Italian Renaissance

The Start of the Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was a return to classical culture, art, and architecture. Designers, artists, scholars, patrons, and other individuals separated themselves from the Middle Ages. This period was very creative and influential. Mona Lisa Italian Renaissance Art

During the 15th century, Italy was comprised of individual republics. Those around and north of Rome were ruled by merchants, bankers, and traders and were very prosperous. The Renaissance began in Florence around 1400. Prosperity in banking and trade created a strong economy. There was a lot of building activity. The Medici, Pitti, and Strozzi families possessed the money to commission fine homes and great works of art. They also fostered the study of classicism, which produced enthusiasm for Ancient Roman art and architecture. In the second half of the 15th century, the Renaissance spread to other Roman cities. Artists and architects had no theoretical base, so they were still regarded as craftsmen. Once they began associating themselves with scholars and poets, they began to see themselves as intellectuals and scientists. Man began to distinguish himself in either several arts or art and science. The invention of the printing press helped to spread the works and conceptual base of the Renaissance throughout Europe. Political turmoil interrupted artistic progress in the 16th century. Rome became an artistic center where popes and wealthy families commissioned architecture and art. There were great accomplishments in both art and science. It was also the time of several great artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The Protestant Reformation in 1517 and the plague from 1522-1524 disrupted prosperity in Rome. Artists and architects left Rome, spreading the Renaissance throughout Rome.

Italian Renaissance Motifs

Classical motifs including columns, pediments, moldings, the classical figure, cherub, rinceau, swag, rosette, scroll, cartouche, and geometric patterns were used extensively as embellishment.

Italian Renaissance Architecture

Concepts in architecture returned to the classical orders. They adopted classical forms and used a mathematical approach to design. Architects began to relate the parts of a building to proportions. The most important buildings were churches, villas, palazzi, and public structures. Buildings were often large, but related to human scale. Symmetry, unity, regularity, harmony, and proportion were important design principles. Plans and structures follow geometric forms such as rectangles, squares, and circles. Important architectural features included columns, engaged columns, pilasters, arches, pediments, moldings, and modillioned cornices. Designers also used triangular and segmental pediments as decoration. In the Early Renaissance (1420-1500), architects experimented with orders, proportions, and other ancient construction techniques. During the High Renaissance (1500-1527), architects had a better understanding of classicism after the development of architectural theory. Geometric forms and numerical ratios dominated designs. At this time, there were two categories of architects: those who followed classical rules and those who followed Michelangelo. By the Late Renaissance, Some architects continued to follow principles from High Renaissance, while others created Mannerism. Mannerism was a parody of classicism in which they purposely broke rules and manipulated classical order to create disorder and confusion. Italian Renaissance Architecture City of Florence

Most public buildings stood out and were in self contained isolation. Palazzi faced streets or squares in towns. Villas were designated to suit the function, site, region, and patron. Winged villas with central residential pavilions were introduced for Venetian noblemen who occupied and farmed land in the countryside.

The most common church plan was the Latin cross. It was composed of carefully articulated square or rectangle modules. Some architects began experimenting with central plans, but found them unsuitable for churches. However, small memorials and chapels often had centralized plans. Public buildings had rectangular, symmetrical plans, and the rooms were arranged by function. Palazzo plans were rectangular with square or rectangular rooms that focus inward to a courtyard. Interior walls were parallel or at right angles to the facade. The most important rooms were on the piano nobile, which was the first floor above ground level. The camera, which was the owner’s bedroom, usually had a small private space where treasured possessions were kept.

Public windows and doors were arched or rectangular, with some embellishment. Shutters were used to block heat and light. Doors were carved, inlaid, painted, or surrounded by aedicula.

Roofs on public buildings were gabled or domed. Terra cotta roof tiles were used to cover roofs. Dwelling roofs were usually flat or low pitched and were often behind cornices.

Building Materials of the Italian Renaissance Trome L'oeil Italian Renaissance

Builders used marble, local stone, and brick for public buildings. Dwellings were made of local stone and brick. Both private and public buildings had stone or tile floors. Tile and brick were also used to cover floors and were set in a herringbone pattern. The best rooms had marble or terazzo floors. Knotted pile rugs imported from Spain were used to cover floors and tables. Natural fiber mats were used on floors in the summer. Walls displayed dado, fill, entablature, and cornice. Walls could be plain or have painted trompe l’oeil. Domestic walls could be plain stone or plaster. Common treatments were paneling, painting, and textiles.

