The End of Europe's Middle Ages
By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the great outpouring of religious fervour that had resulted in the Age of the Great Cathedrals had abated. The soaring Gothic architecture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries required vast resource pools of men and materials. Following the demographic decimation of war, famine, and plague, building projects diminished in both size and number. During the Late Middle Ages, more secular buildings were constructed, allowing an opportunity to explore the classical themes and styles that would shape the Renaissance.
The Gothic style that originated with Abbot Suger's rebuilding of the royal Abbey Church of St.-Denis in the mid- twelfth century initiated a new style of architecture referred to as Gothic. Countering the massive heaviness of the Romanesque style, Gothic architecture soared to new heights and vast expanses of windows allowed light to pour into the interior. Structural innovations made this new architectural style possible. The outward pressures of the lofty ceiling were absorbed not by the walls, as had always been the case previously, but instead by flying buttresses located on the exterior of the building. Walls were no longer needed to support the weight of the structure. This allowed the architects to replace that surface almost entirely with windows. From narrow slits, which let in very little light, windows expanded to incredible dimensions, illuminating the interior.
The most stunning aspects of Gothic cathedrals are the impressive "verticalism" of the buildings, the brightness of the interiors, and the brilliance of the stained glass that filled the massive windows.
By the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the religious piety that carried cathedrals such as Chartres, Amiens, and Reims to such breathtaking heights began to subside and refinement of detail replaced the quest for height. In France, the Late, or Flamboyant phase of Gothic architecture began in the late thirteenth century and is characterised by a profusion of ornamentation, the aim of the architect being to disguise and camouflage structural supports. The development of Flamboyant Gothic was interrupted by the Hundred Years' War and mature examples of the style do not appear until the fifteenth century, with few structural innovations occurring in the intervening period.
The Gothic style took root more slowly in Germany than it did in either England or France and it was not until the thirteenth century that Early Gothic styles began to predominate. One of the reasons may be that few cathedrals were built in Germany at the time. The prevailing form was the hall church, or Hallenkirche, which was well suited to the simpler Romanesque style. High Gothic seemed out of place in the simple Hallenkirche. Nevertheless, elements of Gothic were implemented, resulting in the development of German Gothic. One of the outstanding characteristics of German Gothic is the fluidity and expansiveness of the interior space where no path of vision is dictated by structural lines. Begun in 1354, Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Nuremberg is a Hallenkirche that demonstrates the German Gothic style.
The Gothic style of Italy stands apart from the rest of Europe, neither fitting the French definition of Gothic nor providing mere continuation from the Romanesque. In Italy, the Gothic style was strongly affected by the ideals of prevailing monastic orders. The Cistercians carried the first Gothic influences in Italy and cathedrals were patterned after the abbeys of the order, reflecting the harmony and balanced proportions of the typical Cistercian abbeys. The windows are smaller and the decorative detail simpler, in accord with Cistercian concepts of austerity.
The simple austerity and harmony of Cistercian architecture had a strong impact on the Franciscans and, in the early fourteenth century, Santa Croce in Florence was built in a style that signified the marriage of Gothic architecture and Franciscan simplicity. In keeping with local Tuscan tradition, Sta. Croce has a wooden roof, eliminating the need for buttresses. The walls are largely intact, filled with murals instead of stained glass. The Gothic inspiration is seen in the vast height of the interior and the importance of the role of light is demonstrated in the large groups of windows at the east end.
While the goal of Sta. Croce was to provide an impressive interior for worshippers, the Cathedral in Florence was designed as a civic monument and required a sufficiently imposing exterior. The most striking feature of the Cathedral is the large octagonal dome with its subsidiary half-domes at the crossing of the nave and transept. Although the original design by Arnolfo di Cambio, which dates from 1296, probably included a dome, the actual dome was designed and built in the fifteenth century and is probably much larger than Cambrio had planned.
A curious combination, although the Cathedral uses a Gothic structural system, only the windows and doorways are in a Gothic style. The walls are solid, the exteriors matched to the eleventh century Romanesque Baptistery, and the tower is a separate campanile, replacing façade towers. The impression of the interior is cool and sombre, possessing neither the exuberant airiness of the High Gothic nor the simple grace of Sta. Croce. Thus even though the Cathedral is more reflective of the Gothic structural system, Sta. Croce is more representative of the Gothic spirit.
Milan's Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in Italy and the third largest in Europe, was begun in 1386/7 and provides the most complete demonstration of the decorative focus of the High Gothic style. Based on an equilateral triangle, its design was the subject of heated debate between local architects and consultants from France and Germany. The result is an uneasy compromise of Northern and Southern traditions, heavily burdened with Late Gothic ornamentation.
The architecture of the Early Renaissance was almost single-handedly created by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), a Florentine who began his career as a sculptor. While working for Donatello, he studied ancient architectural monuments, taking exact measurements and developing a scientific method of perspective. Brunelleschi's greatest achievement was to construct a dome as two separate, mutually supporting halves. Under the patronage of the powerful de Medici family, Brunelleschi was able to realise his own designs.
The church of San Lorenzo in Florence is an example of Brunelleschi's work for the Medici. Incorporating numerous architectural elements, Brunelleschi was able to achieve a unified whole through a strict application of the rational mathematical proportions he had observed in ancient architecture. In Santo Spirito and Santa Maria degli Angeli, unfinished at his death, Brunelleschi was inspired by the round and polygonal shapes of Roman buildings. His greatest professional disappointment was when his patrons, the Medicis, rejected his design for their new palace, fearing that the imperial magnificence might provide grounds for excessive resentment towards the family.
Brunelleschi's death in 1446 created an opening for another innovator in architectural circles. This opening was quickly filled by Leone Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Highly educated in classical literature and philosophy, Alberti applied his early dilettante interest in ancient monuments to architecture. His works, such as Palazzo Rucellai in Florence and San Francesco in Rimini, are strongly reminiscent of classical Roman architecture. For example, the façade of San Francesco is based on the Roman triumphal arch.
While religious architecture provides the best examples of architectural styles, secular buildings also followed popular trends. Unfortunately, social, economic, and political factors affected the usefulness of secular structures, limiting the chance for preservation. For example, many fortifications were made obsolete by the introduction of gunpowder and large-scale artillery. Nevertheless, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, non-religious architecture became more elaborate and complex, increasing the opportunity for survival so that most extant medieval secular architecture is from the later Middle Ages.
The Louvre provides an excellent example of the changes that occurred. Originally built around 1200 and consisting of a keep surrounded by a heavy wall, Charles V had it rebuilt as a royal residence in the 1360s. By the early fifteenth century, a defensive outer wall remained but the form was obviously that of a palace rather than a fortification. Interior façades displayed lavish architectural and sculptural ornamentation while the exterior retained its fortress-like appearance.
In private architecture, a similar dichotomy between public and private space is seen. Built in the 1440s, the house of Jacques Coeur, a wealthy silversmith and merchant in Brouges, displays a rather grim exterior surrounding a luxurious and elegant interior. This division is best revealed in the secular architecture of Italy. Political and social strife was a common factor of Italian civic life and both public and private architecture revealed a grim, fortress-like façade, designed to withstand armed assault. The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall, demonstrates this. Only in Venice, where a stable merchant aristocracy maintained civic order, were defensive requirements shed, allowing gracefully ornamented structures such as the Ca' d'Oro, to arise. High Gothic decorative detail is enhanced by the Oriental influences of the façade, creating a fairy-tale effect that typifies Florentine architecture in the later Middle Ages.
The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary