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Emergence of Italian Renaissance Design
The Renaissance in Europe was an age that saw sweeping advances in technology, increased prosperity, growth of the arts, and also a shift in social consciousness. It sharply contrasted the Medieval landscape defined by walled cities and a stalwart feudal society that lacked creative ebullience. In contrast, the Renaissance was a time in which people stepped outside the safety of prescribed life and order; the path upon which a person would create livelihood and family became less rigid and underscored the notion that life could be enjoyed. Hence ensued a a time defined by humanism, a philosophical movement based in writings in antiquity that promoted universal learning and development of culture - humanism also shaped the emergence of the humanities (art, literature, philosophy) in education.
Florence was at the center of Renaissance culture and by the early 1400s, this city flourished in the wake of a robust banking industry and vigorous trade, anchored by relatively stable rule in the region. Prosperity in Florence as well as in other Italian cities like Venice and Rome, helped catalyze a change in the way society was structured; the grip on society that nobility and the church had was eased and an influential middle class emerged. This meant that more people had the means to be educated and to become skilled in order to work as bankers, artisans or tradesmen. A patronage for the arts was established and grew. Wealthy Italians – nobility, popes and cardinals, and patrician families like the Medicis - not only had money to spend on “luxury arts,” they had a desire to demonstrate financial success with commissioned frescoes, immense chimneypieces, inlaid wood walls (intarsia), and with fabrics and furniture among other things. The wealthy sought country retreats and hired architects like Palladio to design and build villas; a Medieval era fear of encroachment and an unprotected countryside, the wilderness, dissipated.
This shift in substance and thought away from that of the Middle Ages encouraged the development of Renaissance era architecture and decorative arts in Italy and throughout Europe. Artists and architects began to revive concepts and practices of classicism garnered from Greek and Roman texts and ancient ruins, like for example, geometrically based perspective. The Renaissance in Italy saw the rediscovery of the classical approach to proportion and symmetry in building, like that demonstrated in the use of the Roman orders of columns.
Yet a return to these principles of building was fused with the influence of Christian art and values, and with Gothic era techniques (like in masonry). In the words of French philosphopher Emile Male, “…what the Renaissance was: it was Antiquity ennobled by the Christian faith.” This rediscovery was catalyzed in part by the availability of ancient Greek and Latin texts, including Vitruvius’ On Architecture, some of which were brought over by Greek scholars migrating to Italy during the 1400s. Leon Battista Alberti was an early Renaissance thinker and architect that considered in depth modes of classical architecture and art, including geometrical perspective, and who promoted the philosophy of humanism; his book Ten Books of Architecture was based on Vitruvius’ similarly titled treatise.
Italians also had at their disposal ruins left from Roman times, many in Rome, which gave them examples of this classical architecture and design. The Renaissance saw the discovery of Nero’s palace Domus Aurea, with its frescoes and grottesche decoration. Renaissance artisans began to incorporate these elements into buildings and interiors; exteriors were designed using columns, pilasters, architraves, loggias, domes and arches. Interior walls, ceilings and floors incorporated spatial divisions like wainscoting, friezes, paneling and moldings that would ensconce frescoes, stucco design, coffered woodwork and intarsia, designed with grottesche figures (also candelabrum, arabesque and putti) and strapwork, rondels and portraits, trompe l’oeil and many other motifs. There are many examples of how Renaissance art and architecture mimicked classical design, but some quintessential examples include the frescoes in the Raphael rooms at the Vatican, Palladio’s Vicenza villas, and the architecture and interior décor at the Palazzo del The in Mantua.
With all this in mind, a break with the Gothic and an embrace of classicism would not have been possible without a transformation in the way people perceived their world and its meaning. The Renaissance moved away from a claustrophobic medieval worldview that put the church and heavenly rewards at its center and humanly experience at the periphery. The Renaissance heralded a new outlook called humanism, one in which the experiences of the individual and the possibilities therein were celebrated. Whereas laid a myopic focus on what God or the Church expected of individuals, emerged the support of the individual and the creativity and the ideas forthwith. In the words of Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things.” From this sprang the freedom of the Italian Renaissance artisans and artists to break from medieval restrictions in style and design, to resuscitate classical aesthetics and architecture and with it combine new innovations.
No one factor lead to the emergence of the Renaissance in Italy and the art and architecture created as a result. Rather a litany of factors contributed to a flowering of culture and ideas that would redefine the aesthetics of Western civilization. Prosperity, the rediscovery of ancient aesthetics, and a universal shift in one’s relationship to the divine and the world, would all come to promote a momentous era of art and architecture known as the Italian Renaissance.