Arcitechture: The Rebirth of the Central Plan
[The Rebirth of Central Plan]
While the idea of a temple is as old as the humanity, one of the markers of the beginning of the renaissance is the creation of grand public buildings and squares in the densely populated Italy. This not only showed the creative genius behind the buildings but also showed a rapid evolution of the architecture. However, this would not have been possible in a place other than Italy, where constant wars and military campaigns reconfigured the landscape and the edifices, making necessary to rebuild them in some cases (Trachtenberg 14). Hence, while it is true that since the dawn of the humankind, men has looked for places where they could feel closer to the divine, this does not have to be with architecture as it was in Italy where the major amount of churches were built and the place that served as inspiration for the rest of Europe. In a way, Italy served as an architectural catalyst, allowing different styles to converge and change, constantly reconfiguring the city’s architecture. With this in mind, is important to note how the Christian churches were born out of two defining principles, necessity, and devotion. The first meant that with the increasing number of Christians after the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christian reunions could not be confined to private houses and catacombs. Besides, with the legalization of the Christianity, the need to hide disappeared, making necessary the construction of buildings that served as seats for the Christian authorities as well as places of devotion. For this reason, churches grew and complexity, from being modest houses in which a handful of Christians reunited to great places meant to showcase the greatness of God.
However, the center of the medieval architectural thought was not in the beauty of the edifice, but in its practicality, cost, and liturgical functions. For that reason, apart from the symbolic nature of certain buildings and proportions and the dedications of certain parts of the church to the saints, churches remained as functional structures at the beginning of their history (Krautheimer 1). Nevertheless, this functionality was not in dispute with the beauty of the temples as the frugal magnificence of these early churches conveyed the ideals of the ancient Christianity. Consequently, to fuse these two precepts of functionality and richness, the first Christian architects designed the martyrium, a central-planned church that served as testimony of Christ and was built on a circular central plan and often housed relics (Bowersock et al. 376). One of the earliest examples of such floor-planning was the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (Fig 1 and 2) that combines the martyrium with the basilica to allow a greater number of people to enter.
(Fig. 1 Holy Sepulcher’s Dome)(Fig 2 Holy Sepulcher’s Floor Plan)
With the time, Christian congregations grew, and the church rituals became increasingly complex. Plus, the amount of clergy increased, which called for a reformation of the churches that allowed the priests and their helpers to traverse the nave in a solemn and practical way. As a result of these needs, the Roman basilica design rose to prominence since it offered a larger nave that ended up in a bema with an apse, in the end, coupled with aisles on each side of the building that accommodated the congregation, who watched the sacred offices and processions (Bowersock et al., 376). After seeing these images, it is possible to assess how intertwined are the domes with the central plan church design. Nevertheless, this does not happen by chance as the dome figure naturally suggests the existence of a square design beneath it, adding the beauty of the solid compound. With that in mind, the central plan can be seen as a compressed basilica with elements of rotational symmetry, like the Basilica of Saint Vitale in Ravenna (Fig. 3 and 4)
(Fig 3 St. Vitale Floor Plan)(Fig. 4 St. Vitale’s Facade)
Thus, for the most of the late antiquity, churches followed these plans, particularly the basilica design that flowered in the eastern Christendom, whereas the central plan evolved in Western Europe, adding two lateral aisles known as transepts. These transepts served a double purpose. On one hand, they added space to the building and on the other they helped to emplace chapels and dedicate them to saints, what brought more people and embellished the churches. Likewise, Western Europe cross-in-square churches favored square towers, rather than using domes like the Byzantine style did (Janson and Janson 403). Hence, part of the rediscovery of the martyrium and basilica floor plan was based on the readaptation and rediscovery of the domes in Western European church architecture by the early Renaissance Venetian architects. This influences spammed across Italy and became customary in the cities, changing the paradigms of construction.
However, appeasing the importance of these buildings can be difficult for the modern eye since it is highly attuned to the modernity and the concepts of architectural relativity (Merril 2). This means that to make possible a thorough analysis of the architecture styles that came before it is important leaving behind any contemporary preconception to immerse in the thought of the time, understanding not only the architecture but the thought process behind the walls. For this reason, this essay shall focus on the influence of the ancient central-plan and Basilica designs in the Renaissance, showing as examples of its evolution and readaptation two edifices: The Tempietto built by Donato Bramante and the Pazzi Chapel by Filippo Brunelleschi. Hence, by analyzing and contrasting their characteristics in the light of the central plan, we hope to find common points that enlighten us on how despite the changes in form, the function of the churches still retain its classical properties.
