1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Gothic Architecture in Italy

(Part 099)

Gothic Architecture in Italy

The history of the development of Gothic architecture in Italy brings out, more clearly than anywhere else, of course, the gradual transition from simple Roman work to Romanesque and Byzantine, and thence, finally, to Gothic. But the first portion of the history is, perhaps, the most important, since, owing to various causes, the Gothic architecture of Italy never achieved the same brilliant effects which marked its career in other parts of Europe. Something there was in the climate, something in the constant knowledge of grand works of classic times, and finally, something in the Eastern influence which was so marked in Venice, and in the Greek as well as Moorish or Arab influence which equally affected the whole southern half of the peninsula.

There can be no doubt whatever that the first buildings used for Christian workship in Italy were in no way whatever more suited for its functions than they were for the Pagan rites which had preceded them.

The form of architecture used was the Roman art of the day; and to a considerable extent Roman buildings, and particularly basilicas, were converted, from the time of Constantine, into Christian churches. The early Christian policy was not unfrequently one which softened off the transition from the old worship to the new. And when the bishop took his seat in the center of the apse, with his clergy on either side, and the Christian altar was placed in front of the apse, very much in the position of that which had been used for the Pagan sacrifice, the whole change required to convert the basilica into the church had been made.

The basilica was usually a long nave with one or more aisles on either side. These aisles were frequently double in height, a second row or order of columns being placed above the first. At one end was a tribune sometimes square, but usually apsidal in plan, round which a series of steps led to seats formed against the wall. The central seat was that of the principal officer, the others those of his assessors, and the altar stood in front of the tribune. The central nave was either open to the sky, or covered with a wooden roof or with a vaulted ceiling. The basilica at Pompeii, still so perfect as to be quite intelligible, has a single aisle on each side, and square-ended tribune, and was probably not covered over the contre. This, however, like all the early buildings in Pompeii, is rather Greek than Roman in its character.

If we compare such buildings as this and the basilica of Trajan at Rome with the earliest existing churches built on the basilican type, we shall see how very slight the difference was for some hundreds of years. There is still the long unbroken nave with an apsidal head. Over the aisles are sometimes, as in St Agnese and St Lorenzo in Rome, second aisles or galleries opening to the nave.

And the principal alteration or adaptation is one entirely of church furniture and screens, ambons and altars under baldachins, which, as if with a scrupulous regard to the old basilican arrangement, are planned independently altogether of the structure, being emphatically nothing but furniture.

If we examine San Clemente in its present condition, we shall find a choir having no constructional peculiarities, but formed entirely by low screens on the floor of the church, with a passage-way between them and the columns, and with ambons or pulpits projecting from their sides. In front of the church was an enclosed court-yard or atrium, from which access was gained to the church. The arrangements of San Clemente are probably not so old as they were once supposed to be. One, if not two, older churches exist beneath it; but, nevertheless, there is every reason for believing that the arrangements now visible are those at latest of the 9th century.

The ancient basilica of St Peter was on the same sort of plan, with the addition of a cross nave or transept between the nave and its aisles and the apse, an arrangement which is still to be seem in the famous church of St Paul, without the walls, and in the basilica at Aquileia. At St Paul’s the altar stands on the west side of the transept, the bishop’s seat is separated from it by the transept, and the whole arrangement is unmeaning and unsatisfactory, but it is probably not old.

The number of early churches on the basilican plan is very great, and they are of all sizes. The charming church of Sta. Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, is a quite small building, but graceful in its general proportions, and interesting to the architect, like most of the early Roman churches, for the beautiful inlaid work, the Opus Alexandrinum, of its screens, pavements, and pulpits.

Out of Rome, also, there are many examples of the same type, but space does not permit the mention here of any but those of Ravenna. The two most remarkable of these are St. Apollinare in Classe, two or three miles out of the city, a forlorn and deserted building, and St Apollinare Nuovo, within the walls a church whose mosaic decorations, being nearly perfect, give an admirable impression of the sumptuous character which the early church knew how to give and loved to give to its temples.

Here, however, none of those old ritual arrangements remain, which give so much interest to the basilicas of Rome, Torcello, Toscanella, and Aquileia. The decoration of St Apollinare Nuovo is mainly on the space of wall between the arches opening to the aisles and the clerestory. It is a mosaic picture of an almost endless procession of white-clad saints on a golden ground. Few things in the whole realm of Christian art are more beautiful or more touching.

The other St Apollinare, in Classe, has lost almost all its old decorations, and is merely painted in bad taste and in modern times.

The Roman love of circular recesses or circular plans was very great. In the baths of Caracalla, for instance, we have them at every turn. The Pantheon is a vast circular building, with recesses in its walls (now used as chapels) alternately square and apsidal in plan; and in the temple of Minerva Medica these apsidal projections round the building are even more distinctly marked.

