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    “Originality in Italian Renaissance Architecture” Essay

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    The Chairman : This afternoon we are to hear Professor Cordingley, who occupies the Chair of Architecture at the Manchester University, talking to us on “Originality in Italian Renaissance Architecture”. Many of you know that the old system of training architects in England, that of pupilage, has been considerably superseded by the school system and that architectural schools have been set up in London and various other cities up and down the country. Two of these are in Lancashire—at Manchester and Liverpool. Liverpool has, for various reasons, come into the pub Ik eye rather more than Manchester, but Manchester has always refused to be overawed by its powerful neigh- bour and under Professor Dickie, and later under his successor. Professor Cordingley, its school of architecture has developed a method of designing rather characteristic of itself. It is a type of design which 1 would say is distinguished by its modernism while not neglecting tradition and yet infused with scholarship. Without more ado, I will call upon Professor Cordingley to deliver his lecture. The following paper was then read: The Renaissance of Architecture in Italy extended over more than four hundred years—from 1420 to c. 1850.

    Selwyn Brinton, the founder of the series of lectures of which this is the second, in his series of volumes under the title of “The Art of the Renaissance”, adopts comprehending dates (1200-1800) which allow- reasonable room for the full cycle of the architectural manifestation of that Art. Much more commonly among historians, the Renaissance in Architecture is held to have terminated about 1600. The discrepancy is a matter which it is purposed here to examine. Italian Renaissance Architecture has suffered singular misfortunes of inter- pretation in the last hundred years. Rugltin is largely to blame. To him the Renais- sance appeared an irreligious style, and one, therefore, to be abhorred. Undeniable aesthetic merit of individual works sometimes forced his reluctant admiration, but for the most part, he studiously ignored the style or blistered it with a passing phrase incidental to his adulation of the “Christian” medieval arts. His views, or views like his, have coloured in diminishing, yet still important, degree almost all estimates of the values of the style made up to recent times.

    Thus, as views now stand, the earlier and formative phases of the style arc universally admired; the later phases remain in high disrepute, except in the instance of a few famous monuments or among the more enlightened enquirers and writers. The two stages are distinguished by separate terms, the “Renaissance” for the first stage and the “Baroque” for the second. In this way the part is made to appear as the whole; and this is not accidental, for most writers on architecture arc at pains to prove a high distinction between the two, discerning a sharp change of trend and character at the junction between them. The Renaissance, according to these writers, did indeed end at a given point, to be succeeded by another, related but clearly distinguishable, historical style. One, the “Renaissance” naturally, is shown as of mostly admirable Qualities; the other, the Baroque, as mostly dis reputable and not infrequently vile. The date set for the division between the two varies considerably, but about 1580 is a usual choice.

    The sharp distinction—a false one, it is hoped to show—is made almost exclusively upon grounds of externa] character and effect, and the Renaissance is deemed to last just so long as ancient Roman precedent is followed in matters of decorative detail. This is a too narrow, and, under the special circumstances, unstable a basis for a proper evaluation. The normal historical kind of review is much to be preferred; but there is partial justification for the standpoint in that the Renaissance architects, like the Greek, themselves had adopted the aesthetic objective; just as, on the other hand, the Romans and the medievals absorbed themselves outstandingly in practical, constructive endeavours. But too much room is left for the vagaries of taste and further deliberate judgment depends too importantly on accurate attribution of the origin of the decorative elements used. There is no kind of doubt that the Renaissance drew considerably upon ancient Rome for its stock of decorative motifs, but this dependence frequently is exaggerated and attributions of origin quite often are at fault. In archeological ignorance sometimes, but quite consciously at others, the Renaissance borrowings were from the Early Christian or Romanesque, quite apart from the perpetuation of Italian medieval practices as the foundation of the Renaissance style. Too readily it is taken for granted that Renaissance classic is of the Roman kind. Sometimes, in recent days, Renaissance footifs have been used inferential!)-, as evidence of Roman architectural methods, but this is a most unsafe proceeding. As will be shown, there was much that was quite distinctive in the Renaissance usage of the decorative elements.

