Italian Architecture during the XVIth Century: between High Renaissance and Mannerism

The Roman school of architecture spread its influence throughout Italy, particularly in Venice and Lombardy than in other neighboring regions. The most typical of the state residences of the XVIth century is located in the Italian region of Lazio: the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, the work of Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, who also designed the Church of the Gesù and the Villa Giulia, both in Rome. This large building, the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, built between 1530’s and 1573, has a pentagonal plan with a central circular courtyard with two floors. The polygonal floor plan was initially designed in 1547 by Antonio da Sangallo, upon which Vignola built a powerful building animated by alternating rectangular windows topped with segment and triangular pediments.

Aerial view of the Villa Farnese, by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, begun in 1559 (Caprarola, near Viterbo, Italy). The fame of this historical villa comes from the famous pentagonal ground plan and round interior courtyard of the palazzo, as well as for its interior fresco decoration. The palazzo was commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. As main architect in charge, Vignola had to work over the foundations of a previous construction, an incomplete fortress begun in the 1530s by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who had only built the exterior walls of the ground floor. Vignola approached the unfinished pentagonal structure as a challenge and opportunity to create a unique solution. The result was Vignola’s greatest achievement as architect, testifying to the full range of his talents as an urban planner, engineer, architect and painter. From the start he conceived the villa in scenic and symbolic terms. For maximum visibility, a long straight street on axis with the main entrance of the villa was projected through the medieval town. From the street the visitor approaches the villa by way of semicircular ramps to a trapezoidal piazza and then by flights of stairs, ending with a drawbridge before a rusticated Doric portal (see picture below). On the exterior, however, the initial fortification features of the building were cleverly used to serve the purpose of a palazzo: the arrowhead corner bastions remained in place, while their tops were converted into open-air terraces, on which stand the three upper floors of the pentagonal construction.
Main façade of the Villa Farnese, by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, begun in 1559 (Caprarola, near Viterbo, Italy). Above the original pentagonal structure of the ground floor rests the double-height piano nobile, where five large arched windows dominate the façade over the front door; in turn, they support two additional floors with numerous windows, these were intended for housing gentlefolk with servants on the top floor.

Michel de Montaigne, the French humanist and philosopher who traveled in Italy and visited Caprarola at the time, described this palace with high esteem. Montaigne was surprised that having a pentagonal shape, the palace looks as if it had a square plan, and recognized the beautiful proportions of the central circular courtyard.

View of the inner circular courtyard of the Villa Farnese, by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (Caprarola, near Viterbo, Italy). The most extraordinary feature of the Villa Farnese at Caprarola is the perfectly round interior courtyard. Its absolute circular geometry is in stark contrast to the shifting, ambiguous prospects of the pentagonal exterior of the building. Keyed to the five wings and corners by ten bays of superimposed arches, the cylindrical elevation has rusticated piers on the ground floor and paired Ionic half columns on the piano nobile. The interior loggia formed by the courtyard’s arcade is frescoed with Raphaelesque-style grotesques, in the manner of those in the Vatican loggias

But perhaps the most ingenious Mannerist fantasies are represented by the villa’s staircases, drawn with a scenographic sense that places this building on the border between reality and dream. This palace comes to be, in 16th century architecture, what the palace of Urbino was in the 1400’s. The military bastion shape of the corner pavilions is very characteristic. The 16th century involved great developments and transformations in military art, and these were reflected in other type of constructions as well.

