A Guide to Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance architecture dominated Europe from the early 15th century until the beginning of the 16th century.

Historians characterize Renaissance architecture as a revival style that used classical forms popular in Greek and Roman architecture. The style also utilized new materials and construction methods, allowing new building forms to emerge.

The first artistic endeavors historians consider Renaissance art took place in the late 14th century. Yet, the stagnant economic conditions of the time meant that there were no Renaissance buildings this early. Instead, architectural historians date the first Renaissance building projects to after 1400.

Periods of Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance Architecture

Historians divide the Renaissance into three main phases: Early Renaissance, High Renaissance, and the Late Renaissance. The time periods are there for reference but were more fluid and overlapping than the distinct timeline suggests.

Early Renaissance (Quattrocento) circa 1400

During this time, architects began exploring forms and experimenting with building rules. Studies in the classical age generated interest in symmetry, balance, and proportion. Architects started ordering space according to proportional logic and using geometry to create a pleasing aesthetic.

One of the most prominent architects of this period was Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi was also an engineer, planner, and construction supervisor.

Brunelleschi’s greatest architectural work was designing the dome for the Florence cathedral, the first building of the Renaissance. His dome design utilizes elements of Gothic architecture, such as pointed arches, but he also used techniques that Roman architects employed for the dome of the Pantheon.

High Renaissance circa 1500

It was during this time that Renaissance style developed a more cohesive form and wider application. Experts characterize the style of the High Renaissance as one that places a greater emphasis on symmetry and balance.

During the High Renaissance, there was a more confident use of ornate decorations. The style centered around Rome and ended with the sack of Rome in 1527 by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. This capture of Rome inflamed the antagonism between Catholics and Protestants and created ripple effects across Europe.

One of the most famous architects from this period is Donato Bramante. Bramante was an Italian painter and architect. His plan for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome formed the basis for its creation, though other architects altered it after his death in 1514.

Late Renaissance (Mannerism) circa 1520

The Late Renaissance saw the freest architectural expression with ideas like harmony and ornamentation.

Artists and architects of the earlier Renaissance had explored the concepts of symmetry and pleasing proportion, so they began experimenting with new forms. These artisans wanted to push the boundaries of their art and attract patrons. During this style, architects utilized novel concepts like asymmetry and exaggeration.

One of the most famous Renaissance architects of this period was Michelangelo. Michelangelo was a painter, sculptor, and architect. Some of his greatest designs include modifications to the St. Peter’s Basilica, which he reworked according to Bramante’s design, the Laurentian Library, the Medici Chapel, and the Piazza del Campidoglio, among others.

Experts characterize Michealangelo’s architecture as dynamic and expressive, indicative of Mannerism in the late Renaissance.

Spread of Renaissance Architecture

The Renaissance began in Florence, Italy. This city-state wielded enormous power to spread its cultural, political, and artistic influence across the rest of Europe. Some reasons for the spread of ideas were the rise of trade across Europe and the increase of printed materials with engraved illustrations. These allowed the quick dissemination of ideas to artists, leaders, and philosophers in other countries.

Countries like France, England, and Spain were eager to adopt the ideas of the Renaissance to show their cultural significance and status. Leaders throughout Europe sought out Italian architects like Sebastino Serlio to create works of Renaissance architecture in their countries.

There were also home-grown architects, like England’s Inigo Jones, who studied architecture in Italy and brought the Renaissance in architecture back home.

Characteristics of Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance architecture has distinct characteristics that make it a recognizable style.

Classical Forms

Architecture in the Italian Renaissance and beyond used classical forms and motifs, including arches, domes, and columns. Architects in the Early and High Renaissance periods were more strict in their interpretation. Late Renaissance architects like Michelangelo used these motifs in a more fluid and dynamic way.

Symmetry and Balance

Architects of the Renaissance created buildings that embodied symmetry and balance. They used geometry to arrange details like columns to split the space into aesthetically pleasing forms with symmetrical facades.

Innovative Materials and Technology

Artisans of the Renaissance utilized several new techniques and materials to create new buildings. They used the latest ideas of linear perspective to create the illusion of depth. Builders utilized brick and stone for larger buildings with more complex structures.

Functional and Aesthetic

Philosophers and architects began considering buildings with a more human-centered approach during the Renaissance. Architects designed buildings to be useful to humans, pleasing to the eye, and valuable in cultural development.

Building Features

Buildings of the Renaissance had many common features. These include domes (internal and external), flat and coffered ceilings, decorative windows, Roman and Greek order columns, arches, and walls of brick covered with decorative stones.

Decorative Details

Artisans and craftsmen covered architecture in the Renaissance with intricate decorations, including carved friezes and sculptures. Patrons commissioned artists like Michelangelo and Raphael to cover the interior of buildings with elaborate frescos and other paintings.

Impact of Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance architecture had a significant impact on later architectural styles. For example, Italian Renaissance architecture influenced the Baroque period. The Baroque style shared many of the same characteristics as the Late Renaissance style, including ornate ornamentation and the grand scale of buildings.

The classical themes of Renaissance architecture saw a revival in Neoclassical architecture, another style reviving elements of Greece and Rome.

Renaissance architecture also changed how humans saw and interacted with their environment. Renaissance architects sought to create buildings that were aesthetic and useful. This change in the use of aesthetics is one of the most enduring effects in architectural pursuits.

Notable Renaissance Buildings

Buildings of the Renaissance exist across Europe. The country with the most notable examples of Renaissance architecture is the birthplace, Italy.

Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore) – Early Renaissance

Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore)

The city council of Florence began building the Florence Cathedral based on a design by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296.

Cambio created the original design in the Gothic style. Brunelleschi completed the dome in 1436. Elements that signify the Florence Cathedral as a Renaissance building include linear perspective, innovative construction techniques (in particular, the dome), and mathematical ratios to create symmetry and balance.

Palazzo Farnese – High Renaissance

Palazzo Farnese - High Renaissance

The building of the Palazzo Farnese involved some of the most notable architects of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, and Giacomo Della Porta.

Antonio da Sangallo the Younger designed this Palazzo for the Farnese family. The facade features prominent Renaissance characteristics, including triangular pediments over the windows, a symmetrical facade, and a balanced shape.

Palazzo Te – Late Renaissance

Palazzo Te - Late Renaissance

Palazzo Te, also Palazzo del Te, is a good example of Late Renaissance or Mannerist architecture. Giulio Romano designed this palazzo for Frederico II Gonzaga as a place of leisure.

Palazzo Te is asymmetrical, a distinctive characteristic of Late Renaissance architecture. The most distinctive decorations of the Palazzo Te are the elaborate frescos in the Mannerist style. These frescoes ornamented the rooms of the ducal court of the Gonzaga family.