Renaissance architecture is something travelers coming to Italy connect to Florence. It is of course quite simplistic to search for an exact place where it all started, not to mention when. However, it is quite correct to state that a change reflecting the new ideas of humanism started at the beginning of the 15th century mainly in Florence. But when would this style reach Venice and change its urban cityscape? Who were its interpreters? And how was it expressed?
Renaissance architects from Lombardy
In the first half of the 1400s many “tajapiera” (stonecutters) from the Duchy of Milan reached Venice. The opportunities Venice offered were plenty, both in the public and the private sectors. The Ca’ d’oro was being rebuilt and so the Doge’s palace, not to mention the Dominican and the Franciscan churches or the church of Santa Maria dei Servi. Gothic architecture, with its plaits, pinnacles, marble and three-point arches required major and qualified human resources. By the year 1460-65, The Council of the Ten accelerated the procedure for these foreign masters to become Venetian citizens and salaries became very attractive.
Early Renaissance in Venice in foreigners’ hands
According to Laura Damiani Cabrini, the reasons for this success lay in the high expertise these men from the Como lake area had developed in working stone and marble, but also in the entrepreneurial approach. Able to work in a team, with different roles, calculating budgets and organizing materials’ supply. In other words, they could offer the whole thread, from the planning to its finalization.
No wonder why it was this group of stonecutters, masons and architects from Lombardy who received countless commissions to build in the new style of Renaissance in Venice. Before the arrival of Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio, the main architects working in Venice were therefore all born near the Como lake or Lake Maggiore or in areas today part of Switzerland.
Names of early Renaissance architects operating in Venice
Churches, “scuole grandi” (lay brotherhoods), private palaces, bell towers, monasteries and convents were redesigned in the second half of the 15th century. Pietro Solari, called the Lombardo, Mauro Codussi (or Coducci), Giovanni Buora are the names we encounter most of the times. Later on at the turn of the century and the beginning of the 16th century, more names of architects coming from the same area emerge, such as Antonio Abbondi, called the Scarpagnino, Guglielmo de Grigi, called the Bergamasco, Giorgio Spavento.
Early Renaissance architecture in Venice: a competition with Florence?
But what was this new architecture imported by these architects like in Venice? Well, not everybody admired it. Giorgio Vasari in his “Life of the artists” in fact wrote till the arrival of Florentine architect Sansovino in Venice in 1527, Renaissance architecture in Venice was dull, deprived of any invention, old fashioned and monotone and disordered. Vasari loved it the way it was in Florence, clearly! But why is it that Venetians adopted architecture solutions that were different from Florence? And was it really dull?
Ancient models for Venetian early Renaissance in architecture
Art historian Ennio Concina highlighted the strong anti-Venice attitude of Florentines in those years. These two nations did not like each other. It was obvious Venice would avoid “tuscanizing” itself! So, while Constantinople became Istanbul in 1453 and soon after the mausoleum of Constantine, the Apostoleion, was torn down, Venice chose to propose itself as the new Constantinople or Byzantium. The interest of Venice for the new architecture developing in Florence was still there, but it was combined with exuberance and over decoration. Marble of all possible colors, attention to jewelry, an imperial taste strongly connected to St Mark’s Basilica, ancient Greece or Roman cities like Verona or Aquileia, or Ravenna.
Let’s take two wonderful examples: the church on the island of San Michele, today’s cemetery island in Venice and the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Cannaregio. The first one by Mauro Codussi and the second one by Pietro Lombardo.
San Michele in Isola (1468-1479)
At the time Mauro Codussi planned this church, the island was the seat of a powerful, extremely educated religious order, that of the Camaldolese. A few years before, on that same island, Fra Mauro had finished the map of the world we can admire at the National Library in St Mark’s square.
Quoting the Malatesta temple in Rimini by Leon Battista Alberti, Codussi chose a wonderful Istrian white limestone façade creating an amazing effect of light. The white limestone contrasts both with the openings, all dark, of the church, but also with the lagoon blue water. The motif of the shell reminds us of Venus, this time born in the lagoon waters. “Nitet venustate”: it shines with loveliness, they say.
The church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1481-1489)
Designed to protect a miraculous painting of the Virgin Mary, the church simply known as “dei Miracoli” is a masterpiece by Pietro Lombardo. Among the ones who supervised the work, let’s not forget the Amadi family, originally rich merchants from Tuscany and at the head of the Scuola of Lucchesi. Lucca for Venice meant weavers, rich textiles.
The fries with the griffons quotes ancient Rome as well as Ravenna. The form as a reliquary, as some ancient sarcofagi in Ravenna. Incredibly colorful like St Mark’s Basilica. Architecture emerging from water, just like Venice itself. Just to mention some of its main characteristics…
A new element, intrinsic to Early Renaissance Architecture in Venice: the lagoon
In fact, if there was an element architects in Venice could not forget and had to play around, that was water and its translucent and constantly changing light. Simply said, early Renaissance architecture in Venice, while referring to the ancient world, had to deal with the fluidity of water and light: it could not be alike anywhere else.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy