1350-1500 (A Global History of Architecture)

The Birth of Renaissance in Florence

One family in Florence, had the most impact on this era. The Medicis, inspired other families and popes in Rome to pursue a new style based on symmetry, correct proportions and classical columns. This era, called the Renaissance, meant returning to the wisdom of the classical ages and reviving it. Humanism played a great role in Europe to reconsider the role of the city in human culture.

This movement to revive the Greco-Roman culture began with Italian merchant republics educating their young as humanists, exposing them to ancient Greek and Latin sources of history, science, philosophy, art and poetry. Tuscan poets Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio inspired them. Humanism spread to many disciplines but architecture was affected the most…

Florence, went beyond just copying antiquity but everything was handled with a scientific approach. Artists tried to discover underlying design principles and tried to perfect the perspective vision.

The Dome of Florence and Filippo Brunelleschi


In 14th century the rich merchant families of the parliament,channeled their sources into great civic projects, including the public space now called Palazzo Vecchio, the new cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the public market of Or San Michele, city walls and bridges. Most public buildings in the 14th century used rounded arches, symmetrically placed bays and harmonious proportions based on whole numbers like 1:1, 1:2 and 2:3. To this the Florentines added a new way of seeing, treating  buildings as free-standing objects in a proportional space. The perspective vision’s improvement can also be observed in the urban plan with the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria surrounding Palazzo Vecchio.

The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was entrusted with Arnolfo di Cambio at first. He proposed a Gothic style, with quadripastite ribbed vaults spanning the nave and two sides of the aisles. The construction had to stop with the Black Death of 1348 and was continued a few years later. Fioravanti wanted to add a dome surpassing Rome’s Partheon. But it had logistical problems until Brunelleschi (1377-1446) took over. Trained as a goldsmith, Brunelleschi demonstrated such talent in the art of construction that he earned the title “architect” which was a rarely used qualification since antiquity. He proposed a structure that would support itself during the process of construction. (Below is a scene between Brunelleschi and Cosimo de Medici in the mini-series Masters of Florence: Medici).

The secret to Brunelleschi’s double-shelled structure was a combination of clever masonry techniques and a ribbed skeleton girded by nine horizontal supports concealed between the two layers. He also invented labor-saving machines. Brunelleschi conserved the dome’s pointed arches and ribs from the Gothic scheme of a few generations earlier, while adding several all’antica motifs to the exterior, some of which included corinthian half-columns showing his familiarity with the monuments of the ancient. The “lantern” crowning the dome, was completed after the architect’s death. It had buttresses made with classical fluted pilasters and reversed-curved volutes.

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The double-shelled structure had a parallel sets of walls with a grid of horizontal and vertical ribs in between. The interlocking masonry kept the dome from buckling. One can inscribe a circle within the thickness of the double-shell walls of the octagonal dome.

Brunelleschi was also in charge of other projects such as an orphanage and the dome of the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, commissioned by the Medici. He also probably designed the Pazzi chapel built for Pazzis, a family that supported the Medici but in the 1470s became their most hostile enemy. Brunelleschi also initiated the plan to rebuild the church of San Lorenzo in the 1420s with the Medici architect Michelozzo. The two provided a new sense of rational clarity and luminosity for a sacred space, fulfilling the interior of San Lorenzo the Florentine quest for an all’antica environment.

After the economy became more solid, wealthy Florentines started to commission magnificent private palaces. By 1500, Florence appeared the most olderly city in Europe with well-paved and drained streets, monumental civic building and a fabric of stately cubic palaces. Cosimo de Medici “the Elder” (1389-1464) rebuilt his family palace in the 1440s and redefined the Florentine “palazzo” type for many generations. His architecture made clear references Palazzo Vecchio in the cubic shape. Cosimo was the typical humanist patron, amassing a famous collection of ancient statues and texts. He wanted to build a residence close to the Roman Domus type with classical details and a courtyard like an atrium. The Medici palace differed from the later developed palazzo type because it had an additional private chapel as a privilege to the wealthiest family of Florence. This period of building palaces led to a better economy while it also led to some families’ bankruptcy because they used their sources only on the production of their palaces. Other families, mostly rivals of Medici, such as Strozzi and Rucellai built bigger palaces. Rucellai’s architect was Alberti, also a humanist. Alberti also built a version of Holy Sepulchre named Santa Maria Novella which was better proportioned than the original one in Jerusalem. It was also inspired by a Dominican church with the same name.

