The French Way of Building in Rome: S. Agostino and SS. Trinità dei Monti

From Firenze University Press Journal: Opus Incertum

Hubertus Günther, University of Zurich

In Renaissance Rome several churches were built which deliberately adopted a German or French architectural style and which therefore shed interesting light on the tension between the Gothic tradition and the new all’antica manner. This article first discusses the examples of S. Maria dell’Anima and S. Agostino to illuminate this phenomenon, and then focuses on the SS. Trinità dei Monti, which in 1520−1521 was explicitly described as having been “made in the French manner”. Here it is argued that this qualification referred not only to the fact that the church had been built using stones imported especially from France, but also, and more specifically, to its Gothic parts, most notably the choir and the vault (including a star vault similar to that of the Cathedral of Amiens), which here were combined in a striking manner with the all’antica articulation of the lower walls of the nave.

This paper addresses the topic of a deliberate choice of style to convey identity and purpose in contrast to the idea of a continuous development of style as the sole factor determining architectural design. At the beginning of the modern era, builders primarily had to decide whether to keep the Gothic tradition or to take up the new all’antica manner1. In Italy, a famous example of this choice is the Cathedral of Pienza, which Pope Pius II (1459–1462) expressly wanted to be built according to the model of the late Gothic Hallenkirchen (hall churches), which he had ad-mired in Germany. However, its architect Bernardo Rossellino designed the architectural articulation largely in the manner of the Italian Renaissance2. At about the same time, in the mid-fifteenth century, the Senate of Venice decided to build the main entrance to the Arsenal in the new all’antica style, probably to express the spirit of progress, while the main entrance to the Doge’s Palace (Arco dei Foscari) had to retain Gothic elements, probably in consideration for the venerable tradition of the Venetian government. Alfonso of Aragon probably had similar reasons when, at the beginning of his reign (1443), he considered how to rebuild the Castel Nuovo in Naples: he had designed the triumphal entrance façade in the new all’antica style to celebrate the beginning of the new era under the rule of the House of Aragon in the kingdom of Naples, while the Sala dei Baroni was given a magnificent Gothic shape with respect to the tradition of the nobility who assembled there.

Some contemporary commentaries suggest that the ancient architecture, which was to be revived in the Renaissance, had the stigma of paganism, while it seems that the Gothic was sometimes associated with the sacred3. Therefore, in Italian churches the choir area was occasionally distinguished by Gothic elements (Cathedral of Pienza, S. Zaccaria in Venice, from 1458). This approach was rare in Italy, but in France, sacred buildings often adopted a Gothic or a Gothicizing style while secular buildings adopted the new Renaissance style.

In many French Renaissance castles, the chapel preserves a Goth-ic style — in contrast to the rest of the building. King François I of France had the town hall of Paris built in a Renaissance style, while the great parish church of Saint-Eustache in the centre of Paris was built in a Gothic style with a superficial adaptation of the decor to the Renaissance style. Even before this time, Franco-Flemish book illuminations distinguished between Gothic and Renaissance styles for the sacred and the secular. A well-known example of this is the representation by Jean Fouquet of the patron in adoration of the Madonna in the Livre d’heures of Étienne Chevalier (c. 1452–1460, Musée Condé, Chantilly). The Madonna sits enthroned in a Gothic portal, while the patron kneels before her in a Renaissance courtyard.


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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy