‘Whilst the men of the Middle Ages look on the world as a vale of tears…here in this circle of chosen spirits, the doctrine is upheld that the visible world was created by God in love’. With this quote from the closing lines of his book on Renaissance Italy, Art Historian Jacob Burckhardt captures the attitudinal shift that epitomises the Christian Renaissance — the change from Christ as sufferer for humanity to Him as the essence of perfection. This period, as the ‘rinascitá’, or rebirth, of the Classical, was characterised by a rejuvenation of classical elements, including the architectural orders, due to a sharp focus on ‘studia humanitatis’, including Platonism, and the associations humanism had on the visual world. This humanistic approach gave rise to alternative representations of liturgical and domestic buildings and the concept of simplistic representation of mathematical complexity. It is the simple appearance of the building that initially gives rise to the notion of harmony — the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole — but as we delve further into the geometrical and compositional elements we discover the harmony that is presented in the individual components and the ways in which they produce concord. Donato Bramante in his 1502 work of San Pietro in Montorio’s Tempietto, commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, shows a magnificent example of this focus on antiquity, proportion and simplicity, an example that highlights the development of the Renaissance in Rome. Further North, Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, an intellectual endorser of Bramante, generated many of his own responses to the period, the contradictory elements of which can most vividly be seen in Il Redentore. This later church, built between 1577 and 1592, reflects notions of harmony in its characteristic elements, but shows the adaptations to the ‘Late Renaissance’ philosophy, with a renewed sense of originality.
Tempietto is a component of Bramante’s larger church in the Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio, overlooking the eastern slope of Gianicolo Hill. Surrounded by the cloisters of the church, it sits perfectly in the centre of a little courtyard, atop the sacred site of Saint Peter’s martyrdom on the cross. The temple is peripteral, with a colonnade of sixteen Roman Doric columns, modelled on the Temple of Vesta on the acropolis in Tivoli, and the Temple of Hercules Victor near the River Tiber in Rome, which was likely direct inspiration on Bramante’s doorstep during his extensive studies of the remnants of ancient architecture. The Tempietto columns are unfluted and have a base, distinguishing them from Greek Doric columns as are found on the Parthenon in Athens. Corinthian was the order used for both of the classical temples, and Bramante’s choice of Doric plays a big role in the depiction of harmony.
The use of the Doric order here relates to the Vitruvian ideals of the meaning and decorum of the different orders. Doric was seen as a weighty order, portraying masculine qualities of strength and durability that contrive from the warlike, Macedonian tribe that first utilised it. The order potentially relates to the Greek god Apollo, to whom the first Doric temple was dedicated, and whose name might derive from Doric ‘apello’. With its metallic appearance, the dome of the Tempietto seems like a helmet upon the head of a warrior, linking to the choice of order even more. This knowledge of Classical architecture, and Vitruvius’ keen focus on the decorum of different orders, led Bramante into enhancing the power and authority of the church through the use of this ancient order, and creating a harmony between structure and meaning in the Tempietto. The columns lead the eye up to the plain architrave and the frieze above, which contains triglyphs and metopes, another characteristic feature of the Doric order. The metopes containing Christian liturgical symbols, including the papal keys, displaying the power and importance of the liturgy and so further illustrating the harmony between structure and use.