    They did not copy direct, but adapted and developed their own systems. They invented too, and combined the classical, old and new, with motifs derived from other architectures of intermediate times. A true evaluation necessitates consideration of the movement as a whole, and the Baroque was a part of that whole. At the outset of the Renaissance, and for long thereafter, ancient Rome provided a stimulus, but this did not endure at the same intensity throughout. In fact, during the Baroque phase, it was so slight as to be negligible. Renaissance character must not, therefore, be measured, in any sense, by the degree of its dependence upon ancient Roman architecture. This must have been merely incidental to it. It emerged from that dependence and reached maturity as a style, conditioned by circumstances yet to be examined; though it is unnecessary to decide at what particular point in its evolution it reached its finest sesthctic expression. Seen in this light, the so-called “Renaissance” phase was a stage of experimentation and development, not, by any means, an evolution in itself. Instead, the culmination, in the historical sense, lies in the Baroque stage.

    This is quite different from the usual interpretation, which would represent the onset of the Baroque, about 1580, as a revolt against academic purism in the deploy ment of the time-honoured classical elements, which, it is said, had come to be used with too meticulous and deadly a formality. Yet it has never yet been shown in what group of buildings this particular kind of rigidity exists. Nor are architects instanced, though sometimes we are told, almost in the same breath, that Palladio (especially) and Vignola were the ultimate purists—perhaps because they were authors of the most famous of the literary codes on the use of the classical elements and yet that neither held strictly to his own precepu. They were, if we compound the typical but contradictory statcm:nts made about them, archacologically-mindcd, hide- bound pedants and free-thinking, original, inventive practising architects. That they were academic in written theory and emancipated in their practice is not the explanation, for the universal popularity of their writings is attributed to the originality of the ideas expressed in them and the fitness of those ideas for con- temporary use. However, there is this unanimity in modern writings; there was little or no further reference made to ancient Roman architecture, once the Baroque was fully under way. The independence of the Baroque, all admit, was virtually complete.

    The occasion to invent a “revolt” against pedantry and the observance of “strict classical precepts” arises from the common interpretation of the course of the Renaissance up to that point as a regular progression towards the complete recovery of latin architectural ideals and methods. Unfortunately for this contention, it is notorious that the ancient Romans had very low artistic taste, and no better than rule-of-thumb decorative methods. For convenience of review, the architectural manifestations of the Renaissance need suitable sub-division. The common use of the term, in architectural circles at least, for a part of the whole is to be regretted, but it would be even more confusing here to attempt to substitute a new one. One may accept then, the “Renaissance” as the precursor of the “Baroque”, though not admitting a break of logical develop ment between them. In Italy of these times, accurate chronological subdivision is even more than normally impracticable, for the political severance between part and part occasioned developments at varying rates and the formulation of local schools with markedly individual practices. The dates to be given here, then, are highly generalised, and are stated in round figures. The “Early Renaissance” (1420-1500) was followed by the “High Renais sance” (1500-1550).

    A stage of “Transition” ensued (1550-1600), and introduced the “High Baroque” (1600-1700) within which lay the culmination of the style, at aboi^t 1650. The “Late Baroque” (1700-1750), wherein there is a trend towards the “Rococo” (a lighter version of the Baroque), might be taken as the closure of the Renaissance proper, since thereafter the Italian is no longer an important originating source, but reflects instead developments taking place in France and countries elsewhere. The cycle of the movement was not then, however, completed, as in Northern Europe and England an “Antiquarian” Phase of some complexity followed (1750-1800), largely classical and tending increasingly towards the “Neo Grec”. The latter, the Neo-Grec, might be embraced roundly in the dates 1800 1850. It was the dominant though not the exclusive manifestation throughout the greater part of that time. The Renaissance masters were activated almost exclusively by esthetic ideals. They were most able too in constructive science, but this to them was a means to the asthctic end, and not an end in itself. Here lies a mighty distinction between them and their Roman forbears, whom they purposed to emulate. Old Roman greatness lay in their political and economic system,not, certainly, in any decisive way in their arts.

    They were colossal and progressive builders, but this was the incidental outcome of their dominant political position and the vastncss of their domain. They were builders by need rather than by inclination. Primarily they built for utility; secondarily, to exhibit to all the crushing magnitude of their power. Ordinarily, their buildings were severe; where needed for display, they were pompous, coarse, or dispiritedly monotonous. Thus it could not be artistic guidance which the Renaissance sought of Rome; nor, as can readily be shown, was there much relevance to fifteenth century need surviving in Roman constructive methods. What the Renaissance masters found in the ruins of Rome was heady, intoxicating inspiration, a formal axial system of disposition and a mine of carven or modelled decorative “novelties*’, which they might adjust and improve by their superior art craftsmanship, using them then in their own distinctive ways in contemporary buildings with a discretion which far surpassed the ancient Roman. The mouldering monuments of Rome, their crudities of ornamentation, where it survived, softened by the passage of centuries of time, more potently conveyed the mysterious power of a master race than they had ever done when rawly new. Grandeur survived, and was magnified by the exercise of sympathetic imagination.

