Filippo Brunelleschi also pioneered the first type of Florentine palaces of the Renaissance, with a lower level area encrusted with large rusticated stone blocks (rustication*) and rustic openings, with upper floors of finer walls and windows adorned by voussoirs applied to the window’s arch, and the whole huge cubic structured topped by a monumental classical entablature. This account may well have described how the original project of the Palazzo Pitti (begun in 1458) must have been, since Brunelleschi never finished it due to its exaggerated dimensions. Almost a century later, in 1549, the Medici purchased it and finished its construction.
During the 15th century the Medici had a much more modest residence located in the center of Florence, more exactly on the old Via Lata (today via Camillo Cavour). This palace was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici to Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi (1396–1472), who had studied under Brunelleschi, and it was built between 1444 and 1484. The Palazzo Medici Riccardi, as it is now known, still retains the Medici coat of arms in its corner, though it bears the name of the Riccardi family who later inhabited the building. Its facade has a lower level with big arches built with rough ashlars; these at first must have been opened, but in the 16th century were filled and consequently blinded, leaving only windows. The upper two floors have mullioned windows, and the building is sumptuously crowned by a splendid stone cornice. Its inner courtyard, sculpted and filled with ancient marbles, shows the exquisite taste of Michelozzo and Cosimo de’ Medici.
In a History of Art, the name of Cosimo de’ Medici “the Elder” (“il Vecchio”) should be cited next to those of the artists of his time, as the name of Pericles was linked to that of Phidias. As we have said, Cosimo, like his son and grandchildren, had no title neither held any official position: he imposed himself for his immeasurable wealth and determined spirit, thus putting himself at the forefront of the great movement of renewal of ideas and art that began in Florence and that he protected with vigor and splendor. Cosimo, known as “the Father of the Fatherland”, was a banker and owner of an inexhaustible wealth that allowed him to cover for the improvements he deemed useful and necessary for his country. He created centers of study in the Dominican convents of San Marco (Florence) and of San Domenico (Fiesole), and at the same time restored them according to the new styles. He founded libraries following the advice and inspiration of the group of great artists and scholars he received at his house, and commissioned translations of ancient Greek writers while accepting dedications from contemporary authors. In the courtyard and gardens of his Palazzo on the Via Lata (which we just described) he allowed young sculptors in to contemplate the ancient statues he began to collect. Cosimo de’ Medici talked with the most enthusiastic humanists of the dawn of the Renaissance, always proposing as his ideal the resurrection of the Classical spirit, which they began to understand by studying ancient marbles and manuscripts. Cosimo in person, and especially his grandchildren Giuliano and Lorenzo, took part in those discussions. A writer from his circle, Vespasiano da Bisticci, has brought to us their colloquiums, showing in what elevated terms they talked about good governance or about criticism at the best style of Plato’s Dialogues.
It is noteworthy that other families that didn’t belong to the former Florentine aristocracy, but were wealthy patricians such as the Medici, also participated in this great movement. For example, the Pitti, rivals of the Medici (when Luca Pitti commissioned his palace to Brunelleschi, asked that the windows be at least as large as the portal of the Medici’s palace) or the Strozzi, whose palace was built following the type of Cosimo’s palace on Via Lata and was even more superb and monumental. Directed by Benedetto da Maiano, the Palazzo Strozzi has a square floor plan and stands gigantic in the narrow streets of the old city with its stone cubic mass topped by a cornice, which casts an intense shadow on the higher levels of the building. The effect of grandeur was achieved by the simple distribution of its various parts; the lower level, with a single door that opens in the middle of the rough ashlars, forms the pedestal for the higher floors with very simple windows. Some details that have been reproduced with more or less discretion in many other buildings everywhere else in the world are the corner lantern of the Strozzi palace, the rings to hold the horses and the torch bearers. In general, the arrangement of the Florentine palaces of the 15th century was almost always the same: a square or rectangular central courtyard with doors and columns to give it symmetry, and a monumental staircase.
Leon Battista Alberti (February 14, 1404 – April 25, 1472) was destined to spread the new architectural style outside of Tuscany. On behalf of the House of Gonzaga (a noble family from Mantua), he built the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua with a Latin cross floor plan and a single nave with a large vault and a dome on the crossing. This would be the general layout of most Renaissance churches; the thrust of the barrel vault over the single nave is counteracted by the side chapels that occupied the place previously reserved for the lateral naves.
In this church these chapels open to the central nave through alternately tall and wide, and low and narrow openings. Brunelleschi’s idea of building churches according to the type of the Classical flat-roof basilicas was rectified by this architectural solution proposed by Leon Battista Alberti. San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, in Florence, would remain as ideal attempts of a genius in love with antiquity reflecting on the simple forms of the ancient basilicas. Instead, Alberti looked for inspiration in the domed constructions of the great Roman baths, which allowed him to build even wider naves. The lateral naves disappeared, and the chapels opened to the single central nave became secondary focal points that accompany the central great nave and seem to give it even greater width. The columns also disappeared and were replaced by gigantic pillars. Sant’Andrea in Mantua, although today disfigured by a profuse interior decoration, is a monument of decisive importance whose layout was imitated by all Renaissance and Baroque churches.
