Character of Renaissance Architecture/Chapter 9

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The palace architecture of the Renaissance in north Italy which has the most marked local character is that of Venice. We have already, in the preceding chapter, noticed several buildings here by Sansovino, but these belong to the later Roman Renaissance style, and are thus not so distinctly Venetian. Several civic monuments, however, and many houses of the Grand Canal and elsewhere, exhibit the peculiar Venetian type. Among the earliest and most noteworthy of these is the east side of the Court of the Ducal Palace by the architect Antonio Riccio of Verona.[1] This richly ornamental scheme is wrought upon a foundation of earlier work to which the architect was obliged to conform, and this appears to have given rise to the irregular magnitudes and spacings of the openings of the upper stories, which are so noticeable, and are in marked contrast with the symmetrical regularity of Renaissance design in general. The long façade is in two walled stories above a basement in two stages of open arcading, with the so-called giant's stairway giving access to the upper arcade. The ground story has splayed round arches on piers of corresponding section adorned with pilasters of neo-classic form, while the stage above has a pointed arcade on compound shafted supports of mediæval Venetian character (Plate VI). The upper stories are marked by entablatures, and the round-arched windows are flanked by

pilasters reaching, in the principal story, to the arch impost, and then stilted to carry curved pediments worked in relief against the entablature that crowns this story. The top story is divided into two parts of nearly equal length, but of different height, and different design. The part extending from the middle to the sea side of the court is the lower, and has its windows flanked by pilasters reaching to the crowning

Plate VI

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entablature. These pilasters are raised on pedestals forming ressauts to a podium, and some of the windows are grouped in pairs, some in double pairs, and some are single. In the taller part the windows are taller, and show considerable differences of design. One group, consisting of a double pair, has flanking pilasters reaching only to the impost, with a stilt-block rising from the capital of each to the crowning entablature, while Corinthian colonnettes, with strongly marked entasis, support the archivolts—both pilasters and shafts being raised on low pedestals. Separated from this by a considerable interval is another window group of the same design, but consisting of a single pair, while in the intervening space, and along the rest of the wall toward the church of St. Mark, are unequally spaced single windows with pilasters supporting the archivolts, and other pilasters flanking these, all raised on high pedestals connected by a continuous podium. In the upper stage of the basement, at the head of the giant's stair, the pointed arcade is interrupted by a group of three round arches on grouped pilasters. The wall surfaces are everywhere elaborately panelled and enriched with arabesques, and the friezes, spandrels, and podiums have panelled disks, festoons, and arabesque ornaments in tiresome profusion.

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Fig. 90.

The north side is also in the Renaissance style, but here is only one enclosed story, and this is on the level of the upper arcade of the east side. The architectural scheme of this part is different, except that its entablature is a continuation of the lower one of the eastern façade. The work here appears to have been wholly new, and the regularly spaced windows are each framed with a pseudo-Corinthian order in high relief, the shafts of this order being raised on ornamented round pedestals resting on corbel-blocks (Fig. 90). The walls are incrusted with large slabs of veined marble, and an ornamental disk in relief is set in each interspace.

The finest thing in this court is the giant's stair. Few architectural works of the Renaissance are so reasonable and so free from superfluous and unmeaning features. The steps, broken about midway by a landing stage, are enclosed by balustrades of severely simple design starting from square newels; and the sides are plainly panelled in marble, with delicate mouldings and arabesque carvings on the surfaces of the framing members. The mechanical execution of the whole is superb, no settlement or fracture appearing in any part.

The façade of the Scuola di San Marco, begun in 1485 and attributed to the architect Martino Lombardo, is a marvel of delicate workmanship resembling in many of its features the small church of the Miracole (p. 151) while including details of a different character. It is in two stories, and is divided into two parts, answering to an internal division, one of which, embracing the main portal, is larger and richer than the other. An order of Corinthian pilasters embraces both parts of each story, and these pilasters are unequally spaced in conformity with the proportions of the respective parts and their openings. The main division, which is on the spectator's left as he faces the building, has three bays of which the central one is the wider. The main portal (Fig. 91) is in this bay, and has two arch orders on pilasters flanked with larger pilasters, also in two orders, reaching to the entablature which passes over the arch. A free-standing Corinthian column on a high pedestal is set in front of each pilaster of the greater suborder, and from ressauts of the entablature over these columns an archivolt in high relief is sprung against the wall of the upper story. The shafts of the flanking columns are unusually short, the pedestals being about half the total height from the ground to the entablature. Comment on the unreason of such compositions becomes wearisome, and criticism may appear like captiousness. But if the reader will consider the character of a Greek portal, with its jamb mouldings and cornice, as reasonable and appropriate as they are simple, of a true Gothic doorway with its consistent arch orders, but with no superfluous or unmeaning features, he can hardly fail to feel the childishness of this Renaissance design in comparison.