Pictured above and below, the Scala Regia of Villa Farnese, by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (Caprarola, near Viterbo, Italy). Inside the palace at Caprarola, the upper floors are reached by five spiral staircases around the courtyard, the most important of these is the Scala Regia (“Royal Stairs’) a large and beautifully drawn structure with paired Doric columns inspired by Bramante’s ramp staircase in the Cortile del Belvedere at the Vatican.
The Scala Regia of Villa Farnese, by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (Caprarola, near Viterbo, Italy).
Sala del Mappamondo (“Room of the World Map”), Villa Farnese (Caprarola, near Viterbo, Italy). The interior fresco decorations of the Villa Farnese at Caprarola have been widely praised and were commissioned to the painter Taddeo Zuccaro, who made the drawings and cartoons for the frescoes and stucco work. The actual execution of the frescoes was assigned to other painters, particularly his brother Federico Zuccaro; they were succeeded by Jacopo Bertoia and Giovanni de’ Vecchi. The Sala del Mappamondo, located in the winter apartment on the west side of the piano nobile, was painted by Giovanni de’ Vecchi assisted by Raffaellino da Reggio. The decorative program consists of monumental maps of the entire known world as it was in 1574, as well as the depiction of the 48 Ptolemaic constellations of the zodiac and celestial spheres in the vault. The frescoes also include portraits of discoverers Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Hernando Cortés above the doors and windows of the room; personifications of the depicted countries and parts of the earth; and in a frieze running above the walls, depictions of the celestial legends with which the ancients explained the creation of the 12 signs of the zodiac. The maps were done by specialists, in particular the cosmographer Orazio Trigini de’ Marii, who supplied the cartoons for the maps, and the painter Giovanni Antonio Vanosino da Varese, who painted them.
  Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani (“Room of Farnese Deeds”), Villa Farnese (Caprarola, near Viterbo, Italy). The rooms of the palazzo Farnese at Caprarola were decorated with fresco paintings related to particular themes. Only in the rooms for public use (halls and their antechambers) both, the ceilings and walls, were decorated with frescoes, while in the private rooms painting was limited to the vaults, and the walls were covered in silk, brocade and similar expensive materials. In the Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani, decorated by the brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccari, the iconographic program depicts the Farnese family’s most glorious moments.

Antonio da Sangallo, commissioned by the bellicose Pope Julius II, built several castles in Lazio with inclined walls of curved shapes, in which despite their artistic value, the defense principles based on fire weaponry were taken into account for the design of these buildings. Even Michelangelo was involved in the design of Florence’s fortifications from 1528-1529 during the attempts to restore the Republic; these plans never came to fruition.

Study of fortification for the Porta al Prato of Ognissanti, pen and ink, watercolor, red pencil, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, ca. 1529-1530, 410 x 568 mm (Casa Buonarroti, Florence). In order to restore the Medici’s power and influence in Florence, in 1529 the Medici Pope Clement VII and the Popular Government decided to complete the defensive works commenced back in 1526, which had never been completed. Michelangelo was called to serve for this purpose and hence was appointed “governor and procurator general of the fortifications”. Michelangelo then designed a series of proposals for defending the gates in the city’s walls as the one shown in the picture. However, due to their complexity they were not implemented, or only to a very small extent, and whatever was built has now been destroyed. From this project of Michelangelo we know 16 extraordinary drawings now kept in the Casa Buonarroti.

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), an Italian painter, architect, engineer, writer, and historian, directed between 1550 and 1574 the great Uffizi (“offices”) building in Florence, which served to house the administration offices of the Medici. On the upper floor, today part of the Uffizi Gallery, the Medici housed their art collection. For this “offices” building, the Medici had built a long gallery along a whole district of the city, which also crossed the Arno River to directly reach the Pitti Palace, which was their home. The big aristocrats of the time felt the need for this service connecting their collections (museum) with their family residence.

