The Gothic Architecture in Italy (II)

Italian Gothic Mendicant churches in Florence: Top (left and right) – The Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross), the principal Franciscan church in Florence, it was consecrated in 1443. Bottom (left and right) – The church of Santa Maria Novella is, chronologically, the first great basilica in Florence and the city’s principal Dominican church, it was consecrated in 1420.

The churches of the Mendicant Orders were not only reserved for friars, but were open to all the citizens who would go there to listen to sermons or to witness the theological debates that took place from one church’s pulpit to another between two orators. During the XIV century, the popular guilds and great aristocrats were very fond of these new religious Orders and in turn enriched the chapels of these cathedrals with marvelous paintings. The large Franciscan church of Santa Croce, in Florence, is today a museum and a national pantheon where Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini and others are buried. Its wooden roof is supported by pillars and ogival arches built in 1295. The Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella located at the other end of the city is also a Gothic building filled with sculptures and Renaissance paintings.

Above and below, different views of the Dome of Florence Cathedral or Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers), the main church of Florence (Italy). The cathedral was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style with the design of Arnolfo di Cambio and completed structurally in 1436 with the dome by Filippo Brunelleschi. The cathedral complex, located in Piazza del Duomo, includes the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile. The dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed. This cathedral was consecrated in 1436.

The influence of the temples built by Mendicant friars is noticed in the cathedrals constructed during the final years of the XIV century. The Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, is covered with Gothic vaults; initially the architects wanted to balance the thrust by using exterior buttresses. Later, as the work progressed, they preferred to leave the facades smooth and covered with precious marbles. This forced the architects to pull the arches with iron rods visible everywhere. This example proves once again that the Italian architecture didn’t get along well with the style of Gothic constructions: whenever the Italian architects could, they suppressed buttresses, even at the risk of introducing pulling iron rods from pillar to pillar at the beginning of the arches.

The Palazzo Pubblico or town hall, with its Torre del Mangia in Siena (Tuscany). Its construction began in 1297 and its original purpose was to house the republican government. To the right a close up of the Palazzo’s crown in the bell tower.
Top: The Palazzo Bargello, now the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, known also as the Palazzo del Popolo (Palace of the People), a former barracks and prison, in Florence. Below: The Palazzo d’Accursio (or Palazzo Comunale) is a palace in the city of Bologna (region of Emilia-Romagna). It functioned as the city’s Town Hall until 2008. The palace is now home to the Civic Art Collection.

But the independence and originality of the Italian Gothic architecture is most noticeable in public and private palaces where lay architects of Central Italy produced their most interesting and original works. The free cities of Tuscany and Umbria have large municipal palaces, usually built with roughened stones in order to give them a more pronounced fortress look, and are all crowned by a high tower from which the entire municipal area is visible. The largest of these palaces, called del Comune or Palazzo Pubblico, is that of the Republic of Siena built between 1289 and 1309 located at one side of a large square drawn in a semicircular shape with this palace’s facade almost occupying its diameter. The high tower more than one hundred meters tall, called Tower of Mangia, has a superior body embellished with the shields of the Republic and also carry the bells. The openings, doors and windows of this palace have a double combined arch: an ogival discharge arch and a recessed arch that forms the opening in the ground floor, or the ogival discharge arch covering a group of tri-geminated arches* in the windows of the two upper floors. In Siena’s private palaces we find the same arrangement of arches typical of this city.

The Palazzo Vecchio (or “Old Palace”) is the town hall of Florence. It overlooks the Piazza della Signoria with its copy of Michelangelo’s David statue as well as the gallery of statues in the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi.

In Florence there are two government palaces: the Palazzo Bargello, residence of the captain of the Florentine armies and today occupied by the Bargello Museum, and the Government palace, or Palazzo Vecchio, also erected at the end of a large square (Piazza della Signoria) by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the XIII century. A protruding barbican* crowns each one of these buildings with a bell tower used to congregate the citizens in the town’s main square. The tower of the Palace of the Signoria in Florence is on top of this protruding barbican and is 94 m high in order to better defend the entrance door. To ensure its perfect balance, this tower is solid in the back with wide walls that start from the ground. It is also important to consider the great palace of Bologna or Palazzo d’Accursio, a work of Fioravante Fioravanti, built during the first third of the XV century.

Other municipal palaces of the same style are found in Umbria in the cities of Gubio, in Orvieto and in Perugia, all with their great Gothic room and always distributed in the same way: meeting and administrative rooms, archives and chapels for the Council.