The other division of this front has a smaller and more simple doorway in its central bay, with an unbroken wall above,

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Fig. 91. — Portal of the Scuola di San Marco, Venice.

and a narrow arched window, framed with pilasters and a gabled pediment in each upper lateral bay, while the lateral compartments of the ground story are adorned with remarkable carvings in very low relief which present an extreme instance of that tendency to pictorial treatment that distinguishes the relief sculpture of the Renaissance. The main cornice, embracing both divisions of the front, is crowned with a series of arched pediments, varying in span with the bays beneath, which recall those of the façade of the church of St. Mark. Those over the main division of the façade are raised on ornamental attics of which the middle one is in two stages.

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Fig. 92.—Part of the Scuola di San Rocco.

The details of this composition are in very low relief, and the entablatures are broken into slight ressauts over the pilasters. The wall surfaces are incrusted with marble slabs, with simple panellings and small disks introduced sparingly, and the archivolts of the main portal, and of the crowning pediments, are adorned with arabesques and with small statues and finials.

The merit of this composition as a whole lies solely in the ordering of the component details which the designer has employed in a purely fanciful way without any proper architectural meaning; but the refinement of execution, and the beauty of the marbles, with their pearly colours subdued and harmonized by time, make the monument one of the most notable in Venice.

Another characteristic example of early Renaissance design in Venice is the Scuola di San Rocco (Fig. 92). The façade of this building is again in two divisions each of two stories, the main division having three bays and the other but two. These bays are marked by superimposed pilasters which are carried across both divisions, and in the main division a free-standing Corinthian column is set in front of each pilaster. In each story the columns are raised on pedestals connected by a podium, and each one is wreathed with a band of ornamental foliage. The entablatures are in the plane of the wall, and are broken into very salient ressauts which in the main cornice are unpleasantly conspicuous against the sky. Both the columns and the ressauts are meaningless, the columns having nothing but the ressauts to carry, and the ressauts having no function but to cover the useless columns. The lesser details of this façade are of mixed character. The main portal has splayed jambs adorned with pilasters, and an archivolt of corresponding section. This portal is framed by an order of smaller Corinthian columns, on high polygonal pedestals, with a pediment over the entablature. The side bays of the basement of the main division have each a wide arched window subdivided by a central colonnette and jamb shafts carrying two small arches, with a tympanum pierced with a circle and triangles in mediæval fashion. The great arches of these windows have spandrels in relief crowned with cornices in the Lombard Renaissance manner. In the upper story each bay has a pair of arched windows framed by a pseudo-Corinthian order of colonnettes on ornamented round pedestals resting on corbels, the entablature of this diminutive order being surmounted by a pediment. In the window of the central bay the pier between the openings is wider than the piers of the side windows, and has a pair of colonnettes on its face instead of only one.

But the most characteristic architecture of the Renaissance in Venice is that of the private palaces of the grand canal. The princely dwellings ranged along this unique waterway are unmatched by anything else in the world. The finest of them are, however, those of the later mediæval period. These alone have the thoroughly distinctive Venetian character; but a few of the palaces of the early Renaissance retain the fine proportions, the quiet outlines, and the expression of refined opulence that belong to the buildings of the preceding epoch. In the best of them the neo-classic details are used sparingly, though not without strange new inconsistencies of form and adjustment.

