How The Italian Renaissance Helped St. Louis Architecture

In light of my recent story on George Ingham Barnett’s interest, I thought it would be interesting to examine the education that a young architect received in the early 19th-century. Architecture since the Renaissance was regarded as a liberal art and not a craft as it had been during the Middle Ages. Two books were required reading to make the shift. The Ten Books on Architecture was first published in 2000 by Marcus Vitruvius. Leon Battista Alberti wrote the second, which is more than 500 years old and was written in response to Vitruvius. These books had a direct or indirect impact on St. Louis built environment, whether we are referring to Edmund Jungenfeld, the influential brewery architect, George I. Barnett, or Louis Sullivan, who designed the Wainwright Building. Both books are available at the Saint Louis Public Library.

Vitruvius was an officer under Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor who adopted the son of Julius Caesar. Vitruvius’s 10 books show that Roman architecture and art owe the most to Greek culture during this time. He cites many famous temples from the Greek world. While Rome certainly had its architectural patrimony borrowed from the Etruscans, it is clear that, by the first century A.D., “Captive Greece captured her savage conqueror, and brought the arts, rustic Latium,” according to the poet Horace. It would make sense, given that he was from Campania (the Greek-influenced region around Naples in southern Italy), that this would be true.

Alberti was busy correcting errors made in the previous millennium. Fast forward 1400 Jahre. Alberti had already laid the foundations for the next 500 years in painting in his seminal book on that topic. We can also credit Alberti’s insistent on the primacy and importance of the art of draughtsmanship for the stunning finished drawings of Louis Sullivan or Cass Gilbert. His 10 books on architecture were more than footnotes to Vitruvius. Alberti expands on Vitruvius, but also creates new concepts and works for an entirely new era: The Italian Renaissance. Alberti’s writing style is similar to his Roman predecessor and more so. There are many references, anecdotes, and tangents. He even wrote a retraction in the text because he was sorry for having strayed from the topic. Alberti’s central argument is that there is an intelligent and logical solution to every problem.

How do the legacies of these men still impact St. Louis’ physical world? We might start at the beginning, and then go to the first place. This will make it easier to talk about them as a team. Alberti and Vitruvius believed that the human body was the foundation of all other units. For example, take the fact that all animals have equal numbers of limbs. (Any zoologists who disagree with this statement, please let me. This is an indication that Nature has sent us a message about the beauty and primacy of even numbers, which our architects see as a sign. When examining an old Roman temple or Renaissance building, the number of columns running along the primary façade must be equal. Vitruvius also relates how a Greek architect discovered six times what the height of a man is. The more feminine Ionic order, on the other hand, is based upon the proportions of women. Her height is eight times her head. Theoretically, it is correct. Therefore, gods like Neptune or Jupiter should use the Doric order, while goddesses like Minerva can use the Ionic.

Alberti’s discussion about Vitruvius’s proportions would influence Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man drawing. This further illustrates how the ancient world believed that geometric shapes were the building blocks of the universe. It is not an accident that a man’s body fits into a square or circle simultaneously. His height and breadth are also the same. Alberti and Vitruvius tell us to look around and see the sacred geometry and mathematic influence on everything around us. Both architects’ explorations into mathematics and proportions are perhaps less fun than Leonardo’s drawing. They allow for perfect temples. Alberti’s orders are not like Gothic architecture, which is a slur from the Italian humanists. Every dimension of the Santa Maria Novella facade is proportional to each other. Roman architecture reigns supreme. Alberti doesn’t even use the term church in his book but instead uses the word “temple”, which refers to Christian houses of worship. This is not an inconsiderate decision.

Alberti’s description of cemeteries and how they are placed in great cities was fascinating. No one but Vestal Virgins and a few prominent family members existed in the ancient Roman world.

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