Palaces, from Middle Ages to Renaissance


In Medieval Florence, and then at the time of the Renaissance, palaces simply were magnificent houses, exceptional architectural structures - or more ordinary ones, depending on the building. The Italian language still attaches a common meaning to the word 'palazzo', which is more or less the equivalent of the English word 'building'. It shows that there were many of them, and that they seemed quite commonplace. In his Vocabulario Toscano dell' Arte del Disegno, Filippo Baldinucci wrote in 1691 that a palace was a 'casa grande, e per lo piu isolata, e comunemente s'intende per tal voce ogni grand'abituro.' One can note a significant difference in meaning. Be that as it may, our definitions do not take great notice of the way these great Medieval palaces were progressively built, often during the Quattrocento and later, before becoming splendid mansion-houses.

What's the use of a palace?

First, it serves very concrete and sizeable purposes: housing a great number of people, stocking supplies or goods, defending oneself should an armed conflict arise. A palace is private, as close to a castle as possible, even in town: it shows the power of one or many 'mighty' families, the way a castle shows the power of the lord who lives in it. It is also public: it is then a symbol of common power, the power of those who govern and those for whom they govern, depending on the type of political structure of the community. Thus, in the definitions, a palace being a royal attribute in France and something more 'local' in Italy is no coincidence.

If a palace was first practical, it soon became symbolic. From then on, their façades had to display the most fashionable technical, artistic and architectural refinement. They also often had to display message, whether written out ('per non dormire' on the Palazzo Bartolini) or borne on the family's arms, or on shapes (Roman-style windows by Baccio d'Agnolo for instance), or frescos. The height of towers, the quality of indoor decoration, the dramatization of space also play an eminent part. The decoration of rooms - which were more or less accessible depending on how close visitors and relatives were to the owners and decorators of the place - gives a specific message, adapted to everyone. The whole palace can be 'read' - and was built - not only architecturally, but also symbolically.

The architecture of palaces

The Middle Ages failed to shed light on palace-builders. We can only have access to little literature, few contracts, account books or other documents, which do not give us a clear idea of these people, however important they may have been. We may get to know them through iconography - yet only superficially. The master-builder, or master-mason, who most of the time was not lavishly dressed, hardly seemed to have a higher position than that of a foreman. He also hardly must have been paid more. Yet, due to his role and skills, he had to consort with the highest personages and to head often numerous teams of workers from diverse backgrounds. Even before Vitruvius was in the place of honor again, amidst the intellectual enthusiasm of the Renaissance, the magister operarium already was a character whose whose curiosity and knowledge reached well beyond the art of building. Above all, he was a man torn between theoretical and practical matters - both a man of ideas, a maker and a foreman on the field. He had to have a good knowledge of building stone, of the way it must be cut and assembled. He had to know all about wood and framework, whether for its permanent use in buildings (frameworks, floors) or in anything necessary to assemble, build, support the frame during construction. In spite of controversy, he was also very likely to be acquainted with drawing, in order to draft maps, templates and other documents which were necessary for the contruction site to be properly carried out. Whether he had to make them, or simply read them, an important degree of knowledge was necessary. We do not know much about what master-masons knew and we know even less about their education and training. Yet, it is interesting to note that the medieval architect used as emblems the tools of geometry: the compass, the ruler and the square. Therefore, not only was he familiar with concrete matters, but also with plans -a theoretician. Given the size and splendor of the achievements of this age, and the way work is organized in our days, with engineers, workers, foremen, etc, it is quite easy to imagine what their role was. We must also highlight the importance of their travels all over Europe. Techniques and styles were often transferred through them. As they were dependent on the funding of their building sites, they had to keep moving about to make a living and to find building sites that were up to their skills. Italy was very favorable to them at the end of the Middle Ages. And the Renaissance radically changed their status there. The architecture of the Quattrocento played a fundemental role in the renewal of the arts. Indeed, it found inspiration in two elements: taking up of antique style, and perspective.

It was around 1415 that Poggio Bracciolini brought out Vitruvius' treaty, De Architectura, and shed new light on it. An architect and and engineer from the first century AD, this author had brought together in ten books everything that dealt with the engineering science of his time: construction, architecture, hydrolics, geometry, astronomy, war machines. In 1486, the first edition (which was translated into Italian in 1521) was followed by many others. Through the formalization he allowed, this author gave the architect (and engineer) the possibility to distinguish himself from other workers, and to run the work of others. Perspective, being more and more scholarly and mathematical, led to more and more complex plans and maps. Vitruvius paved the way for a new ideal of contruction, based on abstract conceps: symmetry, proportions, the use of a language that was strictly regulated in its vocabulary and syntax, and the system of classical orders.