The Palazzo Corner-Spinelli (Plate VII), attributed to Pietro Lombardo, is one of the most characteristic. Its broad-walled basement, and the well-ordered subdivisions of the upper stories, are exceedingly fine, though the basement is high and the principal story rather low. No complete orders occur in this façade, but superimposed pilasters are placed on the angles, and an entablature is carried across each of the upper stories, while only a narrow string course crowns the basement. The windows are disposed in the manner of those of the mediæval Venetian palaces, a pair of them being set together in the middle, and a single one occupying the centre of each lateral bay in conformity with the divisions of the interior. These windows are wide, and are composed in the mediæval manner, with a dividing shaft and two small arches encompassed by a larger arch, as in the Scuola di San Rocco. A noticeable peculiarity of detail in these windows is the incomplete circle in the tympanum space, which intersects the smaller arches so as to form sinuous curves like those of Flamboyant Gothic tracery. The archivolts are carried by small pilasters, and the spandrels are framed with mouldings. The windows open on corbelled balconies with balustrades in Renaissance form of great refinement and elegance, and the balcony rails are carried as string courses along the walls. The panelling of the pilasters, as in this design and many others that we have noticed beginning with Alberti's façade of St. Andrea of Mantua, is of questionable propriety, for supporting members need to have an expression of concentrated strength with which such treatment is hardly compatible. The surface of a pier or pilaster may be enriched by any kind of fluting or chasing that does not materially diminish its substance, but to sink panels in such supporting members is to destroy in a measure the expression of homogeneous compactness. The classic details in this building show the same disregard for correct classic forms and proportions that we find in the art of the Renaissance generally. The superimposed pilasters on the angles are of uniform width, though they differ greatly in height, and those of the various openings are of still different proportions and sizes. This association of members of the same kind, but of many different

Plate VII

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magnitudes, is proper to the organic mediæval architectural systems, under the influence of which these designers were unconsciously working; but it is foreign to the principles of the classic art. The beauty of the Corner palace, is, however, quite independent of the neo-classic details which are sparingly ingrafted upon it, and belongs to the larger forms and proportions of the mediæval Venetian style.

Other Venetian palaces of the early Renaissance exhibit other peculiarities which it would be tedious to describe at length, but it may be well to notice a few of them. The Palazzo Contarini, for instance, has its three principal interior divisions marked by superimposed pilasters in addition to the pilasters on the angles. The basement order is raised on a podium, and both the basement and the principal story have an entablature, while the top story is crowned with a low cornice with modillions and no complete entablature. The arched portal is flanked with pilasters in two orders, both crowned with entablature blocks, but no entablature spans the opening under the arch, and the spandrels are framed with mouldings and crowned with a cornice. The windows are narrow and round arched, and have no dividing members. Four of these are grouped together in the central bay of each upper story, and those of the principal story are framed in with a Corinthian order of five columns surmounted by a pediment, the whole composition having exactly the form of a diminutive temple front. Each lateral bay above the basement has two single windows, those of the principal floor being each framed with a Corinthian order like that of the central group, and crowned with a pediment. The windows of the top story are flanked by very slender pilasters of equal height with those of the main order, and smaller pilasters carry the archivolts. The end windows of the central group and the inner ones of the lateral bays come close to the pilasters of the main order, thus giving on each side a group of pilasters of three different proportions and magnitudes, as in Figure 93. The front as a whole is good in its proportions, and quiet in effect. The neo-classic details add nothing to it of value, and the composition would be better without them.

The Palazzo Vendramini has full orders in all three stories, and the distinctive Venetian character is materially altered by them. The usual scheme of the Venetian palace front, in which a wide central bay wholly occupied by openings is flanked by lateral bays each with a solid wall on either side of an opening, is indeed retained, but the effect of it is much obscured by the prominence given to the orders, which are in high relief, and extend across the whole front. The openings have the mediæval form of two shafted arches beneath an embracing arch with a circle in the tympanum space. Three, instead of two, of these compound openings are grouped within the unusually wide central bay, and each one fills an intercolumniation of the order. In each lateral bay the columns of the order

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Fig. 93.

are unequally spaced in conformity with the narrow strips of solid wall, one on either side of the opening, which they enclose, giving a wide central intercolumniation and two narrow ones. The cornice of the basement entablature is widened, and supported on corbels from the frieze, in front of the windows of the principal story, and balustrades are set on these projecting ledges so as to form balconies. To give emphasis to the topmost entablature as the crowning feature of the façade, it is made so high as to be out of all proportion to the order of which it is a part.

Of the later palace architecture of Venice it is unnecessary to give any extended analysis because it is less distinctly Venetian, and belongs more fully to the so-called Roman Renaissance style which is essentially uniform in character in all parts of the country. In these later palace fronts the main divisions of the typical Venetian scheme persist indeed, but they are so slightly emphasized, and so overladen with heavy orders, that they lose their proper effect. In Sansovino's Palazzo Cornaro, for instance, already described (p. 124), these main divisions of the front are hardly noticeable in a general view. The general

Plate VIII

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effect is of evenly spaced pairs of columns in each of the upper stories. It is not until we examine the composition closely that we perceive the narrower proportions of the three middle openings. The same is true of the façade of the Palazzo Grimani by Sanmichele, though in this case the grouping is different, the columns being set in pairs in the lateral bays only. Even in the still later and heavy rococo design of the Palazzo Pesaro by the architect Longhena, which is based on the scheme of the Library of St. Mark, the unequal main divisions of the Venetian palace type are still preserved.

