Gothic, Renaissance & Baroque – What You Need To Know

Como Cathedral

Whether you are an Expat in Italy or a tourist visiting the country for a few weeks, you will invariably come across Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture.

Italy has an ancient history that stretches back through thousands of years of continuous cultural and architectural evolution. During this period, particularly since the emergence of the Roman Empire and pronouncements at the Council of Nicea in the 320’s AD, the art and architectural styles changed massively to reflect the changing society of the time.

At the Council of Nicea, in 327 AD, the Emperor Constantine announced that Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman Empire. This marked the birth of the Roman Catholic Church, which has played a major role in the cultural life of Italy; and indeed, it continues to do so even today.

Some of the most influential artistic and architectural styles that emerged during this incredible period of cultural evolution included the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. All three types of art were heavily focused on Christian topics and included the construction of great Churches, statues and paintings that still impress audiences in the modern world with their stunning workmanship and attention to detail.

Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque – What Are They?

What are the similarities and differences between Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture?

Gothic Art And Architecture.

Gothic art emerged in the early 400’s AD and remained the basis of art and architecture in Italy, and across most of Western Europe, until the 1400’s AD. The Gothic style is best known as an architectural style and many of the older churches throughout Europe are made in this way.

There are several main features that define the Gothic style, particularly of architecture, which include pointed arches, flying buttresses, ribbed roofing vaults, stained glass windows and lovely ornate decoration in the interiors of the buildings.

Probably one of the most revolutionary features of the Gothic style was the wide scale introduction of stained glass windows. These were often very large and were important focal points for worship, containing elaborately designed depictions of Biblical stories and scenes. The stained glass windows were usually tall and rectangular with a pointed arched top, known as ‘lancet windows’, or else circular in design and known as ‘rose windows’.

The stained glass windows were beautiful to behold for the worshippers in the churches and cathedrals but they also played the practical role of allowing plenty of light into the buildings. It’s hard to imagine how magical these windows must have appeared to people more than a thousand years ago when things like the TV had not even been conceived! The stained glass windows must have felt alive while being illuminated by the light of the sun.

Pointed arches and ribbed inner vaults are two other important features of the Gothic style. The pointed archways are almost ubiquitous in Gothic buildings and it’s believed that the arches were adapted from the tall narrow arches that can be found in Islamic architecture and Mosques. The arches were powerful visual symbols that pointed to the sky and symbolized man’s place in the world, reaching up to God above. The tall arches also gave the churches and cathedrals an imposing feel that must have been stunning when the average house was only one or two floors high at the most!

Gothic ribbed vaults

The ribbed inner vaults were used to help safely build taller buildings in the churches and cathedrals; because they supported the huge weight of the stone and roofing. A ribbed roofing vault is made up of multiple intersecting ‘barrel vaults’ that run parallel to each other along the top of the inner roof. The ribbed vaulting also has a beautiful aesthetic appeal which is quite unique to the Gothic style.

Another unique feature of the Gothic style are the many flying buttresses which were also used to support the heavy stonework and wood that went into building the enormous cathedrals, monasteries and churches. A flying buttress is stone work that projects outwards from the building to reinforce the strength of the walls and roof by realigning the weight to lower levels of the structure; and were vital to be able to create the architectural masterpieces that defined the Gothic period.

One of the most popular features of the Gothic style is the lovely decoration that was applied to both the interior and exterior of the architecture. These decorations include elaborate colonnades, statues of famous saints and Biblical figures, tall spires and pinnacles above arches. Something that we’ve all noticed before are the gargoyles on church and cathedral roofs, which were also a stylistic feature of the Gothic movement.

There are many famous Gothic churches and cathedrals but, possibly, the best known around the world is the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. This enormous cathedral is one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals and, incredibly, took nearly 100 years to build; with construction beginning in 1163 AD and ending in 1245 AD!

Renaissance Art And Architecture.

Renaissance art emerged in Italy in the 1400’s AD, in Florence, Tuscany, and went on to transform the Western world, in terms of art, architecture and science. The word, ‘Renaissance’, comes from the Italian and means ‘rebirth’; and the movement was led by masters such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo. The influence of the Renaissance reached its peak and then began to fade away in the late 1700’s AD, when Rococo became more prominent, although its influence remains important to the present day.

Renaissance art draws its inspiration from many sources, including the Gothic style, the styles of Classical Antiquity as well as new scientific learnings and technologies. The Renaissance has gone on to be one of the most important periods of history in the development of Europe and the Western world at large.