View of a portion of the Corridoio Vasariano, (“Vasari corridor”) along the north bank of the River Arno, designed by Giorgio Vasari, 1565, total length ca. 1 km (Florence, Italy). The Vasari Corridor is an elevated enclosed passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti, and along its way it runs along the Uffizi building following the north bank of the River Arno and crosses it via the Ponte Vecchio. This private passage was commissioned by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1565 to Giorgio Vasari with the intention to serve as an enclosed private passageway for the Medicis to move freely between their residence (Palazzo Pitti) and the government palace (Palazzo Vecchio), as Cosimo felt insecure in public. Currently, part of the Vasari Corridor is used to exhibit the Uffizi‘s Gallery collection of self-portraits.
View of the portion of the Corridoio Vasariano, (“Vasari corridor”) on the Ponte Vecchio, designed by Giorgio Vasari, 1565 (Florence, Italy). In the section of the corridor that runs along the Ponte Vecchio, the corridor is characterized by a series of panoramic windows facing the Arno river to allow for panoramic views of the river and its banks. In years past, the meat market was located on the bridge, but after the corridor was built it was moved to avoid its smell reaching into the covered passage. The meat market was replaced by goldsmith shops that still occupy the bridge to this day.
View of the façade towards the Lungarno overlooking the Arno river, of the Ufizzi building, designed by Giorgio Vasari, 1560 (Florence, Italy).

The Uffizi building has two wings with long bays and a smaller transversal wing on the river side. The space left by the disposition of the long wings of the Uffizi is like an open rectangular patio which overlooks the Piazza della Signoria with the wonderful view of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. Thus, from the river dock, one can see (with an almost scenographic effect) through the Uffizi’s portico and the patio between its wings, the Palazzo Vecchio with its rough rusticated walls.

View of the Cortile (internal courtyard) of the Uffizi building towards the Arno river, designed by Georgio Vasari, 1560-1580’s (Florence, Italy). This building, commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, is the most important example of Giorgio Vasari’s architectural works. The building is called “Uffizi” because was intended to house the offices (uffizi) of the Florentine magistrates as well as to keep under one roof the state archives, so the original name of the building was the Magistrature. By commissioning this administrative building, Cosimo wanted to express the political unity achieved by his rule. The four stories of the building line three sides of a space that looks more like a street than a piazza (the actual cortile). The Uffizi derives its monumental effect from the repetition of elements: two Tuscan columns and a pier on the ground story, while on the second story a triplet of mezzanine windows alternates with Michelangelesque consoles. The third story features another triad of larger windows crowned by alternating triangular and segment pediments, and the open loggia of the fourth (now unfortunately covered with glass panels) reflects the Tuscan columns of the ground story. At the end towards the river, a central arch opens into the Arno River (see picture before).
View of the Cortile (internal courtyard) of the Uffizi building towards the Palazzo Vecchio, designed by Georgio Vasari, 1560-1580’s (Florence, Italy). The Uffizi building was begun in 1560, but it was still unfinished when Vasari died. It was hence completed in the 1580s by Bernardo Buontalenti and Alfonso Parigi, who connected it to the Loggia dei Lanzi in 1580. The 13 offices of the Magistrates in charge of overseeing Florentine production and trade were in the ground floor, while the first floor housed the administrative offices and workshops of the Grand Duchy, which were dedicated to the manufacture of precious objects. The top floor included a private open gallery for the Medici and their guests and housed their collection of Roman sculptures.

Galeazzo Alessi (1512-1572), another architect disciple of Michelangelo, brought his master’s style to Genoa. Working for the wealthy Ligurian ship-owners, Alessi tended to exaggerate the dimensions of his buildings. In the palaces of Genoa, with their very long facades, the grandest part was the staircase, with several sections combined on each landing.

Façade of the Villa Giustiniani-Cambiaso, designed by Galeazzo Alessi, 1548 (Genoa, Italy). This villa was commissioned in 1548 by the aristocratic Luca Giustiniani to architect Galeazzo Alessi from Perugia. Alessi designed the building as a compact block, apparently disconnected from the garden surrounding it, which once extended to the sea but that today is divided into various public parks. This design was followed for the construction of several other noble villas in Genoa. In 1787, the villa passed to the Cambiaso family, hence its dual name. Today, the villa is the seat of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Genoa. The villa has a square floor plan and a compact structure without internal courtyards. The main façade faces south on a large lawn towards the sea. The façade is divided in two: the first floor with Doric columns and an upper floor decorated with fluted pilasters inspired in the Corinthian order. The entrance is approached by a short staircase (see picture below) that leads to an open loggia that allows access to the interior, above it there are the large windows of the piano nobile and the mezzanine floor, all crowned by a large decorated cornice. The other three sides of the building have a simpler decoration.
The staircase leading to the loggia of the main façade of the Villa Giustiniani-Cambiaso, designed by Galeazzo Alessi, 1548 (Genoa, Italy).

