One of the best ways to track the evolution of architecture is in Italy's churches


Italy's Churches
A Primer of Styles

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During my travels and studies of Italy I have come to learn the various styles of architecture demonstrated in the churches. Religion has always played a dominant role in Italy and churches were continually built, especially where there was a lot of wealth. Most people see the churches in Florence, Rome and Venice while visiting Italy, but there are so many other great examples of architecture found in cities rarely visited. The Early Christian churches were characteristically simple. They followed a rectangular floor plan, having a nave lined on both sides with columns (this was borrowed from the old Roman temples). The ceilings were made of wood and therefore did not stay intact very long. After the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and moved the seat of the empire to the eastern Mediterranean in 324, the Byzantine style of architecture began to appear throughout Italy. A great example of this style can be found in Ravenna. At the beginning of the 5th century, the Visigoths were bearing down on the Western Roman Empire, so the emperor decided to move the capital to Ravenna. The mausoleum of Galla Placidia (425-450) was the first church built there. The plan of the church was a cross with four equal arms. This shape, along with previous rectangular early Christian churches, came together to form a common style for early church plans to come. The characteristics are simple: the exterior is plain with round arches, but the inside is resplendent with mosaics representing Christian symbols. More than any other feature, it is these golden depictions that come to mind when we think of the Byzantine style.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy sort of nodded off. Well, most of Europe did, actually. The ensuing Romanesque and Gothic styles can be seen more in northern Europe. During the 11th century, as the Republic of Venice became a major trading power throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, Byzantine art reappeared in Venice, culminating with the building of San Marco in 1063. Italy seemed to maintain the plan of the early Christian churches throughout the Middle Ages, instead of adapting to the styles of northern Europe. Some great examples of these churches can be found in Pisa and Orvieto.


The cathedral in Pisa (1053-1272) is one of the most impressive examples of Romanesque architecture. The shape is typical of an early Christian basilica, but what sets it apart are the multiple arches on the façade. This Romanesque quality, along with a wide transept and dome over the crossing, make it very impressive. Lots of rich marble is used, a sign that Pisa had great wealth during this period. Inside the church are clear signs of Byzantine and Islamic influences.



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he cathedral of Orvieto (1310) is a shining example of Italian Gothic architecture. Its façade clearly betrays the influence of French Gothic, with four large pinnacles that divide the church into three bays. But visible traces of early Christian styles keep this church from being classified as pure Gothic. The façade is painted with gold and other colors, a technique not found among most churches in Italy because, since it was done last, it was sometimes forgotten or it even wore off over time.



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uring the 13th and 14th centuries there was a rebirth in architecture, painting, and sculpture in Italy. Renaissance architects now looked back to the Roman designs, taking great care to balance and harmonize the elements of their buildings. In painting, three-dimensional depictions replaced the flat medieval and Byzantine portraits. The Renaissance style continued through the 15th and 16th centuries, spreading well beyond its birthplace in Florence.



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wo exceptional examples are Sant'Andrea (1470) in Mantua (pictured above), and the cathedral (1459-62) in Pienza (pictured here). The balance and harmony of architecture are obvious at first glance. Their façades are divided into three bays, the central one being much larger, but geometrically simple. The lateral bays share the same geometric elements, using columns to draw your eye from bottom to top. This balance was what Renaissance architects strived for in all of their ecclesiastical designs.


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ext came Baroque, when ornamentation and ostentation ran rampant. Fine examples, built during the 17th and 18th centuries, can be found on almost every corner of central Rome. Borromini built several of them, including San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1638), Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza (1642-50), and S. Agnese (1653-66). His façades featured swooping curves and added dimensions, and his floor plans were surprisingly oval and circular, in direct contradiction of the Renaissance rectangle. The paintings in his and other Baroque churches portrayed larger than life figures who seemed to move right out and occupy the viewer's space.



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mazingly, Rococo was even more elaborate. A fanciful combination of delicate structures, ornate embellishments and curvilinear decorations, it would become very popular in northern Europe, and it was picked up here and there in Italy, particularly in the south, where a subspecies called barocco leccese was born. Characterized by extremely elaborate carvings that cover the entire surface of churches and palazzi, its apex is reached in the delightful little Apulian city of Lecce.




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taly is filled with churches that demonstrate all aspects of style in architecture. You may have many famous ones on your "must see" list, but you'll find some astonishing exemplars hiding in the minor cities, the minuscule hamlets, even in the most remote countryside. Save time to visit them as well, for they will show you the different architectural fashions that have existed since Christianity first appeared in Rome.


by Cynthia Lambakis, Los Angeles

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