Coming from an exiled family from Florence, Alberti had, together with a vast technical knowledge, a high degree of scholarship, and in addition to his constructions, he propagated the Renaissance spirit through his writings. He epitomized the concept of “Renaissance Man” as he was at the same time a humanist, author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer. Without an architectural instinct as extreme as that of Brunelleschi, he was also very practical in his constructions: he knew the technical writings of the antiquity and had a refined taste to combine decorative elements. The fact that Leon Battista Alberti was able to gather in writing form the existing knowledge on architecture and construction through his De re aedificatoria (“On the Art of Building”), the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance, favored the development of architecture for years to come. Alberti was a prestigious gentleman who besides being famous for having a brilliant conversation, also had the qualities of a great athlete. He also wrote comedies, composed music and painted, and studied physical and mathematical sciences.
In a temple apparently consecrated to Saint Francis, but in reality dedicated to glorifying the lord of Rimini, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, and his family, Alberti created one of the most extraordinary buildings of the time. The Tempio Malatestiano (Malatesta Temple) was badly damaged by aerial bombarding during 1943 and 1944 but it has been completely restored.
The exterior of the Tempio Malatestiano is barely decorated, only on the lateral facades there are niches delimited by semicircular arches to guard the sarcophagi of the captains who accompanied Malatesta in his campaigns, his jester, his chronicler and musician, and his Aulic poet. This series of blind arcades, separated by strong pillars, reminds us more than any other construction of the 15th century of the Roman architecture during the Flavian period. The main facade of this temple of Rimini (begun ca. 1450 and completed by 1468 though unfinished) was the first in Europe in which the motif of the Roman triumphal arch was used in religious architecture. There is no doubt that Alberti was obsessed, much more than Brunelleschi, for resuscitating classical antiquity. Inside, on each side of the central nave, there are profusely decorated chapels with reliefs representing the Virtues, the Planets, the Arts… A chapel contains the tomb of Malatesta’s beloved, Isotta degli Atti (the diva Isotta), which inspired the construction of the temple, and another chapel was destined for Sigismondo Pandolfo himself.
Everything in the Tempio Malatestiano reveals the great renewal of architectural concepts during that first period of the Renaissance: the lord of Rimini and his architect, arranging this temple for his personal worship and the woman he loved. The intellectual path created by the long gone courts of the Caesars, the pagan life the Renaissance people tried to imitate, all led these first modern men to execute great extravagances. But the wonder of this temple of Rimini is indisputably its decoration: the reliefs, painted with blue and silver (the colors of the Malatesta coat of arms), contrast aristocratically with the marble areas and their simple natural white color. The scenes depicted generally represent a singular effort towards paganism: trophies, crowns, triumphs of the Malatesta and the virtues of Isotta, the new goddess; her monogram appears everywhere giving testimony that this construction was dedicated to her. Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta was the typical tyrant of the Renaissance, cruel, unscrupulous, but fascinated by the arts and the new sciences. In some of the decorative elements applied in the Tempio Malatestiano it is even possible to foresee the dramatic and colorful drapery imitations in stone that would become a whole trend during the Baroque.
Between 1448-1470, Alberti worked on the upper facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. For this purpose, Alberti added Classical features around the portico and used the same polychrome marble of the lower level over the entire upper facade. Additionally, he included Classical proportions and elements such as pilasters, cornices and a pediment, this last ornamented with a sunburst in tesserae*, instead of a sculpture. His architectural solution in order to transition between the wider lower level to the narrower upper level in an structurally harmonic and attractively visual manner involved the use of two large scrolls, which later became a standard feature of Church facades in the later Renaissance, Baroque and Classical Revival buildings.
Meanwhile in 1446, the wealthy Florentine wool merchant Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai began the works of his palace in Florence, which still bears his name: Palazzo Rucellai. The construction works were directed by Bernardo Rossellino following the architectural drawings and plans sent by Alberti. The three-story facade is interesting, with Tuscan pilasters* (Doric inspired) on the ground floor, Ionic on the second and Corinthian on the third, rhythmically adorning the facade with vertical lines, a similar decorative solution that was used before in the arcades of the Roman Colosseo. Three entablatures underline each one of these horizontal divisions. The last of these cornices, older than those built by Michelozzo for the Palazzo Medici, was the first in Florence that replaced the old eaves of medieval roofs. With the facade of the Palazzo Rucellai, Alberti recreated a model of superposition of the classical orders that would be imitated for over 400 years.
Ashlar: Finely dressed (cut, worked) stone, either an individual stone that was worked until squared or the structure built from it. Ashlar is the finest stone masonry unit, generally rectangular cuboid, or less frequently trapezoidal.
Kneeling windows: A type of window named because of the shape of the consoles supporting the windowsill, which reach almost to the ground like a pair of legs.
Rustication: A range of masonry techniques used in classical architecture giving visible surfaces a finish texture that contrasts in with smooth, squared-block masonry called ashlar. The visible face of each individual block is cut back around the edges to make its size and placing very clear. In addition the central part of the face of each block may be given a deliberately rough or patterned surface. Rustication was used in ancient times, but became especially popular in the revived classical styles of Italian Renaissance architecture and that of subsequent periods.
Tessera: (Plural: tesserae). An individual tile, usually formed in the shape of a cube, used in creating a mosaic. It is also known as an abaciscus or abaculus.
Tuscan order: One of the two classical orders developed by the Romans, the other being the composite order. It is influenced by the Doric order, but with un-fluted columns and a simpler entablature with no triglyphs. In its simplicity, the Tuscan order is seen as similar to the Doric order, and yet in its overall proportions, intercolumniation and simpler entablature, it follows the ratios of the Ionic.