    Yet close comparisons show that, in the Renaissance, Roman precedent was followed just so far as it suited contemporary needs and tastes. Beyond elements of architectural ornament, direct imitation was rare, and, in the main, limited to the acceptance of a quite small range of selected “motifs”—i.e., assemblages of standard details, themselves resolved into standard arrangements as a whole—of which a notable example is the so-called “Roman Order”, which means an arch enforced between columns or pilasters of one or other of the Orders. Exact copying was rarely, if ever, attempted, and this was not only because it was usually impracticable in the light of the essential difference between the old and the new buildings, but also because the ancient arts were found to be inferior. Whatever was borrowed was in greater or less degree re-designed and re-cast to suit the new terms and tastes. Despite the fulsome praise accorded, Renaissance architects paid no greater tribute to latinism than their artistic integrity allowed. Ancient authority was needful, but deference to latinism meant no more than that their buildings should have the classical air, or that currently supposed to be classical. Thus then, even in matters of outward effect, not to speak of inner spatial arrangements and constructive methods, the Renaissance debt to old Rome was but partial. In artistic quality the later architecture was far superior. The mode of using such detail as was borrowed was fresh and original, and the details themselves were re-cast. With these Roman elements too, as has been said, others were associ ated which had been a legacy from the intervening historical phases; and some were new inventions. If this degree of independence of the antique can be established for external character, the case for the integrity of the Renaissance style is already well made, for in all other architectural respects the connection is slender indeed. Buildings arc different in type, in spatial organisation, in the structural devices em ployed and in the constructive methods used.

    Materials differ too. In all these matters there was no break in continuity of development between medieval and Renaissance. Medieval practices were not abandoned, although the pointed arch was seen no more. Palace, house and Christian church remained of the medieval types and con tinued to fill all principal needs. In Italy, and especially in Florence, where the style took its rise, medieval architecture was a compound already, of the native Early Christian and Romanesque succession to the Roman on the one hand, and of the kindred Byzantine on the other. These ingredient styles were each important to the eventual character of the Renaissance style. Once launched, there is no further contribution of importance made to the Renaissance from any external source, so far as fabric and structural method are concerned. It proceeded on its own impetus, and in these connections followed a consistent course clear through to the Baroque and beyond. To our northern eyes, attuned to a Gothic of a very different kind to the Italian, the very earliest of the Renaissance churches appear at first sight to have been transformed into classical character with almost miraculous speed and completeness. Yet in such as Brunelleschi’s S. Lorenzo (1425), there is very little that is of direct Roman inspiration. The plan and disposition, so far from reverting to the ancient prototypes, arc closely similar to those of S. Croce in the same city, a building founded only in 1295, though the later church is much the smaller. Its vaults, such as there arc, are light vaults of Byzantine form with no resemblance whatsoever to the massive coverings the ancients had used, and the preponderating arcades, graceful arches poised on column caps, repeat a motif endlessly reiterated in Tuscan medieval churches, but of which there arc almost no ancient Roman instances. Similar arcades adorn eleventh century S. Miniato and the baptistry of the cathedral, both of them revered monuments in the city.

