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.

  • Jenna Francisco

    Interesting! I found it surprising to see the brick sides of these churches that seem so out of balance with the decorative facades. I also wonder what Santa Croce and the Duomo were like before their facades were put on so much later…brick like San Lorenzo? By the way, I noticed something similar in Old Sacramento where you can see long brick buildings but turn the corner and suddenly see the colorful, decorative facades that were added.

  • arttrav

    Hi Jenna,
    Absolutely, the other churches were brick too, and for a lot longer time. I wrote about this one because it’s Renaissance, but Santa Croce was done in the 19th century and is also very much a thin veil of marble on a front. The Duomo is an odd difference since its sides were covered in the middle ages.
    That’s interesting that you see it in Sacramento too – you should photograph and write about it! You can see layers of history anywhere you look, if you keep your eyes open. In New York, our Context guide pointed out where tenement housing had once been 2 stories, then the top story was removed and they left the store, and then they built up again in later years when space was needed.

  • Cal

    Fascinating post! I find it the transition between facade and building stands out particularly in Rome with those clean white marble facades like il Gesu. Re: @jennafrancisco:disqus ‘s post – the phenomenon is worldwide – here in Australia we don’t have the oldest of architecture, but our 19thC early 20thC buildings are preserved as best as possible – as such, at Melbourne University we have an old bank facade slapped on a 60s brick building: – this building is demolished now and getting a complete 21stC revamp, still with the 19th century facade – it will look even stranger soon! Also regarding S Croce – you can see its 17th Century incarnation here: – reminiscent of S M del Carmine whos facade never really got a chance. I don’t mind it though, it’s quite Derelicte. Santo Spirito probably the weirdest non-facade in Florence for mine.

  • arttrav

    Hi Callum! Thanks for weighing in on the discussion. I believe I recognize your name from the Hasan network, am I right?
    That’s very interesting about an older facade on a newer building – it’s the inverse of the layers you get in Italy!

  • Ashley Gardini

    I absolutely love the façade of Santa Maria Novella – I think it’s just stunning!

    It is interesting to think of façades as a world-wide phenomenon. Jenna’s post touches on the brick sides of buildings in Sacramento. In San Francisco, you see a similar approach with the Victorian homes – beautiful façades with the sides being wood slats, instead of brick. I suspect this is partially because building with brick in such an earthquake-prone city is a pretty terrible idea.

  • arttrav

    Interesting, Ashley! And if we want we can bring this up to the modern day luxury home building market – on the lower end they make sides with aluminium siding :)

  • Ludmilla

    St. Trinita Church got a bit of a facelift… but that’s more of the 16th century look, I think. My own home is San Francisco has an Italianate facade that is about 20 feet taller than the rest of the building. It’s a tiny cottage really, but from the front it looks far more grand.

  • arttrav

    Fascinating! Thanks for contributing!

  • Nicole

    “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 totally did it on purpose! But not because of the budget. The incorporation of an existing structure and local style and materials into his design is actually a hallmark of Alberti’s work. Its referred to as padanità and you can see it at work in many of his architectural designs where he was working with an existing structure: especially here and at the Tempio Maltestiano in Rimini. It served to connect the building (and the patron) to the locale and simultaneously fulfilled one of the tenets of Alberti’s design philosophy: “to not destroy what has already been done.” He was modern but he was also a preservationist. One of the many ways he is so fascinating…

  • arttrav

    Excellent point, Nicole, thank you! You’re right, I’m familiar with how he incorporated extant items or worked with extant limits in his other architecture, and what you say makes sense. I didn’t know the term “padanità”. Is this a reference to the area, or does it mean something else? Though I do think that the results are very different here than in other works. In the Tempio Malatestiano, he creates a shell around it to resolve his issues. In Mantova, he’s limited by the space given to him, but it does not compromise the geometric design. This is the only example I can think of that integrates gothic with renaissance. What do you think? Alexandra

  • Nicole

    The interior renovation of the Tempio retained its Gothic style and it seems that Alberti had planned to apply the medieval practice of placing tombs in facade niches there too. But yes, the results are definitely different at SMN, and everywhere he works for that matter (again fascinating – but also infuriating!) Padanità refers specifically to the area around the Po and the local forms and materials found there, and thus applies especially to the Tempio, where he uses marbles from Ravenna and the triumphal arch scheme of the nearby Arch of Augustus. But its a philosophy that informs all of his work. As an antiquarian expert he could have done another all’antica facade at SMN (we know the patron was a fan of classical architecture), but it wouldn’t have been appropriate in Florence where there were few ancient monuments but that Gothic striped marble is so distinctive and prevalent. I don’t know that the extant fabric compromised his geometric design, but it certainly informed it to some degree (depending on how you feel about Wittkower :)

  • arttrav

    Well put! I can’t imagine what “my” piazza (I walk by SMN every day) would look like with a thin antique marble facade…