actual remains of Roman architecture as well as the writings of Vitruvius led to a definition of rules and guidelines to help with creating new buildings in the spirit of antiquity. Elements of antique architecture were compared to the proportions of the human body, which was seen as the centre of creation.

A very important person for arts theory was the architect Leon Battista Alberti. His writings on painting, sculpture and architecture were the theoretical basis of art in the Renaissance. Alberti's book De re aedificatoria (About Architecture, 1452) was the first work on architectural theory in modern history and stayed the most important theoretical work on architecture for a long time. It is widely based on Vitruvius' books in structure and contents but makes changes and additions to express contemporary ideas. For Alberti, beauty is dependent on harmonic proportions and mathematics. The architect is no longer just a craftsman but also specialised in planning.

Renaissance Style

During the Early Renaissance, façades had a rather flat appearance. Decorative elements like cornices and pilasters were almost on the same level as the 'background'. This changed over time and the façades became more and more 3-dimensional, with columns, pillars and other elements emerging out of the flat surface. While at first façades were designed in the antique fashion of strict horizontal levels parted with friezes and cornices - each following one of the Greek Orders2 - later the so-called Giant Order3 was developed. Here vertical elements like pilasters can reach up over two or more storeys, while other elements continued to subdivide only single storeys. The cornices and friezes between levels are interrupted by these higher elements. This new idea became very popular in Mannerism and also later styles like Baroque or Classicism.

Another important design element on the façade was the portico, an arrangement of columns and gabled roof that looks like the front of a Roman temple. It was also used in many later epochs. Windows are arched at the top or get a simple horizontal lintel as opposed to the pointed arches of the Gothic period. They are decorated with round or triangular gables. The ceilings inside of buildings are also no longer made up of pointed vaults but constructed as barrel vaults or flat wooden ceilings, both with coffers4, which are often richly decorated.

Sacral Buildings

The most important shape in Renaissance architecture was the circle, which symbolised divine order (with the human at its centre). This is the reason why the ideal shape for churches was regarded to be the central plan building, which was prevailing in Byzantine architecture. These buildings are constructed on a round, square or polygonal floor plan. Length and width were the same dimensions and they were usually topped with a dome. This shape however did not meet the practical needs of a Renaissance religious service, which meant that this building type was not actually realised as often as architects would have liked.

As a compromise architects created long building shapes from a central plan base. This could happen by either simply adding a long building (with aisles or little chapels on the sides) to a central plan; or by adding several central plan buildings in a row (complete with domes). The most important shape during the following centuries would become the vaulted nave with small chapels added to its sides.

Churches stopped striving for the highest heights, which had resulted in reckless constructions during the Gothic period. Renaissance churches are much lower than their Gothic counterparts as height and length are meant to be in harmony. The huge Gothic glass windows also disappear and the walls are closed again with only small windows. Gothic pillars are transformed to Greek columns. On top of the churches' roof is usually a large dome which sits on a high drum and is crowned by a lantern.

The façade of Renaissance churches is based on the look of antique temples, showing columns, pilasters and triangular gables. They are decorated with friezes and cornices and often also sculptures that stand in alcoves. The entrance gate is inspired by antique triumph arches.

The most perfect central plan building of the Renaissance age is the 'Tempietto' ('small temple')5 in Rome, a small chapel which was designed by Donato Bramante. It has a circular floor plan and 'perfect' proportions. 16 columns encircle a round closed room in the fashion of an antique peripteros temple. The whole building is crowned by a high dome which is encircled by a low balustrade. Friezes show reliefs telling the story of St Peter.

Bramante also developed the first design for St Peter's Cathedral in Rome, which was later changed by the artist Michelangelo. The floorplan was designed on the shape of a Greek cross (a cross with four arms of the same length) with a large dome above its centre. This shape was duplicated to the sides with smaller domes and smaller cross shapes, so the whole building actually had a square footprint. Michelangelo's changes destroyed this perfect symmetry by adding a portico at one side. He also changed Bramante's perfectly round dome to a parabolic shape6 and added a more lively decoration in the interior, hinting towards Mannerism. In the early 17th Century the addition of a longitudinal hall finally changed the impression of the cathedral completely.

Palazzo and Villa

During the late Gothic period in Italy began the development of the Palazzi – the luxurious town palaces of the rich and the nobility. They are buildings of a rather simple but large cuboid shape, usually consisting of three storeys. They are either of even height or get lower towards the top. The storeys are separated with cornices and one wide cornice at the top shapes the boundary of the façade to the roof, similar to how it was done on Roman temples. Each storey has a long series of identical arched or rectangular windows. In addition there may be pillars, gables and other antique inspired decorations. Very often the façade is also decorated with real or fake hewn stones. While the Palazzi of the Early Renaissance seem rather flat, decorations gain depth over time. The windows in upper storeys may be replaced by open loggias. The Giant Order was also used.