Therefore, thanks to the reencountered Byzantine influences, Italian builders gradually turned away from the traditional cross plan of a nave, transept, and choir that had evolved in Western Europe, returning to the centrally planned churches. Consequently, centrally planned churches became the epitome of the Renaissance church architecture (Wittoker 1). Nevertheless, at a first glance, planned central churches have a series of drawbacks when compared to cross planned churches. Central planned churches seem unsatisfactory from the liturgical point of view as they lack the necessary separation between the clergy and the laity. Also, there is not a designated place for the altar, complicating the sacred offices. This can be seen in the design of the old St. Peter’s Basilica when compared to the new one, designed by Donato Bramante in the early 16th century (Fig 5 and 6).
(Fig 5: Old St. Peter’s Plan) (Fig 6: Bramante’s New Plan)
In the old basilica, it is possible to see an early example of the cross plan, which speaks of the early liturgical needs of the Church and its situation as an actual church that received worshippers. On the other hand, on Bramante’s initial plan this need does not disappear entirely, acquires a lesser role, second to the building’s beauty (Piccolotto 25). Likewise, it showed how the minds of the architects were changing toward a more humanistic and less ritualistic vision of the churches, converting them into temples of contemplations, instead of seats of actual ecclesiastic power and rite. Nevertheless, it is crucial to bear in mind that churches also served to showcase the power of the clergy, which meant that the more revolutionary and beautiful the building, more powerful the priest would look, which allowed the architects to explore the possibilities of the new techniques of construction, shunning away the ritual and processional needs of the Catholic rite of a church meant to please the soul by itself (Fig 7 and 8).
(Fig: 7 Tempietto’s Floor Plan)(Fig 8: Pazzi Chapel Floor Plan)
For this reason, Alberti in De Re Aedificatoria considers that basilicas, being for religious use, relegating them to men and their affairs. Conversely, temples and chapels of central planning are more sublime as offer a through connection with God that is not mediated by men (Wittoker 6).Hence, what we are seeing is the dichotomy between humanism and clergy. Architects like Bramante and Brunelleschi tried to convey religious precepts in a way that do not necessarily resembled anything Christian. Although this was not for lack of piety. Instead, it reflected the profound humanist concerns of the builders who aimed to separate covertly religiosity from the Catholic dogma. Hence, following the footsteps of Alberti, it is possible that both architects have found that basilicas resembled too much the human power, given the state of the clergy as a worldly power and wanted to return to the classic approach of temples as seats of the divine justice. For that reason, building centrally planned buildings crowned by domes like the one in the Parthenon, that symbolized the cosmos seemed the best way to convey that religious feeling (Fig 9 and 10) (Honour and Flemming 444).
(Fig 9: Pazzi Chapel Dome)(Fig 10: Tempietto Dome)
Moreover, to achieve this fusion between the humanism and the Christianism, Bramante and Brunelleschi drew influences from the early Roman temples who lacked exterior ornamentation, adding an appearance of sobriety to the building that disappears as soon as one enters the edifices. This effect was calculated, as the actual beauty of the church has to be on the inside, replicating the Christian thought of the original pureness of the soul against the human vices. Therefore, the rich ornamentation of the interior of the chapels can be regarded with that idea in mind (Fig. 10 and 11).
(Fig. 10: Tempietto Interior) (Fig. 11: Pazzi Chapel Interior)
Hence, for Bramante, the Tempietto must have represented the union of painting and architecture. Plus, given the small size of the building (15 feet in diameter), it was conceived more as a compelling picture meant to be looked from the outside, rather than a church to hold certain offices. Bramante’s building, then, served as a marker, a symbol of Peter’s martyrdom (Trachtenberg and Hyman 302). Conversely, the Pazzi Chapel kept its function as a chapter house, holding a small altar chapel crowned by a dome of intricate pattern. Nevertheless, like Bramante’s work, Brunelleschi’s chapel is more oriented toward the inner contemplation rather than the church necessities (Norwich 276). Nevertheless, opposed to the fair proportions of the Tempietto, Pazzi’s Chapel can be seen as a bolder approach to a more geometrical planning that will become a trademark of his later designs.
Ultimately, the central plan was not solely used in church architecture as it was employed in the city planning, particularly in public piazzas, combining elements of the circular martyrium with Roman arcades, creating an open space in which people could circulate freely. Plus, more often than not, these piazzas sported statues or monuments aimed to commemorate particular events or pay tribute to a particular figure. (Fig. 12). Consequently, what was considered a design flaw to a church as did not allow the procession and rituals, became a solution to create beautiful public spaces that embellished the city. For this reason, the Renaissance was not a rebirth of ideas, but it also served to rediscover and reuse ancient ideas, fostering the separation between the human and the divine, making it possible for the contemporary eyes to see these buildings as something separated from their religious function and more close to the human spirit.
(Fig 12: Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio)
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