1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Modern Italian School of Architecture (Cinquecento): The Five Orders

(Part 101)

Modern Italian School of Architecture (Cinquecento): The Five Orders

The adoption of the Vitruvius laws by the Italian architects of the 15th century led to the formation of the so-called "Five Orders." In speaking of the course of Greek and Roman architecture, mention has been made of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian styles.

Vitruvius describes, in addition to these, another, which he calls Tuscan -- possibly a style of columnar arrangement peculiar to Italy, and most likely of Etrurian origin; but, in the absence of delineations, the Cinquecentists could only apply the proportions he laid down for it to what appeared to approximate them in the ancient remains; and hence arose a fourth, or "the Tuscan Order." It is, however, a mere modification of the Roman debasement of the Doric, and may be considered, in its present form, as of purely modern Italian origin.

The same "Revivers", on looking among the ruins of ancient Rome for the forms of their Vitruvian orders, found specimens of a foliated ordinance, which the bad taste of the Romans had compounded of the foliated and voluted styles of the Greeks. This was seized upon as a fifth style, subjected to certain rules and proportions, and called "the Composite Order."

The very poor Roman specimens of Doric and Ionic fitted themselves without much difficulty to the Vitruvius laws; but the examples Rome afforded of the Corinthian were less tractable, and being as various in details as they are generally beautiful, they were all passed over, and their places supplied by a mere changeling -- an epitome of the Vitruvian theory.

Thus we have the "Five Orders" of the Italo-Vitruvius school, viz., -- first, the Tuscan, of which there is no recognized example of antiquity, but which owes its form to the descriptions of Vitruvius and the fancies of the revivers; second, the Doric, a poor and tasteless arrangement of the general features of the style on a Roman model; third, the Ionic, which is almost as great a debasement of the Grecian originals, and was produced in the same manner as the last-mentioned; fourth, the Corinthian, a something totally unlike the ancient examples of both Greece and Rome in beauty and spirit; and fifth, the Composite, an inelegant variety of the Corinthian, or a hybrid mixture of the horned or angular-Ionic volutes, with a deep necking of the foliage of the preceding order.

The first to publish this system was Leon Battista Alberti, a pupil of Brunelleschi. He has been followed by many others, the most distinguished of whom aree Palladio, Vignola, Scamozzi, Serlio, and De Lorme, architects, and Barbaro, a Venetian prelate, and an esteemed translator of, and commentator on, Vitruvius. None of these, it must be understood, agreed with any other of them, but each took his own view of the meaning of their common preceptor; and yet none of their productions evince the slightest approach to the elegance of form and beauty of proportion which distinguish the classic models of the columnar architecture of antiquity.

Palladio and Serlio were the first to publish delineations and admeasurements of the Roman architectural remains in Italy; but the total absence of verisimilitude to the originals, and, in many cases, the absolute misrepresentations, in both works, prove how incompetent the authors were to appreciate their merits; and the exaggeration of their defects proves with equal clearness the general bad taste of the school in which they are masters.

The worst qualities of the Roman school of architecture were embraced and perpetuated by the Cinquecento artists. The inharmonious and unpleasing combinations which arose out of the collocation of arches with columnar ordinances became the characteristics of the Italian; unequal intercolumniations, broken entablature and stylobates, enter alike into the productions of the best and of the worst of the Cinquecento architects.

The style of this school is marked, too, by the constant attachment of columns and their accessories to the fronts or elevations of buildings; by the infrequently of their use in insulated (their natural) positions to form porticoes and colonnades; by the thinness or want of breadth in the smaller members of their entablatures, and the bad proportions of the larger parts, into which they are divided; by the general want of that degree of enrichment which fluting imparts to columns; by the too great projection of pilasters, and the inconsistent practice of diminishing, and sometimes fluting them; by the use of circular and twisted pediments, and the habit of making breaks in them to suit the broken ordinance they may crown; and by various other inconsistencies and deformities, which will be rendered more evident when we come to treat of the style in detail.

The merit of the Italian school consists in the adaptation and collocation of the prolate hemispheroidal cupola, which appears to have grown out of its opposite in the Roman works during the Gothic ages, as we find it in the early cathedrals; though it is highly probable that the ideas was brought from the East, in the forms exhibited by the cupolas of St Mark’s at Venice, and of Pisa Cathedral.

A very imposing style of palatial architecture also was practiced by many of the Italian architects. It consists of the use of a grand crowning cornice, running in one unbroken line, unsurmounted by an attic or anything of the kind, superimposing a broad, lofty, and generally well-proportioned front, made into graceful compartments, but not storied, by massive blocking courses or otherwise.

Not unfrequently, however, the faults of the school interfere to injure a composition of this kind; for, to produce variety in the decorations of the windows, some of them have been made like doors, with distyle arrangements of columns, surmounted by alternations of circular and angular pediments, and sometimes with all the vagaries which deform the front of an Italian church.

It is indeed the ecclesiastical architecture of the school in which its faults are most rife and its merits most rare. An Italian Renaissance church possesses nothing of the stern simplicity and imposing grandeur of an Egyptian sacred structure -- nothing of the harmonious beauty and classic dignity of a Grecian fane -- nothing of the ornate and attractive elegance of a Roman temple -- and nothing truly of the glittering grace and captivating harmony of a Pointed cathedral. No other style of architecture presents so great a contrast, in any two species of its productions, as the Italian does, in one of its ordinary church fronts, with the front of a nobleman’s mansion or palazzo, in the manner already referred to; and in no city of Italy is the contrast so strong, by the egregiousness of the examples it contains of both, as Rome.

The stately portico is hardly known in Italian architecture; and in the rare cases in which insulated columns are found, they are the most part so meagre in themselves, and so widely set, according to the Vitruvian laws, that the effect produced by them is poor and wretched in the extreme.

This applies most particularly to Italy itself; in some other countries, and especially in this, those architects who have been of the Italian school have generally preferred the proportions and arrangements which they found in the Roman examples of antiquity, to those laid down by their Italian masters.

Still, Italian church architecture of this period availed itself largely of the cupola,-- certainly its redeeming feature; and the architects of Italy must have full credit for the use they have made of it, both internally and externally.

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