You cant help but soak up the history, gazing up at decorative churches and admiring wonderful masterpieces of design. But what if you don’t have a clue what you’re looking at? Or you know it’s “baroque” but what does that actually mean?.. If like me you thought “baroque” was an artist and Leonardo da Vinci was just a painter, you’ve found yourself in the right place. Here’s a basic guide to architecture in Italy!
Way back hundreds of years before Christ the ancient Greeks began settling in southern Italy and the surrounding islands, bringing with them their own unique building style and dominating design in the area for a long time. There are several remains of Greek architecture in Italy, notably in Calabria, Apulia and Sicily. However in Northern and Central Italy, it was the Etruscans who led the way in architecture houses were made from brick and wood, but after learning from the Greeks they started to use stone to create temples for the gods. Although most of the buildings have since perished or destroyed by the Romans a few ruins still remain. The best examples can been seen in Volterra.
After the Romans conquered Greece they adopted certain aspects from their architecture and thanks to the neighbouring Etruscan’s for a wealth of knowledge essential, Roman architecture flourished. It started with the construction of the arch which lead on to simple stone bridges and aqueducts systems. As the Roman army grew so did their engineering designs, they went on to create grand and complex structures such as the world-famous Colosseum. This including their invention of concrete, resulted in a wide range of different architecture including the building of forts, villas, temples, towns, baths and roads. The entire city of Rome is scattered with evidence of their building and engineering skills.
After the fall of the Roman empire, the dark ages of history began and in medieval Italy Byzantine architecture ruled. As the black plague swept through Europe wiping out nearly half of the population and the ornate Gothic architecture dominated the rest of Europe the Florentine’s were inspired by the buildings of ancient Rome and Greece. Using symmetry and proportion the Renaissance style began, mixing old ideas with modern practices architects used columns, arches and domes just as the Romans had before them creating beautiful churches, monuments and villas. Florence is filled to the brim with Renaissance architecture but another great example of this building style are the Palladian Villas of the Veneto in Northern Italy.
Within 200 years a similar style of architecture had spread out across Italy and beyond with renaissance style buildings popping up in London, and all over Europe. But in Italy the idea of harmony was making way for more imaginative ideas and architects began experimenting with much more elaborate designs which eventually led to the dramatic Baroque style. Using distinctive features such as the use of light and fascinating façades.
Buildings and palace’s were built to express ultimate power and control, often housing rich interiors and monumental staircases. There is baroque architecture scattered all over Italy but the most famous is St. Peter’s Basilica, If you still unsure if its “baroque” ask yourself is it extravagant, dramatic and possibly slightly bizarre? If the answers yes then it’s probably baroque.
The Baroque era ended with its most significant achievements when the Trevi fountain and the Spanish Steps were completed to decorate Rome. With the intricate and frivolous nature going out of fashion, architects once again returned to the classic and elegant buildings of ancient Rome and Greece and neoclassical architecture was born.
Even with the sleek and complex design of modern architecture, it seems we will always look back on the buildings of the past for inspiration and today we are still using some of their simple building solutions.
What’s your favourite piece of Italian architecture?