The ‘little temple’ itself is an entirely circular, centrally-planned building, reminiscent of fourth century Roman church Santa Costanza, built as a mausoleum or funerary structure for a daughter of Emperor Constantine. The circular quality of the Tempietto, which Serlio later says is the ‘more perfect form than all other [shapes]’, references the eternal quality of God’s universe, with the circumference giving ‘no distinguishable beginning or end’. This is evident both in the interior and exterior of the building, with the continuous peristyle, cella and balustrade around the outside, and the cornice below the dome on the inside. Vitruvius states that the temple’s form should be ‘analogous to the character of the divinity’, which further reinforces Bramante’s decision to follow his predecessors’ words and represent the motif of eternal heaven and spiritual guidance in the circular form. A pivotal difference between Santa Costanza and Tempietto is that the former was built adjacent to the Basilica of Saint Agnes, whilst the Tempietto was planned and built as a freestanding structure, which as art historian Jean Paul Richter states is necessary so a building’s ‘true form may always be seen’. Tempietto’s detachment is enhanced by the wrap-around, shallow steps, showing its self contained nature that illustrates its ability to be a ‘consistent whole’ with no other influences, as the definition of harmony states. Bramante is still following the expertise of Alberti in giving the Tempietto external and internal steps (the internal ones lead to the crypt), as according to their treatises, steps invoke devotion and awe in the participant. Filarete states churches are built high so the ‘soul rises to the contemplation of God’, relating both to the steps and also to the position of San Pietro on Gianicolo, which elevates Tempietto above the whole city.
Behind the peristyle is the cella which is decorated with alternating niches and pilasters and broken up by the three portals that are found at the top of the steps. On the first storey, the niches of the cella are empty, but topped by large clam shells, mirrored in the niches on the second storey. Pilgrims visited the reliquary of this church, and the shell motif ties into this as the symbol of the pilgrim. The Aragon (Spanish) coat-of-arms breaks into the smooth line of dentils below the dome and with the most detail of any part, provides a frontispiece for the viewer’s gaze, alluding to the power of the patron, the Spanish monarchy. Tempietto’s cella stretches an extra half height above the columns, and atop this sits the moulded dome, also half the height of the columns, creating a balanced second storey, the same height as the first. The proportion presented here was the obsession of most architects, as it could only be achieved through ratios, and so the study of science and mathematics prevailed. English ambassador to Venice and devoted student of humanist architects, Sir Henry Wotton touches upon the importance of proportion: ‘In truth, a sound piece of good Art, where the Materials being but ordinary Stone, without any garnishment, do yet ravish the beholder (and he knows not how) by a secret Harmony in the Proportions.’
Inside the chapel, the viewer is confronted by an intimate, white-walled space whose colouration even ancient philosophers Cicero and Plato ratified, and directly opposite the main portico, the figure of Saint Peter sits as a statue in a niche, with clam shell top. On the floor there is a maze of colourful mosaics, forming intelligent patterns and symbols weaving across one another, with the hole for the cross of St Peter evident, but obscured by the patterns. Looking upwards, we see the beautiful azure dome, with paired vaults running from the lantern to the dentilled cornice on the exterior, simply plain on the interior. Rectangular windows with tracery and stained-glass coats-of-arms adorn the drum below the dome, allowing light in, which plays with that from the lantern mid-dome (lantern added later). These light sources bounce off the small golden stars carefully incised on the blue dome, giving a heavenly glow to the upper sections of the temple, and their receding appearance gives the illusory sense that the dome stretches much further upwards than in reality. The base of the temple with the crypt can be seen as a representation of the old church or foundation with St Peter as the father, with the stairs leading the viewer down to experience it, returning to the intermediary white space, which can be viewed as the earthly experience of the church, that which is constant (circular) and accessible (on the same level as the viewer). Upon standing in the centre, all parts of the ground level are equally as close to the viewer, relating to the Earth which Plato states is ‘equidistant every way from centre to extremity’, enhancing the concept of Tempietto’s first storey as the earthly experience. In contrast, the viewer looks upwards a quadrupled distance to the dome, being four times the radius of the cella, signifying the separation between an earthly life and that in Heaven, and inspiring piety. Bramante's play on proportion and ideas of perspective in the interior of his temple augment the harmonious experience the viewer grasps.