Italian Renaissance Interiors

Interior unity became important during the Renaissance. Most interior rooms were rectangular. Domestic interiors were sparsely furnished and lavishly decorated. Grotesque were the Renaissance interpretations of ancient Roman ornament. They were usually underground. They were made of paint or stucco, and had colorful depictions of animal flowers animals, flowers, mythological creatures, and architecture.

Interior color comes from construction materials and fresco paintings. Textiles and wallpaper give color in residences. Colors used include scarlet, cobalt blue, gold, deep green, and cream.

Italian Renaissance Textiles

Textiles were more expensive than furniture. Renaissance textiles included brocades, velvets, taffetas, damasks, and brocatelles. The most common were woolens. Ogee-repeat patterns with stylized flowers and fruit designs were also common. They were usually woven in deep reds, golds, blues, and greens. Lucca, Genoa, and Palmero were textile factories. Textiles were used on doorways, walls, furniture, canopies, and window treatments. Silk was a luxury and could be weaved in striped or damask patterns. Armchairs and side chairs had leather or velvet seats. Some seat covers were made of tapestry. Bed hangings were used to provide warmth and privacy.

Italian Renaissance Furniture and Lighting

Interiors were usually dark. Torches, candles, and chandeliers were used to provide some light. Fixtures were made of wood, iron, bronze, and brass. Sedia Italian Renaissance Furniture

Furniture was massive and rectilinear. The main wood used was walnut, but oak, cedar, and cypress were also used. Stools were made of iron. Common seating included the sedia, folding chairs, ladder backs, and the sgabello. A sedia was a box shaped armchair with runners. A sgabello was a stool chair. It had an octagonal seat that rested on a box with solid supports or trestles for legs and a fan shaped back. It is typically used for dining. Long, narrow, oblong tables were used for dining. there were also tables with marble tops, and folding tables. Chests were used for storing possessions. Chests of drawers were introduced at the end of the 16th century. The letteria had a high headboard and rested on a platform made of or surrounded by three chests.

Most mirrors were made of polished steel. In the 16th century, they began producing small glass mirrors. Most rooms had at least one print or painting.

Later Interpretations

Buildings that followed the Italian Renaissance as inspiration included the Louis XIV, Baroque, Early Georgian, American Georgian, Late Georgian, Renaissance Revival, and Post Modern periods.


Aedicula: A way to frame a painted or bas-relief portrait, or protect an expensive an precious mirror.

Arch: A structure, especially one of masonry, forming the curved, pointed, or flat upper edge of an open space and supporting the weight above it, as in a bridge or doorway.

Brocade: A heavy fabric interwoven with a rich, raised design.

Brocatelle: A heavy fabric with highly raised designs.

Column: A supporting pillar consisting of a base, a cylindrical shaft, and a capital.

Engaged Column: A column engaged in a wall, so that only a part of its circumference projects from it.

Facade: The face of a building.

Ladder Back Chair: A type of chair in which the back is constructed of horizontal slats between two uprights.

Mannerism: An artistic style of the late 16th century characterized by distortion of elements such as scale and perspective

Modillion: An ornamental bracket used in series under a cornice, especially a cornice of the Corinthian, Composite, or Ionic orders.

Molding: An embellishment in strip form, made of wood or other structural material, that is used to decorate or finish a surface, such as the wall of a room or building or the surface of a door or piece of furniture.

Palazzo: An impressive public building or private residence.

Pediment: A triangular element, similar to or derivative of a Grecian pediment, used widely in architecture and decoration.

Pilaster: A rectangular column with a capital and base, projecting only slightly from a wall as an ornamental motif.

Piano Nobile: The main floor of a large house, containing the reception rooms: usually of lofty proportions.

Sedia: A “Sedia” is a type of chair that got its claim to fame from the Renaissance in Italy. The Sedia was a large chair, that had four bulky block like legs, and two supporting arms. The Sedia also had bands of leather attached to the frame, they were attached with nails. The nails acted as a form of decoration.

Sgabello: An Italian term for a specific type of backstool, moveable seat furniture. Sgabelli are generally made out of walnut and consist of a thin plank or panelled back and an octagonal seat, supported on shaped plank supports, strengthened by a stretcher, which may be turned. This seat would often be placed in hallways, and was often carved with a family’s imprese or emblem drawn from its coat-of-arms. Its primary purpose was not lounging comfort.

Taffeta: A crisp, smooth, plain-woven fabric with a slight sheen, made of various fibers, such as silk, rayon, or nylon, and used especially for women’s garments.

Trompe L’oeil:  A style of painting that gives an illusion of photographic reality.

VillaA country house, usually consisting of farm buildings and residential quarters around a courtyard.



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