Raphael Villa Farnesina

One of the main features of Renaissance painting, one its central manifestations, is that the artists would make the figures look three dimensional, something which was quite a new concept at the time. The architecture of the Renaissance used many classic styles in its design, especially from the Greek and ancient Roman architectural style; and emphasized harmony, balance and elegant beauty.

The Renaissance period played a large role in inspiring the Baroque movement, but it’s leading lights also helped to shape the course of philosophy, science and the arts in general. Although there was a lot of veneration of religious figures by the Renaissance artists, they also paid more attention to the scientific discoveries of the period and often secretly encoded them into their work!

One of the best places in Europe to see a wide range of beautiful Renaissance style architecture is the Tuscan city of Florence, where you can marvel at the wonderfully designed homes, museums and churches.

Baroque Art And Architecture.

The Baroque movement emerged in the late 1500’s AD and incorporated new technologies and understandings in it’s construction. The word ‘Baroque’ originally comes from the Portuguese word “barroco” and literally means a ‘flawed pearl’. The ‘flawed pearl’, is most likely a reference to the hermetic traditions which played a significant role among artists and architects, and means that the soul of man is flawed without the help of God.

The main period of the Baroque style was between the 1500’s AD and the 1700’s AD and incorporated art, architecture, music and literature. Baroque was very inspired by Renaissance art, although it placed more emphasis on ornate creations which would inspire awe and spiritual upliftment in the church worshippers.

There was an underlying political purpose for the Baroque movement as the Catholic church was seeking to retain Catholic worshippers and stop them switching to the growing Protestant movement that was flourishing in Europe at the time. And so, the churches and cathedrals were upgraded with more ornate, emotional and populist art and architecture to stop their members converting to Protestantism!

Santa Maria della Salute Venice

Some of the main features of Baroque art include the use of intense, often exaggerated emotions and artistically inspired sensationalism. Baroque architecture regularly includes the use of dramatic domes, colonnades and ornate decorations in both the interior and the exterior of its structures.

The artwork is usually highly realistic in appearance and helped people to put themselves in the shoes of the great saints and Biblical figures; which would help worshippers to develop their spiritual life further.

One of the techniques that was regularly used in the Baroque paintings was known as Chiaroscuro, which is a technique that relies heavily on sharply contrasting interplays of light and dark, with one of the most famous examples of this technique being the great Italian painter Caravaggio.

Baroque also exaggerates motion and drama in its artwork and it was extremely popular at its peak. As the Baroque style continued to evolve it came to be known as Rococo, which became even more ornate and heavily decorative!

Best Examples Of Gothic, Renaissance And Baroque Art And Architecture In Italy.

Italy played a major role in the evolution of architecture in Europe and consequently it is full of amazing examples of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings throughout many of its cities and regions.

Duomo Cathedral Milan

One of the best examples of a Gothic masterpiece in Italy is the stunning Siena Cathedral, with its huge rose window at the top of the it’s imposing front entrance. However, possibly one of the finest Gothic structures in the world is the Milan Cathedral, with hundreds of spires reaching up into the sky and impressive flying buttresses on its wings.

Florence Cathedral

The city of Florence is one of the best places to find incredible Renaissance architecture that evolved rapidly in a conscious way with the hope of bringing back the mythical Golden Age of humanity! The Florence Baptistery and Florence Cathedral are superb examples of Renaissance architecture at the very peak of the movement.

Caserta Palace Naples

The Baroque movement changed continuously over the centuries but it’s perfectly exemplified by the incredible Caserta Palace which is located near Naples. The palace is built in harmony with the landscape and is a fantastic example of the ornate features and statues, exaggerated feelings of motion and sensuality. If you’re in the region then you can spend an enjoyable day exploring the magic of the Baroque style.

Explore The Architectural Wonders Of Italy.

Anyone can enjoy the incredible architectural masterpieces of Italy and although you don’t need a degree in art history to appreciate the work and structures around you it does make it a little more enjoyable to have a clear idea of what you’re looking at.

As you start to notice the unique features of the different types of architecture you’ll really start to feel the history come alive and you can impress your friends and family by casually pointing out the nascent features of the buildings and architecture around you!

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3 Responses

  1. Nice and elucidative articule. The portuguese word is “barroco” and not “barocco”.

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