Architecture of Humanism

Architecture of Humanism

by Geoffrey Scott



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780851390130
Publisher: Nichols Publishing Company
Publication date: 01/28/1980
Pages: 296

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THE architecture of Europe, in the centuries during which our civilisation was under the sway of classical prestige, passed in a continuous succession through phases of extraordinary diversity, brevity and force. Of architecture in Italy was this most particularly true. The forms of Brunelleschi, masterful as they appeared when, by a daring reversion of style, he liberated Italian building from the alien traditions of the north, seem, in two generations, to be but the hesitating precursors of Bramante's more definitive art. Bramante's formula is scarcely asserted, the poise and balance of classic proportion is scarcely struck, before their fine adjustments are swept away upon the torrent that springs from Michael Angelo. In the ferment of creation, of which Italy from this time forth is the scene, the greatest names count, relatively, for little. Palladio, destined to provide the canon of English classic building, and to become, for us, the prime interpreter of the antique, here makes but a momentary stand among the contending creeds. His search for form, though impassioned, was too reactionary, his conclusions too academic and too set, for an age when creative vigour was still, beyond measure, turbulent. With that turbulence no art that was not rapid and pictorial in its appeal could now keep pace. The time was past when an architecture of such calculated restraint as Sammichele had foreshadowed could capture long attention; and the art of Peruzzi, rich though it was with never-exhausted possibilities, seems to have perished unexplored, because, so to say, its tempo was too slow, its interest too unobtrusive. Vignola, stronger perhaps than these, is before long forgotten in Bernini. Architecture becomes a debatable ground between the ideals of structure and decoration, and from their fertile conflict new inventions are ever forthcoming to please a rapidly-tiring taste. Fashions die; but the Renaissance itself, more irresistible than any force which it produced, begets its own momentum, and passes on, with almost the negligent fecundity of nature, self-destructive and self-renewing.

We are confronted with a period of architecture at once daring and pedantic, and a succession of masters the orthodoxy of whose professions is often equalled only by the licence of their practice. In spite of its liberty of thought, in spite of its keen individualism, the Renaissance is yet an age of authority; and Rome, but pagan Rome this time, is once more the arbiter. Every architect confesses allegiance to the antique; none would dispute the inspiration of Vitruvius. For many the dictates of the Augustan critic have the validity of a papal deliverance upon a point of faith. Yet their efforts to give expression to this seemingly identical enthusiasm are contradictory in the extreme. Never were the phases of a single art more diverse. For to consistency the Renaissance, with all its theories, was vitally indifferent. Its energy is at every moment so intense that the forms, not of architecture alone, but of every material object of common use, are pressed into simultaneous and sympathetic expression; yet it is guided on no sure or general course. Its greater schemes too often bear evidence to this lack of continuity, this want of subordination to inherited principle. Upon the problem of St. Peter's were engaged the minds of Bramante, Michael Angelo, Raphael, Peruzzi, Sangallo, Fontana, Maderna and Bernini. So much originality could not, without peril, be focussed at a single point; and those of Bramante's successors who were fortunate enough to carry their schemes into execution, obscured, if they did not ignore, the large idea which he had bequeathed to them. The history of St. Peter's is typical of the period. Shaped by a desire as powerful as it is undefined, its inventive impulse remains unexhausted, and style succeeds to style in the effort to satisfy the workings of an imagination too swift and restless to abide the fulfilment of its own creations. In this the Renaissance stands alone. The mediæval Gothic had indeed been equally rapid, and equally oblivious of its past, so rapid and so oblivious that few of its principal buildings were completed in the style in which they were begun. Nevertheless it pursued one undeviating course of constructive evolution. Beside this scientific zeal the achievement of the Italian builders might appear, at first sight, to be as confused in aim as it was fertile in invention. Contrast it with the cumulative labour, the intensive concentration, by which the idea of Greek architecture, ever reiterated, was sharpened to its perfection, and the Renaissance in Italy seems but a pageant of great suggestions. Set it beside the antique styles of the East, compare it with the monumental immobility which for eighteen centuries was maintained in the architectural tradition of Egypt, and it might pass for an energy disquieted and frivolous. Yet, at every instant in the brief sequence of its forms, it is powerful and it is convinced; and from the control of its influence Europe has attempted to free itself in vain.

We shall seek without success, among conditions external to art, for causes adequate to an effect so varied, so violent, and so far-reaching. The revolutions which architecture underwent in Italy, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, corresponded to no racial movements; they were unaccompanied by social changes equally sudden, or equally complete; they were undictated, for the most part, by any exterior necessity; they were unheralded by any new or subversive discovery whether in the science of construction or in the materials at its command. All these, and other such conditions, did indeed contribute to the architectural result. Sometimes they set their limits to what was accomplished, sometimes they provided its opportunity. But none of them separately, nor all in conjunction, will sufficiently explain the essential character of the whole movement, or of each successive step, nor afford any clue to the sequence of its stages. They are like the accidents of a landscape which might shape the course of a wandering stream. But the architecture of Italy is a river in the flood. Race, politics, the changes of society, geological facts, mechanical laws, do not exhaust the factors of the case. Taste- the disinterested enthusiasm for architectural form -is something which these cannot give and do not necessarily control. Nevertheless it is by reference to these external factors that the architectural forms of the Renaissance are persistently explained.

