In the Image and Likeness of God

Classical Renaissance
Michael Rose
From the Nov/Dec 2002 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

In Italy, the Gothic style never really took hold. In a land built on classical antiquity, Gothic was seen as outlandish, alien, and un-Italian. Consequently, Gothic architecture was increasingly regarded with contempt. In fact, the 15th-century Italian architect Filarete (1400-69) once declared: “A curse on those who thought of such rubbish! Only barbarians can have brought it into Italy.”

In the next century, these “barbarians” were called “Goths” after the Germanic tribes that had sacked Rome 1,000 years earlier. Alberti used the term “Gothic” as a synonym for “crude” when writing of the architecture we know by the same name, and a few years later Vasari referred to the Gothic as forms to be avoided, calling them “monstrous and barbarous.”

Rediscovering Antiquity

It was not until the 16th century that the architecture of the pointed arch, rib vault, and flying buttress came to be formally referred to as “Gothic.” Alberti and Vasari, both pioneering intellects of the Italian Renaissance, saw this medieval architecture merely as a barbaric and unworthy prelude to the rebirth of classical antiquity. From their point of view, the maniera dei Goti was antithetical to the sound traditions of ancient Rome that were
influencing artists and architects in the 15th and 16th centuries. Yet, the dawning of the Renaissance was not primarily a reaction to the “barbarous” architecture of previous centuries, but even more was a rediscovering of ancient principles that had been nearly forgotten during the previous millennium.

This revival of classical ideals in building and the arts was centered in Florence, yet was influenced mainly by the archeological remains still extant in Rome. Filippo Brunelleschi’s biographer, writing in 1430, relates: “And so he went to Rome, where . . . he observed the ancient way of building and their laws of symmetry. It seemed to him that he could recognize a certain order in the disposition, like members and bones, and it was as though God had enlightened him.” The Florentine sculptor and architect had traveled to Rome to study the constructional methods of the ancient Romans in order to compete for the commission to design and build the dome of the Florence cathedral. Brunelleschi is credited with rediscovering the measurements and proportions of antiquity and first applying these principles to the circumstances of his own day.

\With regard to church architecture, his primary aim was to re-create the form of the early Christian basilica, though “perfecting” it by applying the newly rediscovered mathematical proportions and orders of classical antiquity. The older Christian basilicas were regarded as clumsy and disordered in form. Brunelleschi saw the need to restore the basilica to its ancient perfection. His designs for San Lorenzo (1419) and Santo Spirito (1434), both in
Florence, reflect his ideal of the “perfected basilican church.”


It is most significant that the proportioning system rediscovered by the Florentine architect was based on proportions of the human body. Thus, it was ultimately the human body that informed the arrangement, scale, hierarchy, and proportion of new church architecture during the Renaissance. Vitruvius, a Roman architect writing three decades before the Incarnation, reiterated the Greek understanding of the human body as the measure for all true architecture because it reaffirmed certain mathematical ratios as reflecting the harmony of the universe. To both the Greeks and the Romans of classical antiquity, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders represented in their proportioning of elements the perfect expression of harmony and beauty. They were seen as a reflection of God’s order.

Renaissance artists and architects, influenced by the theories laid down by Vitruvius, reiterated the importance of the human body in material architecture. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the “Homo ad Circulum” and Francesco di Giorgio’s “Vitruvian figure” also express the same appreciation. But it was Vignola, one of the founding fathers of the baroque, who codified the proportioning system of the classical orders during the last years of the Renaissance. The resulting architecture was characterized by simplicity, order, and harmony.

How Great Their Art

Many remarkable developments during the decades of the 15th and 16th centuries give Renaissance architecture a richness and diversity that is unparalleled in the centuries that preceded it (and arguably in those that came after). The masters of this era produced some of the greatest pieces of religious art and architecture in the history of Christendom. Architects such as Alberti, Vignola, and Michelangelo made insuperable contributions to their own times and to the future development of sacred architecture. Without ignoring or discarding the traditional forms and methods of construction, these trailblazers were aware that they were creating something different—and better.

While the basilican form was the most common classical adaptation for churches during these years, the early Christian form of the martyrion also reemerged. This centralized, domed building used by the ancient Christians to mark the tombs of martyrs became a popular form for Renaissance architects. It is worth noting, however, that in terms of the liturgy they could not properly be considered “centralized” plans. Following immemorial tradition, the high altar of sacrifice was always placed at the east end of the building and the seating arranged in a uni-directional, linear fashion.

This square plan, however, was never well suited for the Roman liturgy. Consequently, it was not uncommon for Renaissance patrons to dismiss their architects’ martyrioninfluenced plans in favor of the longitudinal basilican form. The initial design for the new basilica of St. Peter’s, drawn up by Bramante, was based on this Greek-cross arrangement. After Bramante’s death in 1516, however, there arose a disagreement as to whether the church should continue to be built in the form of the Greek cross as Bramante had intended or in the shape of a Latin cross as suggested by Raphael, his successor. Some years later Pope Paul V decided to adopt the form of the Latin cross suggested by his new architect Carlo Maderno. Both the Pope and the architect believed this would be more in keeping with early Christian and medieval churches, because this new basilica was destined to become the mother church of Christendom, not simply a martyrion.

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