Today’s column is part 8 in my series. If you’d like an accompanying handout of the entire series along with photos, send me an email.
Would you believe that Christopher Columbus contributed to the decline of the Italian Renaissance? His discovery of America opened trade routes in the Atlantic but, therefore, closed many in the Mediterranean. The decreased circulation of money in Florence, Rome and other Renaissance centers led to decreased building, production and patron support for artists and architects.
Italy was not Italy at that time but individual regions and dukedoms that often fought each other for power. These conflicts eventually became an easy opening for France and Spain to invade. They did. And, along with Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Henry VIII turning the Holy Roman Catholic Church upside down, artists did not have the same freedom of expression, which was the hallmark of the Renaissance.
When King Francois I of France invaded Milan, he saw how the Renaissance culture had produced great works of art with humanist views of life and individual encouragement. He brought many Italian artists and architects back to the Loire Valley to work on his Chateau de Chambord. Among those eager to go was Leonardo da Vinci — with his Mona Lisa in hand.
Chambord was the largest chateau in the world until Chateau Versailles surpassed it in the 17th century. It became a blend of French Medieval and Classical Renaissance architecture. The interior layout was an early example of grouping rooms into self-contained suites. The centerpiece was a spectacular, open, double spiral staircase that ascended three floors without ever meeting, and was illuminated from above by a light house, of a sort. The chateau was surrounded by massive formal gardens, mostly edible, and fountains.
Without any symmetry in mind, 11 types of towers and three types of chimneys were built and framed by four massive towers at the corners. King Francois wanted Chambord to look like the skyline of Constantinople (written about in an earlier column).
François was not the only king fascinated by the Italian Renaissance. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, ushered in the English Renaissance (and ushered out the Gothic era) but with more interest in music and literature than art and architecture. It wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth’s reign that the English Renaissance reached its height.
What about the great Renaissance cities of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels in the north? They were actually under the control of the dukes of Burgundy in France, so you could say they were part of the French Renaissance. However, since they were not closely located to Greece and Italy, they drew less upon Classical Antiquity and more on medieval traditions like oil painting. They developed glazes (thin paint), which, paired with the thickness of oils, were able to create texture, depth, and light. These were perfectly suited to represent the material reality that had been so important to Italian artists.
The successful trade industry of these cities, especially in diamonds, created a wealthy class, separate from the nobility. The wealthy class, in turn, contributed to the economic success of this region as well as to its artists, architects and other craftsmen. Early French trickle-down economics, you might say.
Speaking of France, you might be wondering where all those kings named Louis fit in my history timeline. They’re coming up in my next column.