Let us see how far such explanations can carry us. It is probably true that a 'Renaissance' of architecture in Italy was, on racial grounds, inevitable. Already in the twelfth century there had been a false dawn of classic style. Indeed, it seems evident that mediæval art could exercise but a temporary dominion among peoples who, however little of the authentic Roman strain they might legitimately boast, yet by the origin of their culture stood planted in Roman civilisation. Classic forms in Italy were indigenous and bound to reappear. And this fact is important. It enables us to dismiss that unintelligent view of Renaissance architecture, once fashionable, and still occasionally put forward, which regards it as a pedantic affectation, or perverse return to a manner of building that was alien and extinct. But it is a fact which in no way helps us to understand the precise form of classic culture which the Renaissance assumed. It does not explain the character, number, and variety of its phases. And it tells nothing of classic culture in itself. Racial considerations are here too general and too vague.

The field of politics might seem more fruitful. The growth of the new style is undoubtedly associated, at Florence, Milan, Naples and other city states, with the rise to power of the Italian 'tyrants,' themselves another echo of antiquity, and another characteristic expression of the Renaissance, with its cult for individuality and power. Cosimo I., whom Michelozzo followed into exile at Venice, Lorenzo, the protector of Giuliano da Sangallo, Alphonso in the South, in the North the Sforzas - these, and others like them, were certainly influential patrons. But it would be difficult to maintain that they left a deep imprint of themselves, or their government, upon the character of the art. Gismondo Malatesta, tyrant of Rimini, the rough soldier who caused a Gothic church to be converted into the equivalent of a pagan temple dedicated to his mistress, and flanked it with the entombed bones of Greek philosophers and grammarians, may well impress us with his individuality; but, as between him and Alberti, his architect, himself of noble family and one of the greatest humanists of his time, there can be little doubt where the paramount imagination lay. The influence of patronage on art is easily mis-stated. Art may be brought to the service of the state and its rulers; but the most that rulers can do towards determining the essence of an art is to impose upon it a distinctively courtly character, and the coherence which comes of a strongly centralised organisation. We should, for instance, misconstrue the inmost nature of Augustan art, or of the art of Louis XIV., if we were to ignore this factor. But nothing similar is true of the Renaissance city-state. Here the conditions were merely such as to give free play to an architecture which, intrinsically, in its character as an art, remained independent of them. The sole centralising influence, in any imaginative sense, was that of the Church, and even this was not felt as such till after the art had acquired its own natural momentum in the free, secular life of Florence.

It must be recognised, however, that the existence, in the sixteenth century papacy, of a soil perfectly suited to receive the roots of the restored art was in itself a piece of rare good fortune. The return to the antique, however tentative and, so to say, provincial, at the first, was in essence and by implication a return to the 'grand style' -to an imperial, and, in the literal sense, a 'catholic' architecture. For the assertion and development of such a style the papacy was the ideal instrument: the papacy with its imperial court, its boast of ancient continuities, its claim to universal dominion, its pagan inheritance, and its pomp. All such qualities were favourable to the vigour of a partly retrospective enthusiasm, fascinated by the broken ruins in which ancient Rome had embodied splendours so similar to these. And this was not all. For, in proportion as the classic movement was no empty revival, in proportion as it represented a rising to the surface of the preferences, still vital and potent, of an ancient and indigenous culture, which claimed a future as confidently as it possessed the past, just in that measure it required a field in which to realise its own creative resources, its own untried originality. It could not have found itself in any rigid discipline or imposed continuity such as that which, later, in the France of Louis XIV., gave to architecture a formal and restricted aim. It needed the patronage of a large idea, but it required also space and scope, that it might attempt every mode of self-realisation yet stand committed to none. This space, and this patronage, the papacy was fitted to provide. The rivalry of successive popes, their diverse origins and sympathies, their common passion to leave behind them an enduring monument of their power; above all, their detached office, controlling the different states of Italy and forcing each of them to bring its own artistic temperament within the spell of Rome, gave architecture, in perfect combination, the focus and the liberty, the varied impulse and the renewed vitality necessary for making a great imaginative experiment under the influence of the antique.

The papacy, then, may be considered to have predetermined in some degree the formation of Renaissance style. Yet we must not exaggerate its contribution. By its imperial quality it will appear to have furnished the large idea to which the new classic architecture might stand in service. But we must not overlook the extent to which the papacy was itself indebted, for that quality, to the artists of the Renaissance. It is a common fallacy to account for artistic expression by external conditions for whose very being that expression is in some cases responsible, and which, but for that expression, would never, perhaps, have been supposed to exist. In the present case, no doubt, this point could not be pressed very far. Yet St. Peter's and the Vatican, and the great monuments of restored Rome, are witnesses no less to the power of architecture to create and define the imaginative value of the Renaissance papacy, than to the encouragement and inspiration which the papacy contributed to art. Moreover, the character of the papacy in this period was largely formed by the character of its popes; and such men as Pius II., Leo X., and Julius II., were fit patrons of Renaissance architecture, partly for the reason that they were cultivated enthusiasts, awake to the ideals of an art which, quite independently of themselves, had given evidence of its nature, and which was already, in the eyes of all men, an energy so vigorous and splendid, that the popes could conceive no securer means of adding to their fame than by inviting its support.

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