In the middle of the building was an atrium surrounded by an open corridor with arches towards the courtyard. Through this corridor most of the rooms of the building are accessible.

In the Renaissance, country life regained the importance it had in times of the Roman emperors. Rich merchants built themselves large villas in private gardens in the vicinity of Venice. The most important architect in this field was Andrea Palladio, who planned about 60 villas which influenced the idea of country life in all of Europe for centuries. His villas are strictly symmetrical with a portico in the middle. It was the first time in history that a portico was used in profane architecture - a new trend continuing for centuries. The villas were raised on a high base with a wide staircase leading up to the entrance. At the sides of the building there are straight or curved wings.


Inspired by antique Roman examples a new interest in creating squares (Piazza) for markets, public events and other activities developed. They are designed like interiors of a building with the surrounding buildings acting as walls. It is the goal of this arrangement that wherever someone stands on this square their view will be pleasing and harmonic. All buildings have to be designed to form a larger picture together.

During the Renaissance period a number of city plans is also created. Many of them stay only theoretical, sometimes they are even utopian concepts. One realised idea is the town Palmanova located close to Trieste. It is laid out on a star-shaped plan with wide radial roads leading from the central square to the bastions around the town.

Across Europe

Italian students spread humanistic ideas in other parts of Europe. This resulted in an overall raise of importance of the bourgeoisie. While the Gothic style continued to be used for churches in many places, the Renaissance influence still transformed their appearance. The tendency to higher buildings came to an end and shapes became squatter. High pointed vaults became lower and lower, a balance between height and length was desired. But there was no authentic Renaissance style used outside of Italy until the 17th Century.

Spanish artists used a large number Renaissance decorations since the 15th Century7, but in the 16th and 17th Century the Herrerian Style or 'Desornamentado' became important. This style has no ornamentation at all but uses the ideas of harmony and proportions of the Renaissance.

French castles were often decorated in the Renaissance style. Here it was later transformed to the 'Style Classique', which was used while the Baroque style was fashionable in the rest of Europe.

In Germany Italian Renaissance decorations were copied from imported books and used (often in abundance) mainly on town houses and castles, as only very few churches were built during this time. They were made from wood or stone and served no higher function than to make them look pretty. The underlying shapes of the buildings were still rooted in Gothic architecture. Shapes like sea-shells were especially popular.

In the Netherlands a kind of Mannerism made from bricks and carved stone was developed.

Because of the disagreements between England and Rome the Renaissance style as it was used in Italy never really gained ground in English sacred buildings. Only Manneristic decoration was used on buildings of the 16th and 17th Century8.


During the late Renaissance period (mid-to-late 16th Century in Italy) the rather strict rules of design were broken and transformed to the new Mannerism (meaning simply 'Style'). Renaissance and Mannerism existed alongside each other and are not always clearly distinguishable. Architects gave up harmony and proportion for decorative effects and taller buildings. Everything – façades and interiors – was richly decorated. Very popular were shapes of floral garlands, vases and curled leaves. There are also lively relief friezes with antique-inspired figures and floral ornaments. The clear, simple lines of the Renaissance were obscured with a large number of elaborate decorative details.

L'État C'est Moi

I am the nation
- Louis XIV, 1655

In the 2nd half of the 16th Century the Counter-Reformation started, beginning in Rome. The Catholic Church regained its power, just like the nobility that chose to support it. This power is represented by the pompous Baroque style, which boldly made use of the possibilities the Renaissance didn't even dare think about. The clean simple lines and proportions of the Renaissance were replaced by more complex forms, giving a strong sense of dynamism and power, with highly ornate and often overpowering decoration. During the 17th Century the Baroque style spread through all of Europe, impressively showing everyone the 'God given' power of those who ruled.

Image courtesy of the US Metropolitan Museum of Art

1From the French word meaning 'rebirth'. 2The Greek Orders are systems of proportions and decorations.3Also known as Colossal Order.4A coffered ceiling is divided into numerous decorative sunken rectangular panels. The rectangle frames provide full strength and support for the structure while the thinner, sunken sections considerably reduce the ceiling's overall weight.5The actual name is San Pietro in Montorio, but nobody calls it that. It was erected on the place where St Peter is thought to have been crucified.6Which is actually more stable.7The use of lots of decorations corresponded well to the Islamic architecture in Spain.8The local styles used during the Renaissance period are known as Elizabethan and Jacobean styles.

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