This last example paved the way for the similarly planned church of San Vitale at Ravenna, which even now, overlaid as it is with meretricious decoration, affords us most interesting evidence of the way in which the constructional arrangements of Pagan Rome were copied and utilized by the Christians.

But, usually, there was little to admire in the way in which this was done. The architect built up his church with fragments of classic columns, unequal in size or height, married to the wrong capitals and bases, and altogether as rudely put together as was possible. And so little development was there that, in the nave of the basilica of Aquileia, we have this done absolutely in the same way so late as the 14th century, the only difference being that in it the classic columns carry pointed arches and a clerestory of Gothic windows.

From these simple imitations of Roman buildings let us go to the 12th century church of St Ambrogio at Milan, and we shall see how much had by that time been done in the way of modification. The whole building is, of course, round arched. It has a western atrium or courtyard, and it has a nave and aisles, with an eastern apse to its nave. At first sight no alteration seems to have been made, but on further examination it will be found that the columns are alternately piers and clusters (at St Agnese every third column was made into a pier), that the arch orders have a proper connection with the plans of the columns, and that the church is vaulted.

Let us now go back for an instant to the introduction of Byzantine plan and details in the church of St Mark at Venice. Here we have brought back again to Italy the product of the developed skill of the succession of artists, who, after constructing the mighty vaults of the Roman buildings, had removed to Constantinople with the empire, and had there grafted their knowledge on the art and practice of the East. It was there that they began to build domes, erected not on circular, but on square bases, the angles being supported on what are technically called pendentives. So fond of this construction were they that their buildings became almost always combinations of domes, instead of the simple nave, ended with a semi-dome, of the Roman architects of the day. This Byzantine style was developed with a skill and delicacy to which the decaying art of Rome was at the time quite a stranger, and it is less wonderful that so beautiful a church as St Mark should have had some influence, than that it should have had so little. But it is to the example of this and other Eastern churches, no doubt, that we owe the raised central lantern or dome which became a feature of so many churches from this time forward.

A parallel may well be drawn here between two well-known and typical examples. These are the churches of San Zanone, Verona, and of San Michele, Pavia. In the former we still see the great simple and uniform plan of the wooden roofed basilican church, adorned with much that is Byzantine in feeling and character, but still emphatically a Romanesque building. In San Michele, on the contrary, we see a building which, if it owned something to Rome (as it did), owed at least as much to the East. Its plan was the distinctly cruciform plan, with a central lantern, not the Roman makeshift of a long nave with an Eastern transept, whilst its whole space being covered with vaulted roofs, instead of the Roman wooden ceiling to the nave, marks it as belonging to a different class.

Besides this, the whole building is subdivided and constructed in so scientific a way as to show that its architect was in the path of a development leading far away from simple Roman theories of construction and plan. Here on of the most observable features is the fine open gallery under the external eaves of the roof, a device repeated constantly in the Lombard buildings, and transferred from them, with much else, to the valley of the Rhine, where it is the great feature of most of the 11th and 12th century churches, and of some even of the 13th century.

It is impossible here to make any lengthened reference to the buildings of Italy south of Rome. It must suffice to say that Rome herself seems to have had no influence on them during this early period. Their designs and decorations are full of a character which speaks of contact at times with Greece, at other times with the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Their walls are arcaded, and then adorned with square and circular panels, the details of which afford ample evidences of their origin. The arcades are sometimes, as at Foggia, of horse-shoe shape, and the extremely elaborate carving of foliage with which they are adorned is quite Byzantine in character. A comparison of the west fronts of Foggia or Troja, with the arcading of the church at Ani, in Armenia, will show much more similarity than with any Roman work; whilst the front of Sta Maria, Ancona, is planned in just the same fashion as that of the cathedral at Zara in Dalmatia. The one great North Italian church in which there was an attempt to fuse these two fashions of design is the cathedral at Pisa, where all the walls are arcaded and paneled, the mouldings mainly copied from the ancient forms, and the whole trust of the architect put, very much as it was in the South Italian and Byzantine works, in covering the walls with decoration. But these churches did nothing by way of paving the way for Italian Gothic, and need not therefore be further referred to.

Italy is poorer than any other country in examples of the transition from round arched to pointed arched buildings. The use of the pointed arch was accepted at last as a necessity, and cannot be said ever to have been welcomed.

The first buildings in which it is seen worked out fully in detail are those of Nicola Pisano, and but few examples exist of good Gothic work earlier than his time. The elaborately arcaded and sculptured west front of Ferrara Cathedral is a screen to an early building. The cathedral and other churches at Genoa are certainly exquisite works, but they appear to owe their internal design rather to the influence of (perhaps) Sicilian taste than North Italian, and the exquisite beauty of the west front owes a good deal, at any rate, to French influence, softened, refined, and decorated by the extreme taste of an Italian architect.