Among examples of north Italian Renaissance palace architecture outside of Venice the well-known Palazzo del Consiglio of Verona (Plate VIII) presents a mediæval broletto scheme dressed out in Renaissance details which it would be better without. The building has but one story over an open arcaded basement. The arcade is in two divisions of four arches each, the arches springing from short columns raised on square pedestals, and the pedestals connected by a balustrade. A central pier and a pier at each end enclose these divisions, and on the face of each pier is a shallow pilaster supporting a narrow entablature which extends across the whole front, with a corbelled capital over the central column of each division to support the entablature in the long intervals between the pilasters. The upper story is divided into four equal parts by pilasters set over the pilasters and corbels of the basement. These pilasters are on ressauts of a podium over corresponding ressauts in the entablature below, and the crowning entablature is likewise broken with ressauts. A twin-arched opening with central colonnette, flanked by pilasters and crowned with an entablature and curved pediment, occupies the middle of each division of this story, and the walls are incrusted with elaborate marble inlay. The general form and proportions of this monument are exceedingly fine, but in respect to these qualities it belongs to the Middle Ages and not to the Renaissance. To the simple arcade and plain walled superstructure the neo-classic details are inappropriate and meaningless.

Another northern Renaissance building of the broletto type is the Palazzo Comunale of Brescia, in which we have a basement arcade of three arches on heavy piers, with an engaged Corinthian order adjusted in the Roman manner, and over this a single story in retreat divided into three wide bays by pilasters carrying a heavy entablature. A square-headed window in each bay is framed by an order of smaller pilasters the entablature of which reaches to the soffit of the crowning entablature.

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Fig. 94.—One bay of basement of the Ospedale Maggiore.

In those parts of the Ospedale Maggiore of Milan which were designed about the middle of the fifteenth century, by the Florentine architect, Antonio Filarete, the larger features are of mixed and debased mediæval character with no application of classic orders. The building is of brick with elaborate ornaments of terra-cotta, and has but two stories including the basement. The basement has a blind arcade of round arches on stumpy columns with Corinthianesque capitals, and a compound opening of two pointed arches under a larger pointed arch is set in each bay (Fig. 94). The faces of the jambs and archivolts of these openings are heavily adorned with mouldings and foliate ornaments in terra-cotta relief, while the archivolts of the arcade above have more simple neo-classic profiling, and more refined and conventional foliate ornamentation. The window-sills are on coupled corbels of heavy and inelegant form, and the whole arcade is raised on a high base with ressauts under the columns. Medallions with busts in high relief are set in the tympanums of the windows and in the spandrels of the arcade, while a wide frieze somewhat like an entablature crowns this part of the composition. The upper story has a plain brick wall with windows like those of the basement enclosed within rectangular panels.
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Fig. 95.

Other peculiarities of design are found in some of the early Renaissance palaces of Bologna, where in the Palazzo Bevilacqua the windows of the principal story have the mediæval form of two small arches under a larger arch, modified by the omission of the central shaft which gives the middle of the tympanum the form of a pendant. But it is not worth while to follow these aberrations of early northern Renaissance design further. The palace architecture of the later Renaissance in north Italy has no distinctive character that calls for particular comment. It is for the most part based on the art of Palladio and Vignola which we have already enough considered. While it exhibits many more of those misadjustments of structural members, and other vagaries of design, in which Italian architects have been at all times fertile, it has no great importance to justify special remark. To point out in detail many such meaningless caprices as those introduced by Pellegrini in the court of the Palazzo Brera in Milan, where the arches of the superimposed arcades are sprung from pairs of columns connected by short entablatures, making it necessary to double the transverse arches of the vaulting behind them, or such novelties as occur in the windows of the basement of the Palazzo Martinengo of Brescia, which are adorned with small Doric columns carrying architraves without the other parts of an entablature, while an upright block with a ball on it rises over each column (Fig. 95), would be tiresome and profitless. We may therefore pass on in the next chapter to a brief consideration of the carved ornament of this architecture, before taking up the architecture of the Renaissance in France and England.

  1. Cf. Architettura Italiana, by Alfredo Melani, Milan, 1887, vol. 2, p. 157.