There was something very attractive in Venice related to its strong artistic and cultural tradition that even influenced artists coming from other regions of Italy. This was undoubtedly the case of Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), a Florentine sculptor and architect who had worked in the Papal Court and who fled Rome after the sack of the city in 1527. On his way to France he stopped in Venice, where he ended up staying and becoming a perfect Venetian. The richness of ornamentation, the high reliefs, the paired columns, the balustrades and the statues on the crowning rails, are all motifs that traditionally started with the works of Sansovino, and that remained as characteristic of the Venetian Renaissance architecture. Typical of the style of Sansovino are the Corner and Zecca palaces, and especially the luxurious Biblioteca Marciana, with its two floors of profusely decorated arches and an upper frieze finished off with thick garlands with some clever skylights included to allow more light into the interior. When viewing this building, begun in 1537, the visitor can appreciate the pictorial values ​​determined by the play of light and shadow that become more apparent than the purely architectural features, and thus it can be understood that for Sansovino space was not an absolute concept that had to be transcribed with the structures themselves, but with something natural that is captured by the luminic play between the empty spaces and the full volumes.

Façade of the Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande, designed by Jacopo Sansovino, 1533-1556 (Canal Grande, Venice, Italy). The palace was designed by Jacopo Sansovino, after a fire that in 1532 had destroyed the previous residence of the Corner family, and it was one of the first commissions he received in Venice. The palace’s façade is divided into two zones. The ground level is rusticated, while the upper floors feature a series of large arcades defined by classical columns. In the center of the palazzo, at the Canal Grande level, is a portico with three large arcades, sided by two couples of square windows in two levels. Currently, the palace houses the office of the Province of Venice and its Prefecture.
Facade of the Zecca (“Mint”) of Venice, designed by Jacopo Sansovino, 1536-1548 (Venice, Italy). The Zecca palace once housed the Mint of the Republic of Venice, and was commissioned by the Council of Ten and built between 1536 and 1548. Sansovino designed this heavily rusticated stone structure, originally with only two floors, to ensure safety from fire and to provide adequate security for the silver and gold deposits of the city. Since 1904, the Zecca has housed the main part of the Marciana Library (see pictures below) whose historical building, located right next door, is now mostly a museum. The Zecca building was part of a renovation of the city begun under Doge Andrea Gritti to reaffirm Venice’s international prestige after years of conflict. This building programme also included the Marciana library (1537, see pictures below) and the loggia of the bell tower (1538), and mainly intended to transform Saint Mark’s Square from an antiquated medieval town center into a classical forum. The intent was also to evoke the memory of the ancient Roman republic and, in the aftermath of the Sack of Rome in 1527, to present Venice as a true successor of Rome. For the ground floor, Sansovino used heavy rustication in order to convey a sense of impregnability appropriate to the function of the mint. The following level also expresses a sense of rustication with the use of heavy Doric columns. The windows of the second level were originally protected by heavy iron grilles, and fit tightly between the engaged columns with no exposed surface, creating the impression that they are deeply recessed in a thick wall and contributing further to the sense of impregnability. The effect is enhanced by the massive, protruding lintels above. The floor that was later added (the third level) uses the Ionic order, and although it continues the rustication, the exposed walls around the windows and the delicate triangular pediments overhead, more typical of residential architecture, contrast with the design of the original structure.
