During the 13th and 14th centuries, scholars transformed the medieval style of life in an urge to investigate everything. A rebirth – a renaissance – took place in the poetry, philosophy, science, art and architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance ideal was to have a range of knowledge and talents.
From studying surviving Roman buildings and the writings of Vitruvius, Renaissance architects developed strict mathematical ratios. These were for all aspects of a building, including the size and position of every feature – inside and out.
Renaissance ideas spread slowly to Britain – in philosophical writings, then in decorative arts, and finally in buildings. By Henry VIII’s reign (1509-1547), there was already an awareness of Classical form and decoration. Henry’s court was a magnet for the work of continental craftsmen and artists. Renaissance decorative motifs caught on fast and swags and urns, cupids and caryatids, vines and mythological characters became part of the designer’s visual vocabulary.
Features of the Renaissance
Renaissance architecture succeeded Gothic architecture, and Baroque became popular after the Renaissance style fell out of fashion. Heavily influenced by ancient Roman architecture, the Renaissance sought to copy classical antiquity, with an emphasis on symmetry and geometry. Roman-designed columns were both for structural and decorative purposes. Vaults were still used – but unlike the Gothic style, they were neither ribbed or rectangular. Domes featured heavily in the Renaissance style. Caryatids became popular, often constructed of marble, either as pillars or dining table legs.
Similar to the Gothic style, features from the architectural designs transformed furniture designs. Columns heavily featured on chairs, tables and desks, and in the grandeur of fireplaces. Furniture had inlays of mother of pearl, ivory and tortoiseshell. Richly decorated, furniture built for comfort became prominent. Chairs made in greater quantity. Savonarola designs became popular, notable for their foldable X-shaped frames. Typically, tables were rectangular, marble or mosaic on the tops, with scrolled feet, stretchers supporting the weight underneath. The grotesque was another element of Renaissance style. The decoration included scrolling plants, figures, fantastic creatures, masks and vases, all in symmetrical forms. Early examples exist in the Vatican palace, in the ‘Raphael Rooms’ developed by Raphael Sanzio and his team of painters. It also featured in Maiolica, in Italian tin-glazed pottery, as well as in fine woodwork and illustration.
Strapwork and figures in roundels became part of the style, the former resembling fabric, bent to suggest 3D shapes, the latter usually profiles, and originated on coins.
From the mid 19th century, the style experienced a resurgence, thanks to archeological discoveries. The Renaissance movement itself in the 15th and 16th centuries helped shape the revival. Antique statues were also incorporated into the decoration, age giving authenticity of design.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, originally known for his paintings of ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian scenes. He was born in the Netherlands, moving to Belgium and then eventually England, after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Lawrence took Alma into his surname so that he became listed under ‘A’, rather than ‘T’, and so came first in exhibitions. He later became a furniture designer of realistic, classical interiors.
Alfred Stevens, best known for his work in sculpture, studied for nine years in Italy, and eventually returned to England. He designed the monument to the Duke of Wellington in St Paul’s Cathedral. The design originally intended to be beneath one of the great arches, which it was later moved to in 1892. He worked on the monument for an agreed £20,000, though he didn’t live to see it completed.
With thanks to Readers’ Digest.