As Europe emerged from the stagnation of the Middle Ages and the devastation wrought by the bubonic plague, there was a dramatic shift towards new intellectual, artistic, scientific, and economic changes that forever changed the course of world history.
The Age of Renaissance- “rebirth”-had arrived. As economic fortunes improved, a vibrant middle class arose in the Continent. The pursuit of leisure and indulgences in luxuries were no longer just the province of the royals.
Education, art, and literature flourished. Copernicus would stir the heavens with his revolutionary idea that earth was not at the center of the Universe-gasp! – and Leonardo da Vinci would paint The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
In this cauldron of creativity, architecture took flight as well. Like many other disciplines, the concept of architecture was elevated into theoretical discussions and philosophical arguments. “Why” became as important as “how” and “what”.
This debate was fueled by intellectual tomes made possible by the invention of the printing press. And no work was more important than that of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, widely acknowledged as the most influential personage in Western architecture.
In 1570, he published Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura (“The Four Books of Architecture”) which spread the ideas of the Renaissance throughout Europe and molded the thinking of architects and their patrons for centuries to come. Palladio’s churches, villas, and palaces were distinguished by symmetry, strict proportions, and classical revivalism.
Though the exteriors were sparse and austere, the interiors were a cornucopia of opulence, gold, and glamor. Named after him, the Palladian style to this day stands as testimony to his genius and artistry. Some of the other notable architects of the Renaissance were Donata Bramante (1444-1514) and Leone Battista Alberti (1404-1472).
Bramante, who introduced the High Renaissance style to Rome, designed Saint Peter’s Basilica, which is one of the most iconic buildings in history. Alberti’s contributions were more theoretical. He was one of the first architects to study the ancient sites of Rome and published “The Ten Books of Architecture”, covering “a wide range of subjects, from history to town planning, engineering, and the philosophy of beauty”. Alberti also pioneered the method of constructing architectural drawings in the correct perspective.
The architecture of the Renaissance had its unique features-facades, domes, and vaults being among the most characteristic. Renaissance facades exhibit symmetry around their vertical axis and are usually topped by pediments, pilasters, arches, and entablatures. The columns and the windows enhance the perception of an orderly progression toward the center.
The dome is one of the most recognizable traits of Renaissance architecture, especially in churches, though its use spread to secular structures as well. In contrast to the Gothic style of rectangular vaults, the Renaissance vaults were semicircular or segmental and on a square plan and did not have ribs.
The Duomo in Florence, Italy, is the magnum opus of Filippo Brunelleschi, with its massive dome taking centerstage. Through an ingenious design, Brunelleschi was able to build the entire brick dome without the benefit of scaffolding since it rested on a drum and not on the roof itself.
To reduce stress and allow the weight to be evenly distributed, the dome is actually two separate domes built one on top of the other. The ceiling of the dome is ornately decorated with frescoes by Federico Zuccari, reminiscent of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
As the Renaissance spread outward from Italy, its architectural style took hold across the continent. The Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley in France is one of the greatest examples of the French medieval form being superseded by classical Italian signatures.
The château is a large square building with towers at its four corners and a cross-shaped internal design. To add drama, there is a monumental “double-helix” staircase in the center. Elaborate ornamentation including pilasters, medallions, decorative foliage, and candelabras adorns its many facades.
Perhaps the most fascinating tidbit of history about the Château de Chambord is the theory that Leonardo da Vinci, who was a guest of King Francois, was the mastermind behind the original design.