Monday, October 30:


Reading: Architecture, chapter eight, pp. 281--296

Historical background of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century: Growing importance of the upper bourgeoisie (especially merchants, bankers). Expansion of industry and world trade; voyages of exploration begin. Commercial and financial dominance of Flanders and Italy. Increased patronage of the arts by wealthy individuals.

Cultural history: Fifteenth century, first half: Principal center, Florence. Organization of civic life in Florence with guilds playing dominant role, often under leadership of wealthy families (the Medici). Patronage of arts, literature, poets, philosophers, etc., by merchant princes. Intensification and redefinition of humanism as a philosophy assigning man a rational place in the cosmos--religious, ethical, political, and economic. Emphasis on fusion of rational and practical viewpoints, drawing on ancient philosophy, literature, and art as examples of the humanistic viewpoint, resulting in a modification of the continuing Christian condition.

Second half: Decline of the merchant class in Florence, except for a small group of bankers. Concentration of wealth in a few great families, establishment of a new landed aristocracy. Refined court life under Lorenzo de Medici. New mystical philosophy (Neo-Platonism) in court, and religious mysticism in popular sphere (Savonarola). Growing importance of other middle and northern Italian courts (Urbino, Mantua, Milan, etc.) and papal court. Fall of House of Medici and French conquest of Italy at end of century.

Architectural history: In terms of formal analysis, the Renaissance in architecture marks a return to the vocabulary and (in part) the compositional principles of classical architecture, and hence a return to the foundations of western art. The importance of this achievement can hardly be overemphasized, because the return to rationality and modular linkage in building prefigures the emphasis on rationality and scientific method so characteristic of the modern world. But in terms of human significance, we are indebted to the Renaissance architects for instilling "self-awareness" in their buildings, parallel to the self- awareness of Renaissance painting, sculpture, and philosophy. These themes are first enunciated by the two co-founders of Renaissance architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti. Brunelleschi represents self-awareness in his concern for architecture as a system of mathematical co- ordinates rather than an arbitrary or irrational selection of forms. Alberti expands on Brunelleschi's experiments by stressing walls rather than points in his buildings, and by enwrapping architecture in a wider urban and social context.

Highly important is the new kind of architect envisaged and encouraged by Alberti, who wrote in his treatise On Building, around 1452: Painting and mathematics are as indispensable to the architect as the knowledge of metrical feet and syllables is to the poet, and I doubt whether a superficial knowledge of these arts will suffice.

Both the Early and High Renaissance popularized two new formal approaches to architecture. One is the central-plan church (as opposed to the longitudinal basilica), in which the altar is set in a circular or polygonal building, or one with four equal arms (the so- called Greek Cross). The other is the module--the basic unit of measure in a modular plan, generally derived from the human body. The module is then repeated numerically throughout the building. This numerical system, popularized around the time of Brunelleschi, replaced the geometric basis of most Medieval architecture, which could not be expressed in terms of whole numbers.

Key works:

1. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446): Dome (cupola) for Cathedral of S. Maria del Fiore, Florence, 1420-36 [ 146 exterior; 148 cutaway diagram]; fig. 444
2. Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Alberti: experiments in perspective, 1419--1440.
3. Brunelleschi: Pazzi Chapel at S. Croce, Florence, 1429-61 [ 147 exterior; 140 interior]; figs. 452--453 and colorplate.
4. Brunelleschi: S. Spirito, Florence, designed 1434, begun 1444 to the 1470s [ 138 hypothetical reconstruction of original project; 139 hypothetical reconstruction of modular units in original plan; 149 side aisle]; figs. 455, 456
5. Leonbattista Alberti: S. Andrea, Mantua, 1472--18th century [ 141 plan; 145 exterior; 144 interior; 143 detail side chapels]; figs. 468, 469.

Works in context:

  • Alberti: Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, 1446-51.
  • Alberti: Malatesta Temple, Rimini, designed 1450.
  • Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (1396-1472): Medici Palace, Florence, begun 1444
  • .


  • Quattrocento
  • Cinquecento
  • humanism
  • perspective
  • central-plan building
  • orthogonal section and elevation
  • module [139]