Influence of Florentine architecture in Rome

After working in Mantua and Rimini, Leon Battista Alberti went to Rome, where he was called by the then Pope Nicholas V, a renowned scholar who despite being born in the town of Sarzana (now part of the Italian region of Liguria) was part of the group of humanists from Florence. In order to continue his studies in Tuscany, Tommaso Parentucelli (later known as Nicholas V), had to serve as the tutor for several young members of rich families in Florence, such as the Albizzi and the Strozzi, where he met the leading humanist scholars of the time. When a few years later in 1447 he was elected Pope by a surprising decision of the Papal conclave, Cosimo de’ Medici sent him a bombastic salutation in the name of the city of Florence. Nicholas V then resolutely took sides with the Florentine Renaissance, and was able to open the Church to the newborn humanism. Within the city of Rome, Nicholas introduced the fresh spirit of the Renaissance both intellectually and architecturally. He planned to embellish the city with new monuments worthy of the capital of the Christian world. It was natural then, that Nicholas V wanted to have at his side a Florentine architect for the great architectural works he planned, and this could not be other than Leon Battista Alberti. The bibliophile Pope and the humanist architect traced a chimerical project of an ideal city, of which we know few from Alberti’s treatise: De re aedificatoria (“On the Art of Building”), which he dedicated to Pope Nicholas in recognition of his commitment to building in Rome. This building program was of course reduced; but the main work, which was to be the new church over the place occupied by St. Peter’s tomb, was begun by tearing down the back of the old venerable Vatican basilica. Alberti just started the foundations for the new apse, however, the conscientious direction of the great Florentine allowed Bramante and Michelangelo a century later to lift the colossal walls that were to support the current dome of Saint Peter’s basilica at the Vatican. Later, the Sienese humanist Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, translator of Greek texts and author, was also raised to the pontifical chair for his literary merits. With the name of Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini ruled the Church continuing the work traced by Nicholas V.

With the presence of Leon Battista Alberti in Rome and attracted by Humanist Popes, other architects from Florence went to the Eternal City to build according to the Tuscan Renaissance style. However, in Rome the new style manifested itself with a well-emphasized local character; the ruins of the Roman civil buildings scattered across the city offered models for facades and layouts that couldn’t be found in Florence. The most characteristic building of the 15th century in Rome is the Palazzo della Cancelleria (Palace of the Chancellery) regarded as the earliest Renaissance palace in Rome, built between 1489-1513 for the residence of Cardinal Raffaele Riario nephew of the powerful Pope Sixtus IV, whose name is seen in the frieze that runs along the center of the facade. It has been assumed that this building was the work of Donato Bramante. However there’s some scholarly debate about this assumption, since this great architect didn’t go to Rome until much later, and it has been suggested that the master architect director was a Florentine disciple of Alberti, because in the arrangement of the facade the building looks like a Tuscan translation of the superposition of Classical orders shown in the amphitheater or Colosseo (see Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai) and in its decoration the Florentine quattrocento style is apparent. However, this palace differs from that of Rucellai in Florence because in the ground floor’s facade there are no built-in pilasters, and those that appear on the other two floors are not placed at regular intervals, but alternating the wide spaces occupied by the windows with other narrower blind spaces.

View of the Palazzo della Cancelleria (“Palace of the Chancellery”, Rome, Italy). Its name refers to the former Apostolic Chancery of the Pope. It was built between 1489–1513. The Palazzo della Cancelleria was the first palazzo in Rome to be completely erected in the new Renaissance style. Its facade, with its flat doubled pilasters between the windows, is pure Florentine in conception, and it’s comparable to the Palazzo Rucellai by Alberti. The bone-colored travertine* of the Palazzo was repurposed building stone taken from the nearby ancient ruins of the Theater of Pompey.
The courtyard of the Palazzo della Cancelleria (Rome). The 44 Egyptian granite columns of this inner courtyard were taken from the porticoes of the ancient Theater of Pompey’s upper covered seating. It has been suggested that Brunelleschi’s cloisters for the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence inspired this courtyard’s design. However, it is more probable that the layout of this courtyard is derived from that of the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino (see pictures below), because the individuals involved in the early planning of the Palazzo della Cancelleria had come from Urbino.

