Renaissance architecture is a style of architecture that emerged in early 15th-century Florence, Italy. Ushering in a revival of ancient Greek and Roman classical architectural forms, it supplanted the prevailing Gothic medieval aesthetic. It's characterized by precise symmetry and proportion as exhibited by the grandeur of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, which is the most well-known example of this architectural style.
What Is Renaissance Architecture?
Renaissance architecture refers to the influential style of building that emerged in Italy around 1400 and spread throughout Europe over the next two centuries. Marked by a revival of ancient Classical forms, this important architectural movement produced some of the world’s most treasured monuments.
The Renaissance ("rebirth") spanned two centuries, encompassing not only architecture but art and human ideals. It produced multi-disciplinary giants including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The lasting cultural legacy of the Renaissance makes it one of the most transformative periods in western history.
History of Renaissance Architecture
Renaissance architecture developed as part of the rebirth of classicism in Florence, Italy, circa 1400. It evolved over the next 200 years as it spread throughout Italy and then Europe. Renaissance architects in Italy took inspiration from ancient Greco-Roman ruins and early structures, such as the Pantheon and the Colosseum in Rome, as well as the writings of Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80 BC-15 BC), which were published in 1486.
Renaissance architects didn't simply want to reproduce the past. They sought to use classical elements to innovate new structures that were rooted in history but adapted to a modern world and the development of cities.
Renaissance architecture is generally broken down into three main periods. It started with the Early Renaissance that began around 1400 when architects looked to antiquity for inspiration. They reintroduced classical Roman and Greek elements, such as arches, columns, and domes into buildings. Early Renaissance buildings had symmetrical facades and clear, streamlined volumes that marked a change from the more complex Gothic proportions that preceded them.
Starting around 1500, the High Renaissance was a period in which the use of classical elements adapted to contemporary 16th-century building styles was in full bloom. Then, during the Late Renaissance starting around 1520 (also called Mannerism), the use of decorative and ornamental classical elements, such as domes and cupolas, became more widespread.
Renaissance architecture was followed by the emergence of the Baroque period around 1600. Nevertheless, hundreds of years later, the architectural fruits of the Renaissance are considered some of the world’s greatest structures. And its guiding principles continue to influence architects, artists, and thinkers to this day.
Key Characteristics of Renaissance Architecture
Symmetry and Proportion
Renaissance architecture focused on the classical notions of beauty based on proportion and symmetry. It also incorporated geometry, and many building plans were symmetrical squares.
The exteriors typically featured ashlar masonry, a style of masonry in which stones are cut uniformly in a square or rectangle and then laid horizontally with minimal mortar.
Renaissance architecture used many classical elements, including domes, columns, pilasters (rectangular columns), lintels (a type of beam), arches, and pediments (triangular gables) in an orderly and repetitive fashion.
Air and Light
Early Renaissance buildings focused on bringing in air and light to the space. This was a nod to the dawning of Renaissance ideals and thought.
Notable Examples of Renaissance Architecture
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy
Considered the first Renaissance architect, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) is the early Renaissance pioneer responsible for the famous red brick Duomo at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. Construction of the cathedral began in the Gothic period in 1296 and was completed in 1436. The majestic dome is not only the building’s crowning feature, but it is also a feat of engineering that was ahead of its time. And it influenced many religious buildings in Italy and around the world.
Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Italy
Located in the heart of Rome-adjacent Vatican City, Saint Peter's Basilica is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. Constructed between 1506 and 1615, this holy pilgrimage site and tourist attraction is one of the most recognizable Renaissance buildings in the world. The project was overseen at one point by the great Renaissance sculptor, painter, and sometimes architect Michelangelo (1475-1564).
Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, Italy
Completed in 1564, the Marciana research library in Venice is a quintessential example of Renaissance architecture, built in the Palladian style by architect Jacopo Sansovino. One of the most breathtaking public libraries ever built, this gem is located on the popular Piazza San Marco.
Palazzo Medici in Florence, Italy
This quintessential Renaissance palace, which is also called the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, was completed in 1484 by architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo for the head of the Medici banking family. Today it is a museum and the seat of the Metropolitan City of Florence, Italy.