    The western front is featureless and blank, toothed in brick for a sumptuous marble fa9ade which it never received. Such independent conception of the frontispiece, a concentration of emphasis effected at the expense of the flanks and rear of a church, which, comparatively, remain arid, is another non-Roman practice—not new with the Renaissance by any means, as the elaborate marble “Gothic” frontages of the Siena and Orvicto cathedrals go to show, but one which persisted throughout the Renaissance from first to last. Witness, for example, the abeurdiy pretentious, early-period frontage of the Certosa at Pavia, dating mostly from the end of the fifteenth century, and the latc-Baroquc cathedral at Syracuse, of 172S-37. Incidentally, we have here countered one of the discriminatory charges of insincerity often levelled against the Italian Baroque. The delightfully delicate arcade of the S. Lorenzo type too persisted, and although not antique, became a regular part of the Renaissance stock-in-trade. So distinctive indeed is the type, that it is commonly known as the “Renaissance Arcade” to distinguish it from the classic “Roman” arcade to which reference has been made before. The easterly parts of S. Lorenzo follow the medieval traditional arrangements, and among them is a gallcricd cupola over the “crossing” of the latin-cross plan. Byzantine influence occasioned this tradition, but it is one to which the Renaissance gave clearer definition. Byzantine inspiration almost exclusively is responsible for the initiation of that second kind of church arrangement to which the Renaissance became heir—that in which the space enclosed is highly centralised beneath a dominant dome, this being attended by subservient uniform wings, and the whole assuming a “greek-cross” (equal-armed) pyramidal disposition. A whole series of chapels and churches of this kind, beginning with Brunelleschi’s Pazzi chapel at Florence (1420), extends through the Renaissance to its latter end, beyond the Baroque.

    The development of the dome, whether for the crossing of the latin-cross church or for the culmination of the grcck-cross plan, is the most notable of Renaissance achievements. Gothic modes of light, exquisitely-poised structure are wedded to the use of Byzantine constructive devices, and the wedding produces an extensive and comely progeny. The first fruits are seen not alone in small churches and chapels such as that of the Pazzi, or of S. Maria delle Carceri at Prato, but too in the grand monumental dome of Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s mightiest and most skilful creation. Here, however, the Byzantine contribution is limited to the fact of the use of the dome as the culminating clement, and perhaps, too, the manner of use of ribbed construction. For the rest, in so far as the dome is derivative at all, it is Gothic. Much false colour has been lent to the circumstances of this structure by the assumption that, because Brunelleschi studied so assiduously among the ruins of Rome, he must have secured key ideas from them. He got nothing towards this particular structure except a coilossal ambition to equal or outdo the achieve ments of the ancients. The Pantheon may well have stirred his imagination, but it offered no clue towards the solution of the Florence cathedral problem. The essential principle is entirely different. The Pantheon vault, like all Roman vaults, is massively buttressed; the Florence dome is tied together by bands about its base. This was a wholly new idea which opened up endless avenues for new endeavours in structural design, an idea which was elaborated and exploited to the full by later Renaissance masters.

    The need for buttressing obviated, or very much minimised, the dome could be raised aloft to allow the insertion of fully adequate windows in a “drum” interposed below it, and the whole could then be exploited for grand external as well as internal visual effect. In other domes, more sightly tlun Brunelleschi’s, the incorporation of further structural devices (pendentives) permitted the use of the domical termination over any kind of regular base plan, not only round or ellip tical (for domes even of this shape came to be used), but square, octagonal and rectilinear too. Due to Brunelleschi’s invention, the dome came to be the almost inevitable crowning feature of every church or chapel, and the dominant, and not infrequently the exclusive, form of covering used. The experimental stages of development of this magnificent feature were traversed in the Early and High Renaissance stages of the style; St. Peter’s, on the threshold of the Baroque, is the first major instance of thoroughly mature design. Afterwards, Baroque Rome became a city of splendid domes. The first onset of the Renaissance produced little outward change in palace design, and at no time do external influences importantly affect the established or developing modes of living or methods of use. On the other hand, medieval constructive character, protracted into the Renaissance, contributed an initial suggestion for a fresh range of decorative techniques, which, thereafter, the Renaissance masters infinitely exploited. The new range was that of rustication. Now there are endless instances of Roman rock-faced masonry, yet these are in no case deliberately designed to be decorative.

    They occur in the Roman idea as an incidental economy in constructive works outside the architectural pale. Nor do the Roman instances occur on those parts of buildings embellished with columns or their decorative adjuncts; except in one or two instances such as the Porta Maggiorc at Rome where however, the structures manifestly were never completed. The rustications here were intended to be dressed off, but the work was never wholly done. The ancient Romans never came nearer to the deliberate use of rusticated decoration than the occasional chisel-drafting along the joint-lines in the otherwise smooth masonry of certain temple cells. This is not to say that the old Roman instances, accidental though they are, did not offer suggestions to Renaissance enthusiasts. Renaissance initiative in this direction begins at once, in Florence again, with the first domestic building in the new style—the Riccardi Palace (1430). Every centre in the country in due course developed its local variants; the stones left rough and characterful, or bossed and facetted in high artificiality. At first restricted to wall surfaces, rustication soon came to be applied too to the Orders themselves, as, notably, in the work of Sanmichele in the Verona region (e.g., Porta Nuova, 1532) or of Alessi and Lurago (Porta Pila) in ornamental town gateways at Genoa.