The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Saint Mary above Minerva) is one of the major churches of the Roman Catholic Order of Preachers (or Dominicans) in Rome. This church is the only extant example of an original Gothic church building in Rome. After a restrained Renaissance style facade (left) the Gothic interior (right) features arched vaulting that was painted blue with gilded stars and trimmed with brilliant red ribbing in a 19th-century Neo-Gothic restoration. It was consecrated in 1370.
A detail of the Loggia of the Palazzo dei Papi or Papal Palace of Viterbo (Latium). This loggia is located at the right of the palace and is a roofless structure with a seven-bay wonderful Gothic arcade supported by slender doubled columns and decorated with crests and reliefs. Within the loggia is a 15th-century fountain sporting the coat of arms of the Gatti family.

In the territories of Central Italy subject to the Popes, the influence of Gothic art was less obvious than in other regions. The Popes, at this time, had emigrated to Avignon and accepted not only the art and styles but also the French hospitality. Throughout the XIV century in which the Popes resided in Avignon (from Pope Clement V, in 1309), some few buildings were built in Rome, such as the church of the friars preachers called Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Gothic style. When the Popes returned from Avignon for some time they also made use of the Gothic style in some constructions of Rome and Viterbo, where the papal court resided for some seasons. An example is the beautiful papal loggia of Viterbo attached to the palace, with its fountain flowing in the interior of the gallery. Another similar loggia exists in Anagni by those times also a pontifical city.

Some of the Gothic fountains of Siena: Top left: The Fontebranda was built in the 13th century by the Guild of the Wool-makers (Lana). This fountain is cited by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy (Inferno XXX, vv. 76-78). The fountain front has three Gothic arches and a crenellated* roof. Bottom right: The Fonte Nuova (New Fountain), also in Siena, it’s architecture shows clear influences of the Cistercian Gothic.
View of the medieval fountain of Viterbo named the Fontana Grande (Great Fountain).

On the outskirts of the cities some public fountains were set up, all enclosed within a portico and thus resembling entire buildings, like the famous fountains of Branda (Fontebranda) and Fonte Nuova, in Siena. Other fountains were also installed in the town’s squares at the interior of the cities; in the market of Viterbo, for example, there is the renowned Gateschi fountain (the Fontana Grande) signed by a master whose name was Benedictus.

Top: The Porta Capuana of Naples. The very beautiful carving of 1484 on top of the central triumphal arch consists of classically inspired trophies, flying Victories and other triumphal imagery. Bottom: The castle of Lucera (municipality of Lucera, Foggia, southern Italy). Nowadays, only remnants of the castle and its walls are left. The castle was built in 1233.

In addition to the diffusion of characteristic Gothic elements, first by the reformed French monks of the Cister and later by the Orders of Mendicant friars, there were other routes for the import of Gothic styles in Italy. By the end of the XII century, southern Italy had once again become part of the feudal territories of the Holy German Empire. During the reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, crowned in 1220 emperor of Germany and lord of Southern Italy, there were hardly any building attempts: his main constructive works were fortresses and castles. The most famous building ordered by Federico II was the triumphal arch located between two towers known as Porta Capuana for the defense of the entrance of the bridge over the Volturno river in Capua.

Exterior (top) and aerial (bottom) view of the Castel del Monte (“Castle of the Mountain”) a XIII century citadel and castle located in Apulia region (southeast Italy). It was built during the 1240’s by the Emperor Frederick II. Below: A view of the beautiful interior’s Gothic vaults of the castel.

In addition, Frederick II built castles in southern Italy all with a manifested French influence. See for example the castle of Lucera. The favorite residence of Frederick II was also Gothic: the famous Castel del Monte, in Apulia, shaped in a completely regular octagon and flanked at the corners by octagonal towers. In its interior design, architects emphasized the repeated use of Gothic constructive methods: the vaults are perfectly ogival; the diagonal arches collect the weight of the roof and drive the thrust to the angles reinforced with pilasters. By contrast, its facade door has almost classical moldings forming a kind of pediment: we shall see later how it was that during the court of Frederick II, the first symptoms of a studious interest in the ancient Greco-Roman art were manifested.

Left: The Castello di Lombardìa (Lombardy Castle), it is perhaps the most important example of military architecture in Sicily. Its layout once comprised 20 towers: of the six remaining, the Torre Pisana is the best preserved. Right: (Top and bottom), the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore (Naples), it was in this church that Boccaccio met his beloved Fiammetta in 1338.

Frederick II received in Italy a great number of French workers and settlers returning from Cyprus and Palestine, including artists and architects. One of them, named Felipe Chinard, turns out to have been the architect who erected one of the monarch’s own castles in Trani. These French architects also built the great fortress of Castrogiovanni (or Lombardy Castle), in the heart of Sicily, a vast fortified field flanked with towers where a garrison could be concentrated to oppose the enemy if needed. In the center of the complex stands a solitary tower, where tradition assumes that the emperor had his hiding-residence, with vaulted rooms on various floors similar to those of the French Gothic castles.

