This month’s ArtSmart Blogging Roundtable is all about architecture. With such a broad topic, it was hard to narrow down the choice. My interests range from art deco and art nouveau to Hindu temples and the modern work of Oscar Niemeyer, which I will be exploring this summer in São Paulo. Yet, despite the array of choices, I still have Italy on the brain this year, so I decided to write about what I really know: Renaissance architecture in Florence.
If you go to Florence, you may be overwhelmed by all the historic sights and abundance of artistic treasures. You definitely don’t need to see all of them to learn about the Renaissance, so I’d like to show you two places that you may not have heard much about but are possibly the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Florence. The first is the Pazzi Chapel, in the cloisters of Santa Croce, the church in the center background of the above photo. The second is Santo Spirito, the church in the foreground of the above photo.
Let’s begin with a bit of background.
Renaissance architecture was the vision of Filippo Brunelleschi, whose ability to innovate and interpret Renaissance ideals in architecture made him the leading architect of the age. He is responsible for the designs of the Early Renaissance (until 1446 when he died) and therefore laid the foundation for how architecture would develop in the rest of the period and beyond. His most famous design is the the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.
One of the objectives of the Renaissance was to reinvent the ingenuity of Greek and Roman art from about 1500 years before. Brunelleschi traveled to Rome early on and meticulously studied Roman architecture. His designs broke away from the medieval traditions of pointed arches, vaulting, and the use of gold and mosaics. Instead, he used simple, classical designs based on basic geometric shapes. His work and influence can be seen all over Florence, but the Pazzi Chapel and Santo Spirito are two of his greatest achievements.
The Pazzi Chapel
The Pazzis were the second wealthiest family in Florence after the ruling family, the Medicis. They are famous partly for the Pazzi conspiracy in which they tried to overthrow the Medicis by murdering one of the Medici brothers during mass in the Duomo. However, before that all happened, the Pazzis had this chapel constructed to make a big impression, to show their wealth and power, not just to God but also to everyone else, including the Medicis.
The chapel shows Brunelleschi’s vision of Renaissance architecture in two main ways. First, his use of shapes: here we see the forms of Classical Roman and Greek architecture reinterpreted by Brunelleschi. Geometric shapes dominate in rounded arches, patterns of rectangles and squares, the repeated use of circles, and the circular dome.
Second, the chapel is very simple. The repetition of shapes and simple colors make it harmonious. As in his other work, Brunelleschi chose just white and gray–the gray is pietra serena (“serene stone”) for the ribs of the dome, the pilasters, the arches, and other details of the space . (The additional colors of the medallions are the work of Lucca della Robbia, a Renaissance sculptor famous for his terracotta reliefs.)
When I studied Italian Renaissance art in Florence, I stayed just down the street from this church and walked by it every day. It sits on the Oltrarno side of the Arno River, across from the historic center of Florence, and therefore is less visited than many of Florence’s other churches. Every time I went inside, I was practically alone. However, this church is an outstanding example of Renaissance church architecture.
The exterior used to be painted but now bears just a plain front with some curves. I like it that way. Its plain exterior reinforces the neighborhoody feeling of the church and its square.
As you go inside, you encounter echoes of ancient Roman architecture. Brunelleschi used a simple three-aisle system from early Christian basilicas in Rome: we see the nave and two side aisles, all flanked by powerful Corinthian columns that could be straight out of Rome. The arches are perfectly rounded, reflecting his love of geometric shapes. The color choices of white and gray stone and a plain floor give the church a simple look despite the later addition of an elaborate altar.
Want to learn more?
Stay tuned for the launch of a book about seeing the Renaissance in Florence, and consider making one of my future art tours part of your travel plans. In the meantime, if you go to Florence, here are further suggestions:
Brunelleshi made his mark on Florence in many other places. Here are some of the other great examples of Renaissance architecture that you may want to include during your visit there:
- Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (highly recommended)
- San Lorenzo & its Old & New Sacristies (the latter designed by Michelangelo)
- Piazza della Santissima Annunziata
- Ospedale degli Innocenti
- Palazzo Strozzi
- The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore
For more architecture inspiration for your travels, visit the other ArtSmart bloggers:
Hagia Sophia as the Epitome of Byzantine Architecture from Erin at A Sense of Place
Saving a Metabolist Architectural Icon in Tokyo from Ashley at No Onions Extra Pickles
An Architectural Tour at Madison Square Park from Kelly at Travellious
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