Biblioteca Marciana (“Library of Saint Mark”), designed by Jacopo Sansovino, 1537-1588 (St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy). The Biblioteca Marciana was built to shelter the manuscripts left to the Republic of Venice by Cardinal Bessarion, the Greek humanist and patriarch of Constantinople. For the design of this building, Sansovino was apparently inspired by the ancient Pausanias’s description of the marble library of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The ground story arcade is in the Roman Doric order, based on that of the Colosseum, but with keystones carved into alternating masks and lion’s heads and with recumbent figures in the arch’s spandrels. The second story is taller with Ionic order columns. The vertical lines are accented at the corners of the building by piers articulated by pilasters. The balustrade crowning the structure is divided by bases that support statues and obelisks on the corners. No flat walls are apparent on either story, only clusters of columns and piers. After Sansovino’s death in 1570, the construction of the library was continued by his pupil Vincenzo Scamozzi. The library contains an impressive collection of more than 750,000 books, 13,000 manuscripts and 24,000 prints, which makes the Biblioteca Marciana one of the largest libraries in Italy and Europe.
Biblioteca Marciana (“Library of Saint Mark”), designed by Jacopo Sansovino, 1537-1588 (St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy). Rather than a two-dimensional wall, the façade of the Biblioteca Marciana was conceived by Sansovino as an assemblage of three-dimensional structural elements, including piers, arcades, columns, and entablatures layered atop one another to create a sense of depth, which is heightened by the extensive surface carvings. The upright structural axes, consisting of the succession of columns and pedestals, become progressively lighter as they go higher. This all serves to emphasize the verticality and counterbalance the long, horizontal succession of arcades to avoid monotony. The balustrade crowning the building is surmounted by statues of pagan divinities and immortalized heroes of Antiquity, and it was built by architect Vincenzo Scamozzi between 1588 and 1591 following Sansovino’s design. This solution for the roofline may have been influenced by Michelangelo’s designs for the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The overall effect of the library is that the entire façade has been encrusted with archaeological artefacts.
Detail of the frieze above the arcade of the ground floor (Biblioteca Marciana, St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy). The ornate frieze above the columns of the upper level includes a series of festoons with putti alternating with window openings. The decorative carvings on the façade are the work of Sansovino’s collaborators, including Danese Cattaneo, Pietro da Salò, Bartolomeo Ammannati, and Alessandro Vittoria.
Reading room of the Biblioteca Marciana, designed by Jacopo Sansovino, 1537-1588 (St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy). The library not only includes a magnificent and pompous façade, but also valuable décor inside, featuring works by famous Venetian artists of the time such as Alessandro Vittoria, Titian, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto. The reading room originally had 38 desks in the center, arranged in two rows. Between the windows were large imaginary portraits of great men of Antiquity (known as the ‘philosophers’). The ceiling is decorated with 21 roundels painted by Giovanni de Mio, Giuseppe Salviati, Battista Franco, Giulio Licinio, Bernardo Strozzi, Giambattista Zelotti, Alessandro Varotari, Paolo Veronese, and Andrea Schiavone. They are inserted into a gilded and painted wooden framework along with 52 grotesques by Battista Franco. These roundels were commissioned in 1556.

The Venetian style of the Renaissance was still perfected, rather exaggerated, by architects Michele Sanmicheli (1484–1559) and Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), one from Verona, the other from Padua. Especially Palladio, because of his architectural works and writings, became a great influence and is now considered to be one of the most influential people in the history of architecture. Inigo Jones (1573–1652), the English architect who introduced the Renaissance in England, had Palladio as his main influence. Through the works of Inigo Jones, Palladianism was implanted in America, where it continued to thrive well into the 19th century.

Façade of the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca, designed by Michele Sanmicheli, 1561-1575 (Canal Grande, Venice, Italy). This palace was commissioned by Girolamo Grimani, a magistrate and knight of San Marco. The façade is divided into three levels using the traditional way with strong horizontal bands and the two upper levels are characterized by three-mullioned central-arch windows. The ground floor includes an enormous triumphal arch portal, and it is divided by fluted pilasters, while the two upper floors are divided by twin columns. All the columns and pilasters have Corinthian capitals. The Palazzo Grimani is currently the seat of Venice’s Appeal Court. This building was the inspiration for architect Stanford White, who, in the early 1900s, designed the Tiffany and Company Building at 401-5th Avenue in New York City.