Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Putting on a good face: Renaissance facades in Florence

The word façade means both the “principal front of a building” or “a deceptive outward appearance”. In the Renaissance, architects often combined these two definitions, creating fronts of buildings that did not accurately reflect what was behind them. Alberti and Brunelleschi, the period’s biggest names, were actually the worst offenders.

Florence's Dome | Photo Steven Feather on Flickr

Florence’s Dome | Photo Steven Feather on Flickr

First-time visitors to Florence who expect to explore a “Renaissance city” are often surprised to learn that the layout of this city and its principle architectural landmarks are not from the Renaissance period at all, but from the Middle Ages. The building bubble in the 1290s reflected a new political stability and wealth in the city thanks to successful family enterprises. But in 1348 there was the Black Plague, and by 1400 most of those families were bankrupt.

Artistically, we generally consider the Italian Renaissance to start in the 14-teens and last most of the 15th century. So much of Renaissance architecture in Florence (as well as the famed frescoes and sculptures) was built on the cheap and are extensions of or decorations for earlier projects. There are exceptions, like Brunelleschi’s churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, but even Brunelleschi’s Dome, one of the symbols of the city and of Renaissance invention, tops a building that began way back in 1290.

Innocenti Façade

Ospedale degli Innocenti | Photo Richard Mortel on flickr

Ospedale degli Innocenti | Photo Richard Mortel on flickr

The Ospedale degli Innocenti, begun by Brunelleschi in 1419, is often cited as one of the great examples of early Renaissance architecture, and there’s no question that its facade, consisting of a regular loggia with semi-circular arches, is just that. But behind this pretty facade, actually, is a series of earlier houses and buildings that were assembled together for the purposes of this foundling hospital. The great architect likely intervened on the interior layout of courtyards and enclosed spaces, though I’m not sure to what extent. The first inner courtyard is certainly Brunelleschian in style.

For more about the social function of the Ospedale, read here.

Palazzo Rucellai

Palazzo Rucellai

Palazzo Rucellai

The Rucellai family, who lived in the Santa Maria Novella area, commissioned Alberti to build the Palazzo Rucellai in 1450. The patron, Giovanni Rucellai, wrote a useful memoir in which he states “from eight houses, I made one”. In addition to the family home which makes up the nucleus of the building and probably already had an internal courtyard, he purchased adjacent buildings on via della Vigna Nuova and the street behind in order to make a much larger palace. Alberti himself says his intervention in this case was not much more than “wall decoration”. A few changes must have been made to the interiors to regularize window openings, but really the building is just an attractive shell that serves to unify and dignify what was already there.

The following book is one of the best sources of information on Alberti in Renaissance Florence, in particular for this building, an article by Brenda Preyer on page 159:

Santa Maria Novella

Santa maria Novella | Photo Giuseppe Moscato on Flickr

Santa maria Novella | Photo Giuseppe Moscato on Flickr

When Alberti got his hands on the facade of the church of Santa Maria Novella, commissioned once again by Giovanni Rucellai, it was almost a hundred years after the building had begun. The Gothic style building had a series of niches on the lower part of the building, which continue off to one side to enclose a courtyard. The pointed arches and stripes had gone way out of style, but Alberti had to work with them (I have been unable to find out if he was told to keep them specifically by the patrons, or if he decided it was too expensive to destroy them, recognizing good marble work when he saw it). He resolved this issue gracefully by extending the lower order of pointed arches with much taller flat decoration that ends in semi-circular arches. He makes the top register resemble a Greek temple-front, working with the extant rose window, and then creates elegant scrolls to block the view of the side of the building. Looking at the building from the open side of the piazza, it’s clear how the facade is truly just a thin layer of expensive marble over an earlier brick and stone structure.

These are the faux fronts that I was able to think of in Florence – can you think of any others?

ArtSmart roundtable: Architecture

This month’s ArtSmart roundtable topic is architecture. The roundtable brings together some of the best art-focused travel blogs to post on a common theme, allowing our readers to explore more widely and maybe discover new art beyond their immediate interests. I know this is the case with me, since I’m so focused on Italy! Take the time to check out these posts by ArtSmart bloggers.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.