Andrea Palladio’s Il Redentore, located on the Giudecca Canal in Venice, shows an equal appreciation for the recent wave of Classical thinking and for an inventiveness that is motivated by a desire to test the limits of antiquity. Commissioned by the Venetian Senate as a votive church for the city being cured of the plague, it was the final destination of the Ducal procession through the canals of Venice. Small engaged columns support an entablature above the door, and two engaged composite columns flank the doorway, paired with two composite pilasters and niches with statues surmounted by rounded pediments. Within its façade, four compressed, interlocking porticos are also visible, two broken and two complete. The two complete pediments of the façade show typical elements of Greek antiquity, with the basic post and lintel system in use and the Corinthian order used correctly, with slender columns and undecorated friezes. Palladio also includes an attic atop the final cornice, that gives off the illusionary effect of a pediment, enhancing further the appearance of classicism. Many of the elements that Vitruvius and Alberti include in their treatises, and that Bramante uses in Tempietto, one can see Palladio employing here, including the use of perron, and the white colouration. The steps would also have had a practical function, for the island was low and the church very close to the canal, therefore there would have been a problem with flooding. The white colouration can only be found on the façade as Istrian marble was too expensive for the whole commission. The Venetian Senate uses this church to illustrate the positive motivations of the Renaissance as presented in Burckhardt’s concluding lines of his book, with its dedication to the ‘Redeemer’ — rather than the ‘Sufferer’ — as a hope for Christians and, in particular, the people of Venice as the plague left the city.
'In truth, a sound piece of good Art, where the Materials being but ordinary Stone, without any garnishment, do yet ravish the beholder (and he knows not how) by a secret Harmony in the Proportions.’ - Sir Henry Wotton
The first unusual aspect of Il Redentore are the porticos that are compressed into the building front itself. This shows a spin on Classical form, with a sophisticated and complex rendering of what was once a formulaic practice. It also illustrates Alberti’s notions that columns could not work as a structural function in a wall, due to their three dimensional nature, and instead should be substituted for ‘columnae quadrangulae’, or pilasters, as have been placed in Il Redentore. The full porticos are reminiscent of the Parthenon, whilst the broken ones illustrate the limitations of the Classical temple front when applied to a church. The combination of the necessity for a clerestory (to illuminate) and the nature of the triangular pediment meant that the two could not be directly combined. Palladio has used two extra broken pediments to overcome the difficulties presented. Structurally, the red brick used, apart from on the façade, is in fact more durable and likely to sustain the weight of the dome better and the marble frames of the windows and pilasters reflect the white from the façade in an accordant manner. Even so, the juxtaposing colours are too disjunct to fit with the High Renaissance qualities of harmony. Palladio focused on the systemisation of the ground plan, particularly inspired by Roman thermae, which in his drawings were always entirely symmetrical. Il Redentore is not built in the Greek Cross style, as the Tempietto is, but in the Latin Cross form, with a transept intercepting a long nave, still being symmetrical along the longitudinal axis, but no longer the centrally-planned, perfectly harmonious building of before. Palladio further shows boldness in solving the age old problem of the ‘composite’ type of church, applying both dome and long nave to Il Redentore, and as Wittkower states he clearly separates the two ‘thus preserving the identity of each’.
Throughout the Renaissance, the importance of nature was key: ‘In the weightiest matters we must go to school to the animals, and learn spinning and weaving from the spider, building from the swallow, singing from the birds…’. The focus on the scientific attributes of the world, and the origin of the round form according to Alberti (‘Nature herself enjoys the round form above all others as is proved by…the globe, trees, nests’), plays a major part in the harmony of all things. Bramante applies this Renaissance harmony incredibly well to Tempietto, and sticks to the pure Classical requirements, whilst Palladio is evidently merging two philosophies at this point in his career. His clever dual-natured focus on antiquity and rather ironically, a sense of originality, is what sets the benchmark for the Late Renaissance attitude, with a step away from harmony and towards daring pursuits, as the Mannerist style comes to prove. There are evident changes in the way notions of harmony impacted the Renaissance through time and location, and evidently an adjustment from the notions depicted in the preceding period of the Middle Ages.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.