Left: The Gothic facade of Naples Cathedral. Right: The heavily decorated Gothic portal of the Cappella Pappacoda in Naples.

In the middle of the XIII century, southern Italy was ruled by the princes of the house of Anjou and so a French court was formed in Naples. The Pope proclaimed Charles of Anjou as the King of the Two Sicilies who was eager to exterminate the descendants of Frederick II, but his excesses were such that in 1282 Sicilians called Pedro III of Aragon to their aid, by then married with Constanza Hohenstaufen, the Granddaughter of Frederick II. After a bloody struggle between the Catalan-Aragonese and the Angevin, it was agreed that Sicily were ruled by the Aragonese, while the mainland provinces were ruled by the French. Both the Angevin princes of Naples and the kings of the Aragonese dynasty of Sicily came from countries where Gothic art had been plenty accepted, and so they built their constructions in the styles prevalent in their homeland. In Naples, Charles of Anjou built the chapel of St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo Maggiore), with apse, ambulatory and radial chapels, like any other French church. The medieval monuments of Naples are filled with sarcophagi and chapels of the purest Gothic style. It is surprising to find in a city as southern as Naples works like the facade of its cathedral with clear trends to the Gothic. It has also been noted that the most elegant Gothic church in Naples has the features of a typical French Gothic church with a single nave covered by groin vaults, as well as the transept with apses adorned with Gothic moldings and its facade of French style, only something Italianized. For a century Naples was a French city, especially in the early times of the Anjou dynasty.

The Gothic forms prevailed in Naples throughout the XIV century, although in later centuries they continued to be applied without method or good taste. The door of the church of San Juan de Pappacoda (or Cappella Pappacoda) is a good example of an ogival arch appeared covered by a “sculptural” mask. The interior of the church of Santo Domingo shows us the sad end of these Neapolitan Gothic works, today completely covered by baroque plasters and decorations that hardly let visible the original ogival skeleton.

Some Gothic royal tombs of Naples: Left: The tomb of King of Naples Robert of Anjou (1277-1343), sculpted by Pacio and Giovanni Bertini in 1343, it is located behind the main altar of the Church of Santa Chiara. Right: The funerary monument of the king Ladislao located in the main nave of the church of San Giovanni a Carbonara (Naples).

The Angevin kings of Naples, recognizing the superiority of the Tuscan masters in other arts, called Florentine sculptors to work on their tombs. In their sculptures, these artists applied the principles of the incipient Renaissance art, as can be seen in the angels holding the curtains of the tomb of King Robert and in the group of the Seven Arts contemplating the deceased in the same tomb. Although the sculptures tend to Renaissance forms, the overall monument’s lines are Gothic, with pointed arches, buttresses and ogival style moldings. The same can be said of the tombs of King Ladislao, in San Giovanni a Carbonara and of other princes buried in Santa Clara of Naples which served as a royal pantheon.

Two views of the Castel dell’Ovo (“Egg Castle”), a seaside castle in Naples (Gulf of Naples). The castle’s name originated in a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who in medieval times had a reputation as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future. In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the castle’s foundations to support the fortifications. In the event that this egg had been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events for the city of Naples would have followed.

The two great castles of Naples, the Castle of the Egg (Castel dell’Ovo) and the New Castle, are fortresses built at the time of the house of Swabia, but have certain elements that date back to the time of the Angevin kings. The New Castle (Castel Nuovo), almost entirely built by Charles of Anjou, has the appearance of a French donjon*; it is a formidable fortress with high walls and barbicans, battlements, and circular towers at the corners which resemble those of the Pierrefonds or the Old Louvre castles. In its interior has a patio leading to a chapel covered by a groin vault. The staircase and the immense square room (the Baron’s Hall) are also Gothic, both works made by Catalan-Aragonese architects.

The Castel Nuovo (“New Castle”) located in front of Piazza Municipio and the city hall in central Naples. The castle was erected in 1279.
Some other views of the Castel Nuovo: Top left: aerial exterior. Bottom left: the medieval courtyard and staircase. Right: Interior of the Barons’ Hall with its high, vaulted Gothic ceiling.


Barbican: A fortified outpost or gateway, such as an outer defense to a city or castle, or any tower situated over a gate or bridge which was used for defensive purposes. Usually barbicans were situated outside the main line of defenses and connected to the city walls with a walled road called the neck


Crenellation/crenellated: A pattern along the top of a parapet (fortified wall), most often in the form of multiple, regular, rectangular spaces in the top of the wall, through which arrows or other weaponry may be shot, especially as used in medieval European architecture. In turn, crenellated refers to having crenellations.


Donjon: The French term for a keep.




Tri-geminated arch: An arch that encompasses structurally similar arches arranged in a series of three.