Gothic style, which followed a taste created by the necessities of contruction and engineering technique, was replaced by Renaissance style, where materials submitted to superior aesthetic choices and principles. The Renaissance gave up on architectural « feats » and came back to a more static conception. Elevation was restrained, with fewer and smaller windows, and less care was taken to lighten the walls. Architects studied the monuments of Rome, and those of Romanesque style - which was the last echo of antique style. Its fundamental principles - regularity, symmetry, proportion - have now become so familiar to us that we have to make an effort to realize that they embody a drastic change and reaction against the empirical Middle-Ages. When looking at a building of the Renaissance, one reads and detects some constant characteristics. Its plan must be regular (with accurate layout, rectilinear facades, straight angle connections). Bays are even (there is regularity in the distance between openings), and stand at the same level. Symmetry in relation to its median axis must be perfect, and proportion (the ratio between dimensions) must depend on a basic module.

Some elements are recurrent: pillars, cupolas, drums, domes, lanterns, pendentive vault. Ornaments are made with geometric or naturalistic patterns. Boss is used in civilian buildings as element of decoration.

The principle or orders is established: from the three Greek orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) and their two Roman variants (Tuscan and composite), in 1562, Vignola published his Rules of the five Orders of Architecture. He established how orders were to be used: calculated from the diameter of the pillar, the height of each order was different, and its use was coded: Doric on the ground floor, Ionic on the first floor and Corinthian on the third.

In the Renaissance, the same buildings as in the Middle-Ages were built, above all churches and palaces. In Italy, there were also countryside villas, which flourished in the countrysides of Venice and Florence, as well as public squares of even layout. Urban housing developped, especially the palazzo, a closed square palace, centered on an indoor courtyard. It was heavy and severe-looking, but opened spectacular loggias on the indoor courtyard and gardens, particularly in Florence.

Along with Vitruvius, other texts completed the theoretical work of that time, which spread fast throughout Europe thanks to the brand new art of printing: De re aedificatoria, published by Alberti in 1450, Rules of the five Orders of Architecture by Vignola in 1562, Palladio's four books in 1570 and Serlio's eight books puslished at the end of the 16th century. Architecture (and engineering) thus became a full-fledged science and formalized many of its aspects. From then on mathematics, geometry, drawing, and perpective could not be dissociated from it. Consequently, the training of architects had to increase. The profession of full-fledged architect thus succeeded the magister operarium of Medieval times, who worked with stone and frames. The architect was considered as an artist. He often came from diverse backgrounds: goldsmith like Brunelleschi and Michelozzo, painter like Vasari and Bramante, or sculptor like Michelangelo.

The 16th century modified proportions and styles very little. 16th century constructions were mainly characterized by large entrances, by the fact that orders were more systematically superimposed, and that fortifications and enclosure walls were made for the use of new, more powerful weapons. Mannerism brought about an even greater dramatization, a staging of palaces and their functions, which pushed architects to refine their plans, to open (and imitate the impressions of) perspectives. At that time, painter-architects enjoyed a new boom, as they were both involved in building and in decorating the place.

The baroque palace embodied the fullfilment of this style. A sign of power, it was conceived as a full object, self-enclosed as to its meaning, and as to the urban network which surrounded it. First, its facade literally abode by Vitruvius' precepts of balance, symmetry and harmony. Then, its decorative architecture was impressive, because of the luxury of details and decoration, and because of its outstanding materials and measures (height, space in front of and around it). And one felt just as impressed when entering the palace: proportions were still a spectacular sight, but so were superimposed, juxtaposed spaces highlighting depth and perspective. The practical aspect of the palace was hidden behind its theatrical aspect, and sometimes just vanished. Inwardness and intimacy diminished face to the central aspect of the visitor-spectator. Each relationship between the onlooker and the construction around him was carefully studied and dramatized. Everything in the baroque palace embodied discourse, at the expense of facts: its functional aspect, spaciousness and even warmth might diminish. From then on, the game that used to be present in the decoration (intarsi made of precious wood, mosaics or other elements of decor) became part of -and ruled - the architecture of the palace itself.