The feature which most marks all Italian Gothic is the indifference to the true use of the pointed arch. Everywhere arches were constructed which could not have stood for a day had they not been held together by iron rods. There was none of that sense of the unities of art which made a northerner so jealous to maintain the proper relations of all parts of his structure. In Nicola Pisano’s works the arch mould rarely fits the capital on which it rests. The proportions of buttresses to the apparent work to be done by them are bad and clumsy. The window traceries look like bad copies of some northern tracery, only once seen in a hurry by an indifferent workman. There is no life, or development, or progress in the work.

If we look at the ground-plans of Italian Gothic churches, we shall find nothing whatever to delight us. the columns are widely spaced, so as to diminish the number of vaulting bays, and to make the proportion of the oblong aisle vaulting bay very ungainly. Clustered shafts are almost unknown, the columns being plain cylinders with poorly sculptured capitals. There are no triforium galleries and the clerestory is generally very insignificant.

In short, a comparison of the best Gothic works in Italy with the most moderate French or English work would show at once how vast its inferiority must be allowed to be.

Still there were beauties which ought not to be forgotten or passed over. Such were the beautiful cloisters, whose arcades are carried on delicate, coupled shafts. Of these the first examples are in Rome, but they are to be seen all over Italy. Such again, were the porches and monuments, of which some of the best are in Verona, of almost unsurpassed elegance; such the campaniles, both those of Rome, divided by a number of string-courses into a number of stages, and those of the North, where there are hardly any horizontal divisions, and the whole effort is to give an unbroken vertical effect; or that unequalled campanile, the glory of Florence, of Giotto, of art, the tower of the cathedral at Florence, where one sees in ordered proportion, accurately adjusted, line upon line, and stage upon stage, perhaps the most carefully wrought out work in all Europe.

The Italian architects were before all others devoted to the display of colour in their works. St Mark’s had led the way in this, but throughout the peninsula, the bountiful plenty of nature in the provision of materials was only seconded by the zeal of the artist, and on this point a few notes may be added at the conclusion of this summary.

They were also distinguished for their use of brick. Just as in arts of Germany, France, Spain, and England, there were large districts in which no stone could be had without the greatest labour and trouble; and here the reality and readiness which always marked the mediaeval workman led to his at once availing himself of the natural material, and making a feature of his brickwork. This is a subject which, however, cannot well be treated save at the same time as other development of brick building in other districts similarly situated.

In conclusion, it must be said that the Gothic of Italy has no such grand works to show as more northern countries have. The buildings were seldom thoroughly beautiful as complete works of architecture. Allowance has to be made at every turn for some incompleteness or awkwardness of plan, design, or construction.

There is no attempt to emulate the beauties of the best French plans. Milan Cathedral, magnificent as its scale and material make it, is clumsy and awkward both in plan and section, though its vast size makes it impressive internally. San Francesco, Assisi, is only a moderately good early German Gothic church, converted into splendour by its painted decorations. At Orvieto a splendid west front is put, without any proper adjustment, against a church whose merit is mainly that it is large and in parts beautifully coloured. The later Pisan buildings are far finer, the altered baptistery especially being a magnificent work, though words can hardly describe the architectural defects of such work as that of the Campo Santo, where, again, it is the painter, not the architect, who has worked of such wonders.

The finest Gothic interiors are of the class of which the Frari at Venice and Sta Anastasia at Verona are examples. They are simple vaulted cruciform churches, with aisles and chapels on the east side of the transepts. But even in these the designs of the various parts in details are poor and meager, and only redeemed from failure by the picturesque monuments built against their walls, by the work of the painter, and by their furniture.

In fine, Gothic art was never really understood in Italy, and, consequently, never reached to perfection.

If the architecture of Italy never fell away so much from the more classic style of imperial Rome as that of the northern nations did, neither did the Italian ever possess that more than equivalent, whose splendid course we have been describing. Whilst the Pointed style was almost exclusively known as practiced in Northern Europe, the Italians were but slowly improving in their Gothic style; and the improvement was more evinced in their secular than in their ecclesiastical structures.

Florence, Bologna, Vicenza, Udine, Genoa, and, above all, Venice, contain palaces and mansions of the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries which for simplicity, utility, and beauty far excel most of those in the same and other places of the three following centuries. The contemporary churches do not exhibit the same degree of improvement in style that is conspicuous in these domestic works, for there are no works in Europe more worthy of study and admiration than the Ducal Palace at Venice, and some of the older works of the same class, and even of earlier date. The town-halls of Perugia, Piacenza, and Siena, and many houses in these cities, and at Corneto, Amalfi, Asti, Orvieto, and Lucca, the fountains of Perugia and Viterbo, and the monuments at Bologna, Verona, and Arezzo, may be named as evidence of the interest which the national art affords to the architectural student even in Italy, as late as the end of the 14th century; but after it gradually gave way to, though in some instances its influence may be traced even when it had been overborne by, the new style.

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