Another Roman palace of about the same period, is the Palazzo Venezia, named because in 1564 Pope Pius IV, to win the sympathies of the Republic of Venice, gave the mansion to the Venetian embassy to Rome. The Venetian cardinal Pietro Barbo (later Pope Paul II) ordered its construction (beginning in 1451), and it was the work, according to Vasari, of the Florentine Giuliano da Maiano (who most probably designed the courtyard and the colonnade), but the design of the building is traditionally attributed to Alberti. Much of the stone for this project was quarried from the nearby Colosseum, a common practice in Rome until the 18th century. The exterior of this Palazzo looks like a massive, defensible medieval fortress with battlemented crown, instead the courtyard has Roman classical sobriety, with pure lines that predated the style that a century later would be characteristic of the Roman Renaissance strongly inspired in ancient buildings. The imitation of the superimposed orders present in the ancient Theater of Marcelo is evident in this courtyard surrounded by columns attached to solid pillars of square section. These pillars with built-in columns as a pilasters, reminiscent of Alberti’s Tempio Malatestiano, separate on each floor the arches of the courtyard, a feature that is, however, very Florentine in taste.

The Palazzo Venezia (Rome, Italy). The majority of the stone used to build the palazzo was quarried from the ruins of the Colosseum. The general design of the building is traditionally attributed to Leon Battista Alberti.
The great inner courtyard (cortile grande) was enclosed by a colonnade surmounted by a loggia only for less than a quarter of its full perimeter before work was interrupted. Its Renaissance design was attributed to Giuliano da Maiano.
View of the unfinished portico of the inner courtyard of Palazzo Venezia.
The upper loggia of Palazzo Venezia on the inner courtyard.

However, the most beautiful Italian quattrocento palace, the Ducal Palace of Urbino (Italy) commissioned by Duke Federico III da Montefeltro, was mostly built by a foreigner: the Dalmatian Luciano Laurana, from Vrana (near the current Zadar in Croatia), who worked in Urbino from 1466 until his death in 1479. Placed on uneven ground, it doesn’t have a great facade like the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, in addition, the harsh weather of Urbino, in the Apennines, forced the roofs to be raised exposed to snow; on the other hand, inside it is one of the monuments with the purest lines and details, one of the most beautiful in the world. The Florentines themselves admired it and Lorenzo de’ Medici asked for drawings of the building. The courtyard is of Hellenic simplicity: it has a lower porch with several semicircular arches that support a frieze with a Latin inscription in classical letters; the aerial lightness of its lines is only comparable to the Florentine arcades of Brunelleschi, although here the angles were reinforced by pillars. In its halls, today dismantled, there are prodigies of decorative elements on doors, chimneys and windows, all displaying the coat of arms of the Montefeltro. Today the Palace of Urbino, without furniture or tapestries, without its rich library which was later added to the Vatican’s, causes profound melancholy to those who visit it when seeing so much abandoned beauty.

General view of the Ducal Palace of Urbino (“Palazzo Ducale”) located in the Italian city of Urbino in the Marche Region. The Palace was commissioned by Duke Federico III da Montefeltro to the Florentine Maso di Bartolomeo. The solid rock hillside salient on which the Palace was to be raised represented a big obstacle to carve out the foundations of the palace. As a consequence, a prominent fortress-builder was called in, Luciano Laurana, from Dalmatia, who was then hired to build the substructure; but Laurana departed Urbino before the living quarters of the palace were begun. After Laurana, the designer or designers of the Ducal Palace are unknown with certainty. It is possible that architect Donato Bramante, a native of Urbino, may have worked on the completion of the palace.
The arcaded courtyard of the Ducal Palace of Urbino. Designed by Luciano Laurana (ca. 1468), it is possible that he was inspired by the design of Brunelleschi’s cloisters for the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence.
View of the interior of the now empty upper loggia of the Ducal Palace of Urbino.
The Ducal Palace of Urbino included several rooms that reflect Federico da Montefeltro’s devotion to Classical and humanistic studies. Pictured above is a general view of the Studiolo (a small study or cabinet for contemplation). This small room (3.60 x 3.35 m) was beautifully executed featuring intarsia* work all around the room with trompe-l’oeil shelves, benches, and half-open latticework doors displaying symbolic objects representing the Liberal Arts. This whole is the single most famous example of this Italian craft of wood inlay.

All the patrons of the Renaissance had, in imitation of the ancient Romans, their country houses adorned with works of art and appropriately fitted to enjoy some days of leisure time outside of the gran metropolis. Some of the recreational homes and summer residences of the Medici have been kept in relative good condition, with a mixed nature of rustic property and refined retreat. In Naples, the Aragonese king Alfonso V called “the Magnanimous”, had two of these recreational houses built. One of them was an almost open construction, with a square floor plan, a central courtyard and porches on each facade, the only rooms that could be closed were those arranged in all four angles.