    Palladio imitated it in stucco; Vignola expanded its range of use to the enframing of masonry panelling and to the embellishment of garden ornaments. In stucco, and in a variety of extravagant forms, it became the dominant decorative motif of the garden grotto and the artificial waterfall and cascade. It invaded the surrounds to windows and doors, and was used even on balustrades, stringmoulds and cornices. In short, rustication took its important place among the Renaissance decorative resources. French, English and German, as well as Italian Baroque art would be much the poorer without it. At certain phases in the development of the several national styles, rustication is sometimes almost the sole decorative device employed. Whilst on this point, another purely Renaissance decorative invention may be instanced—that of the baluster. Roman parapets, if not solid, were commonly of palisade character, patterned with interlacings in the panels, imitating wooden prototypes. The Byzantines used these too, but also developed a distinctive practice in which the panel is a carved or pierced slab, supported between posts. Italian medieval practice varied, in part it followed the Byzantine, but more characteris tically, tiny columns of simplified classical design carried miniature arches, which, in turn, supported the parapet rails. Both the Italian medieval usages survived into the Renaissance. Instances may be found in the chapel screens in Alberti’s re-modelled S. Francesco at Rimini. The true baluster, as we know it to-day, is first traceable in the Colleoni Chapel at Bergamo (c. 1470-6). Hereabouts in the Milan region, there had been proceeding an exhaustive series of experiments with candela bra-like forms of ornament, applied as architectural decoration, and a wide range appears on this building. The use of the true baluster spread rapidly.

    It appeared both in Rome (Sistinc Chapel) and Venice (Pal Comer-Spinclli) by about 1480. By the end of the century, the older forms of parapet had almost wholly disappeared. The initial simple baluster, symmetrical in its upper and lower halves, soon gave place to the familiar type, weighted heavily in the lower part of the sleeve; but many variants subsequently were invented, especially in the Baroque phase. The progress of balustrade design is a good index of thef date of monuments. Surprisingly little initiative was shown in ancient Rome in the exploitation of the decorative possibilities of the Orders of Architecture. The arrangements in common use extended little beyond the simplest form of colonnade and arcade, and the com bination of the two into that motif most typical of their architecture, the so-called “Roman Order”. Richer and more complicated devices rarely were used, and, even so, in single units for the especial decoration of comparatively small monuments, or for the elaboration of special parts of the larger ones. Tombs and sepulchral monuments, triumphal arches and the scena: of theatres are practically alone the subjects of decorative variation from the universal monotonous themes. Pedestal, parapet and other adjuncts were used, and the “tabernacle” window or niche,but none of these appears to have been an original invention on Italian soil. There arc Greek Hellenistic precedents for each.

    The Renaissance materially extended the range of standard decorative motifs in regular use. Mostly, the new themes were invented afresh, for all that a careful search may disclose an occasional Roman instance of each. Such dubious precedents would very likely be the outcome of accidental and not calculated combinations. How frequently, for instance, is the “coupled” colonnade used in Roman times in extension beyond ‘single bay, or that further type, in which the spacing of the Order is alternately wide and narrow? These arc very familiar dispositions in the It is true, of course, that the face of Renaissance architecture was never more like the Roman titan at this mid-sixteenth century time. Since the borrowings of ancient motifs were cumulative and ceased very soon, the point is obvious. Yet in general, the likeness was even now quite slight and certainly has not the significance usually attached to it. The kinship was less, not more, strong than before. In the essentials of spatial organisation and structural method, the two architectures were at no time particularly close, and never more so than at the outset.

    The trend thereafter was increasingly divergent. The cause of the break was incompatibility, increasing, naturally, as the Renaissance individuality developed. There was no hiatus or violent distortion in the Renaissance growth at this or any other stage. It followed a natural course and achieved a climax in its own right. The greatest debt due to Rome was that for the classic principles of formality; for the rest, as has been shown, certain details were acquired, but they were assimilated, not imitated, digested and trans- muted into decorative systems nearly always original in themselves, and always used in distinctive ways.

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