Interpreting the Ruins

In the early Renaissance, the only remaining treatise on classical architecture was Vitruvius’s De Architectura Libri Decem. An ambiguous text, describing Greek architecture to an audience who had access only to Roman ruins. Leon Battista Alberti was quite unsatisfied with Vitruvius and almost polemically produced a treatise on his own (De Re Aedificatoria), trying to organise his limited knowledge of Antiquity and its architecture. At that time, it was probably an impossible task, as Vitruvius’s words di not match the examples that Alberti could witness in Italy. Not only they were Roman ruins, rather than Greek, but they were also later than Vitruvius, who lived throughout the late-republican age, being mostly Imperial edifices.

View of the Restored Roman Forum – Robert Cockerell (early 19th century)
As a consequence of such difficult premises, Renaissance architects never managed (nor probably intended) to create precise replicas of classical buildings. Their creations contained basic errors, which would have never featured in any ancient edifice. For example, they believed that the orders were employed both for the interior and exterior of buildings, which is incorrect. No classical piece of architecture would have used columns and entablature inside. Furthermore, it was generally believed that columns had a merely ornamental function. This is actually true of Imperial buildings, where the column was often engaged into the structural walls and was not supposed to bear the weight of the entablature. Another common mistake was using columns to support a series of rounded arches, as in Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti (begun 1421). The rounded arch is in fact a Roman feature.

Maison Carée (1-10 BC)

Even if Renaissance architects approached the classical past with some naiveté, it would be misleading to think that they actually believed to be copying the masters of Antiquity. Moved by far more ambitious projects, they attempted to create their own vision of classicism in constant reference to what they believed was an excellent model, and which was available to them through the romantic scenario of the ruins. As John Summerson points out in The Antithesis of the Quattrocento, the Renaissance was deeply moved by two parallel forces. On the one hand, men like Alberti sought a descriptive understanding of the ruins to unravel their secrets, and eventually apply their proportional perfection to new, contemporary buildings. On the other hand, authors such as Francesco Colonna, who wrote the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii, drew inspiration from the remainings of the past to imagine a new golden age for their own time, a utopia to be realised through a creative re-elaboration of the past.

Ospedale degli Innocenti – Filippo Brunelleschi (begun 1421)

The untrained eye might draw easy connections between the use of columns and other classical elements in Renaissance architecture and Antiquity. However, it is relatively simple to understand that the Quattrocento was not a time of revival, but sought a new style, personal and distinctive. The result was definitely related to the ruins, but vivified, once again able to speak. It is no surprise, indeed, that Andrea Palladio in his Four Books of Architecture described Bramante as one of the classical masters. Classicism was reinvented as a language, rather than a historical style, in other words a lively instrument of communication in a period of great cultural and social renovation as the Renaissance was.

Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio – Bramante (1502)



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Maison Carée

Ospedale degli Innocenti


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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