The Villa Medici at Cafaggiolo (Villa Medicea di Cafaggiolo) located near the Tuscan town of Barberino di Mugello, some 25 kilometres north of Florence (Italy). It was one of the oldest and favorite of the Medici family estates, in existence since the 14th century. The villa was reconstructed following designs by the Renaissance architect Michelozzo in 1452, and soon became an important meeting place for some of the greatest intellectuals of the Italian Renaissance.
The Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano, one of the most famous of the Medici villas, located in Poggio a Caiano (Region of Tuscany, Italy). The villa is perhaps the best example of architecture commissioned by Lorenzo il Magnifico. It was designed by Giuliano da Sangallo around 1480. This building served later as a “model” that influenced Villas and country states around Italy. Some of its prominent features are: the external loggias, symmetrical distribution of rooms around a central main salon, dominant position in the landscape and gardens, conscious utilization of Classical architectural elements such as the barrel vault and the ionic temple facade complete with pediment, and external monumental and symmetrical staircases.

The personal acquaintance of Alfonso V of Aragon with Lorenzo de’ Medici, the grandson of the great Cosimo, explain the influx of artists from Florence to Naples during the mid-15th century. Alfonso had a refined spirit, endowed with extraordinary good taste; his library, inventoried when he was only an infant, was full of Classical texts. Alfonso took advantage of the sympathies that the house of Aragon had in Sicily and its more or less doubtful rights to the kingdom of Naples, that made him to venture into a war of conquest of southern Italy to finally make a triumphal entry into the old city. The Aragonese king never returned to his states in Spain and became an Italian prince, a determined protector of the new ideas of the Renaissance.

To commemorate Alfonso’s entry into Naples, his son Ferrante (Ferdinand I of Naples), ordered a triumphal arch to be built at the entrance gate of the Castelnuovo. The castle was a Gothic construction of the time of the French kings of the house of Anjou, and in its renovation under Alfonso, intervened the Mallorcan Guillem Sagrera. It had cylindrical towers with barbicans and on the wall that was located between two of these towers the artists who came to Naples in 1458 made the most extraordinary monument for the glory of the Aragonese king. This work in the arch and much of its sculptural decoration is usually attributed today to Luciano Laurana’s brother, Francesco (whom we will refer to in another essay), although some have attributed it to Luciano himself. The lower part imitates the Roman triumphal arches, with a semicircular arch door flanked by two built-in columns and two magnificent griffins in the arches which support the coat of arms of the House of Aragon.

The triumphal arch of Castel Nuovo (“New Castle”), in Naples (Italy). This imposing (35 m tall) white marble entry gate, built in 1470, commemorates Alfonso of Aragon’s entry to Naples in 1443. It stands between two western towers of the Angevin castle. The overall design has been attributed to Francesco Laurana. The sculptors included Isaia da Pisa, Merliano, Domenico Gagini, Andrea Fiorentino, a pupil of Donatello, and Silvestro dell’Aquila. Sculptors from Aragon also contributed to the work.
The lower arch of the triumphal arch of Castelnuovo is flank by Corinthian columns. Above the arch are some magnificent griffins holding cornucopias and right at the top center of the arch is a shield with the coat of arms of Aragon.

Above, over the frieze, there is a high relief representing the triumphal entry of Alfonso in Naples preceded by the groups of his warriors, the heralds with trumpets and the king in the triumphal carriage pulled by four horses, with the flame symbol of their virtues as described by his biographers. Further up there is a new zone formed by a loggia or open balcony that repeats the motif of the lower arch. Finally, at the top, there is a frieze with niches and symbolic statues, and the portrait of “the Magnanimous”.

Above the lower arch is a wide frieze area with sculptures depicting the triumphal quadriga of Alfonso parading in the city.
The upper arch (above the quadriga frieze) is surmounted by a narrower frieze with lions topped by four niches with statues depicting the virtues of Alfonso. Above this, there’s a rounded lintel with two genii with holding cornucopias which is in turn surmounted by a statue of Alfonso wearing warrior attire.

Alfonso’s arch proclaims, with all its sculptures, the glory of the Aragonese king not only as a politician, but also as an enlightened man. From the royal records of Barcelona we know that the marble came from Mallorca, we also know the names and salaries of some of the stone-cutters and carvers who worked in its decoration, most of them Florentines: but instead they don’t reveal neither the name of the architect who designed this original work, nor that of its main sculptor.


Intarsia: A form of wood inlaying that is similar to marquetry. The use of this technique dates from before the seventh century CE. The technique of intarsia inlays sections of wood within the solid stone matrix of floors and walls or of table tops and other furniture. When Egypt came under Arab rule in the seventh century, indigenous arts of intarsia and wood inlay spread throughout Northwest Africa. The technique was already perfected in Islamic North Africa before it was introduced into Christian Europe through Sicily and Andalusia. The art was further developed in Siena and in northern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, later spreading to German centers and introduced into London by Flemish craftsmen in the later 16th century.

Travertine: A form of limestone deposited by mineral springs, especially hot springs. Travertine often has a fibrous or concentric appearance and exists in white, tan, cream-colored, and even rusty varieties. It is frequently used in Italy and elsewhere as a building material.