18 Characteristics of Renaissance Architecture
John Spacey, November 26, 2020
Renaissance architecture is the period of European architecture from 1400 to 1600 that is based on classical Roman designs. The following are its basic characteristics.
RenaissanceThe Renaissance is the period of European history that spans the end of the middle ages and the start of the modern era. For much of the middle ages, architecture was dominated by Gothic designs that mostly came out of France and England. In the Renaissance, Europe once again looked to Italy for academia, art and architecture. In the traditional narration of history first shaped by Italian historians such as Petrarch and Giorgio Vasari, the entire middle ages were a "dark age" of stagnation and decline between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the return of Italian influence in the Renaissance. This narration is disputed amongst modern historians.
Ancient ArchitectureEuropean architecture in the Early Middle Ages was a style known as Romanesque that was based on ancient Roman architecture. The period between 1100 and 1400 saw the rise of Gothic architecture that represented a technical leap forward with relatively light structural elements and walls. Renaissance architecture was again based on ancient Roman and Greek architecture. As such, it was as much a rehash of very old designs as it was a new style that reimagined these designs for a new era.
Semi-circle ArchThe defining characteristic of Renaissance architecture is the use of classical semi-circular arches. This is a primary way to identify the difference between Gothic architecture that is based on pointed arches. However, there are many architectural styles and periods based on a revival of Roman design that make use of the semi-circular arch. Generally speaking, Renaissance architecture is difficult to identify based on style alone.
ColumnsThe use of both structural and non-structural columns. These were often exposed and decorative. Renaissance columns are mostly based on ancient Roman architectural standards known as orders. These define different styles of column with names such as Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan and Composite.
DomesGenerally speaking, the semi-circular arches of Renaissance architecture had a height disadvantage to the pointed arch of Gothic architecture that could be made relatively thin and tall. To compensate, domes were often used to extend the height of ceilings.
Barrel VaultA barrel vault is a series of arches placed side by side to form a tunnel-like structure. Another structure long used in antiquity that returns in the Renaissance.
Printing PressThe printing press first appeared in Europe in about 1439. Italy was the center of printing in the Renaissance and mass produced copies of classic Roman and Greek texts such as Vitruvius' De Architectura. This helped to spread knowledge of classical architecture across Europe.
Renaissance ArtRenaissance architecture relied on ancient traditions and forms -- its art was the opposite as it introduced bold change. European art unquestionable took a leap forward in the Renaissance by introducing new paints, methods, subject matter and technical improvements such as linear perspective. One wonders if these great cultural achievements helped to spread Renaissance architecture due to enthusiasm for all things out of Florence.
Rational PlansRenaissance architecture is often described as rational, structured and mathematical. For example, the Roman architectural rule that a semi-circular arch have a width that is exactly twice its height. At first this may appear to be logical but it places artificial constraints on designs in the search of simplistic mathematical uniformity. For example, Gothic architects made arches may times higher than wide where it suited a building. In practice, Renaissance architects broke these rules but often created highly geometrical and structured designs.
RepetitionWhere Gothic architecture embraces variety and expression, renaissance architecture embraces repetition and order. In this way, it resembles modern architecture, particularly modern minimalism that is largely based on simplification and repetition.
Gothic InfluencesIn some cases, Renaissance architecture uses classical elements but then embraces the free creative expression of Gothic architecture.
Small WindowsRenaissance architecture, particularly in Italy, produced buildings with small windows. In many cases, this is due to the limitations of having a relatively heavy weight structure. In some cases, small windows are used strategically to produce dramatic streams of light into a large space. This could also be viewed as a reaction against Gothic architecture that pursued very large windows as a primary design goal.
PalacesMost large examples of Gothic architecture are churches. The Ancient Romans didn't have many religious structures and were more likely to build residences, public buildings and bathhouses. Likewise, there aren't as many Renaissance churches as there are palaces, government buildings and houses. This was also a reflection of the time as the Renaissance brought the Reformation, a large scale social movement that was essentially a challenge to the power of the Catholic Church.
French RenaissanceMany of the most impressive examples of Renaissance architecture are French palaces. The gunpowder revolution in Europe had caused castles to become militarily irrelevant. Without defense as a constraint, Renaissance period palaces were much larger than castles and included some of the most remarkable structures ever built. French Renaissance architecture tends to have Gothic features such that it is richly expressive.
English RenaissanceRenaissance architecture did have some influence in England but most English architecture of this period is better described with British periods such as Tudor architecture and Elizabethan architecture. Late Gothic Architecture, particularly British varieties such as Perpendicular Gothic, continued to have significant influence with the two styles often mixed. For example, Hardwick Hall, an Elizabethan country house, is considered to have Renaissance features but has large windows such that it almost looks modern.
Italian RenaissanceFlorence was the cultural center of the Italian Renaissance. At the time, Italy was a series of city states that weren't yet united as a nation. Florence had considerable economic power at this time as a center for banking. Outside Italy, large examples of Renaissance architecture are mostly palaces and castles. Inside Italy, the largest examples are churches such as Florence Cathedral, St. Peter's Basilica and the Tempio Malatestiano. These were typically modeled after Roman basilica, public buildings that housed functions such as courts.
Rebuilds & RenovationsAs Renaissance architecture was based on Romanesque architecture from the Early Middle Ages, it was commonly used to rebuild or renovate these structures. For example, Schwerin Castle in Germany was first built in Romanesque style in 973, completely rebuilt in Renaissance style in 1617 and remodeled again in the 19th century.
Renaissance RevivalRenaissance revival architecture refers to the use of classical styles in the 19th century. This was very commonly used for buildings that were intended to signal status, power and stability such as university buildings, museums and banks. It was also a popular style for luxurious houses. In some cases, Renaissance revival architecture is based on Renaissance period designs such as the unique double staircase of Chateau de Chambord. In other cases, it's simply one of many terms for modern architecture based on ancient Roman and Greek architecture. As materials were more advanced by the 19th century, Renaissance revival architecture is often a style as opposed to a structure. For example, decorative arches as opposed to structural arches.
Architectural StylesThis is the complete list of articles we have written about architectural styles.
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RenaissanceAn overview of the Renaissance.
The defining characteristics of Renaissance art.
Modern CultureAn overview of modern culture with examples.
An overview of art with examples of different styles.
The definition of historical perspective with examples.
ArchitectureAn overview of architecture with examples.
The definition of vanishing point with examples.
An overview of Gothic Architecture with examples.
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