Alberti reconstructed the 13th century church San Francesco as a mausoleum. The facade had aquaduct-like arches that resembled the Arch of Augustus (1st century BCE). Alberti had a university background and unlike other designers of his time was coming from an upper-class family. This led him to know elite people and gain clients. He even composed a revision of Vitruvius’s treatise in Latin, a language only the well-born could read.

Lorenzo de Medici (Lorenzo “il Magnifico”, Cosimo’s grandson) was inspired by Alberti to commission his architect Giuliano da Sangallo to prepare measured drawings of the great antiquity in Rome.

Sangallo’s drawings of Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum, the Partheon and the basilica of Maxentius codified the graphic conventions of plan, elevation, sections and axonometrics still used today. 

Alberti, established a standard for renaissance patrons and architects. Rather than copying the past he recommended that along with the revival of ancient architecture, came sets of rules which would allow one to still observe the grandeur of the ancients while creating something new.

Alberti also proposed an ideal city but it was not tried to bring into practice until Pius II, one of the popes he worked for, requested a transformation for his hometown in the city of Pienza. The transformation of Pienza has the footprints of the many ideas Alberti had in mind; such as using a slightly curved main street to make a small town appear larger. On a symbolic level, Pienza represented a balanced republic, just like other depictions of ideal cities, brought up by humanists. The same humanist interest led Antonio Averlino to create the fictional city of Sforzinda. He worked for duke Francesco Sforza. The name of the city was derived from the patron just like Pienza. Averlino proposed a plan with an 8 point star consisting of 8 juxtaposed squares. Filarete’s most exotic invention was the tower known as the House of Vice and Virtue (1460) . It was proposed as a school for young men, inspired by the arenas and perhaps was an attempt to visualize Dante’s rings of hell, purgatory and heaven in the Divine Comedy. It reminded me of Boticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno which was later painted in 1485.

In Sforzinda, Filarete unwittingly introduced a recurring theme in architectural utopias: the belief that form can influence behavior for betterment of society.

The Rise of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Turks derived from the nomadic tribes of the Central Asian steppes. (Oğuz Türkleri, Kayı Boyu, to be exact). They were a state in Western Anatolia with the ambitions of reviving the power of the ancient Roman Empire. Their commitment to urban culture resulted in the foundation of “imaret”.

Imaret, (later named Külliye) usually included

  • a cami (mosque)
  • a türbe (tomb of the donor)
  • one or two madrasas (religious schools)
  • a hammam (bath)
  • a hospital-sometimes
  • a tekke for dervish monks-sometimes
  • a public soup kitchen, imaret, which gives the compound its name

Imaret was financed by the foundation, waqf. Usually each sultan would found a waqf of his own.

In Ottoman architecture the irregular patterns of cities contrasted with the symmetrical structures that had a dome on top of each important space. Architecture played a big role as a way of demonstrating the authority and love of order.

Famous architect Sinan, had over than 300 projects built during the long and fruitful reigns of Süleyman I and his son Selim II. He established an Ottoman style as assured and as recognizable as that of the ancient Romans. Ottomans also promoted a rich urban life with markets, baths and great religious complexes.

Ottoman urbanism was based on local symmetry, in which only the parts of a larger whole remained equilibrium. Ottoman architects initially borrowed their models from the Anatolian region, imitating the vaulted masonry of Armenian churches, the beehive domes of Seljuk tombs and Persian arcades.

A common type of early Ottoman royal mosques can be observed in Orhan Gazi Cami which has a reverse t-shape plan. Its masonry resembles Byzantine craft and it looks more like a Christian building than a Muslim one.

Orhan Gazi Cami, Bursa, the capital at the time of Orhan Gazi

Later, the square bay with a rounded dome became the standard unit of Ottoman architecture, repeated in palaces and public buildings.


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