Humanism and the Renaissance Revival House


You remember Socrates’ rival, Protagoras, the able sophist who observed that “Man is the measure of all things.”  Yes, if we measure by arms-length with manmade tools.  Even so, there is something hopeful, something satisfying in the observation.  Certainly, the many genius of the Quattrocento and Cinquecento (14th and 15th centuries of Christ) thought so.  So too did Americans of the late-19th and early-20th centuries think that Man was the measure of things.  No, not just any man, the noble, Heroic Man, a man who might build a city, a nation, a civilization, a man who might stand among, who might stand above the greatest men ever to have lived.

Among greatest men, Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444), Florentine, a republican, historian, statesman, a humanist who recognized a tripartite division of Classive Civilization, the classical, golden age of Antiquity, the dark Middle Age, and the ambitious New Age, a renaissance, a “rebirth” of the classical.  Bruni, who lived before the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (1453), recognized that civilizations approximate a human life, that view of human life we receive from the poet Euripides when he has King Oedipus answer the Sphinx’s riddle, “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and no legs at night?” with, “Man.


Michelangelo Saint Peters Basilica Vatican City. credit Dan Gabriel Atanasie

Michelangelo, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. credit: Dan Gabriel Atanasie


Bruni was also a biographer of Dante, Petrarch, Cicero, et alia, and named his form of biography, studia humanitatis, the “study of human endeavors”, from which our term, “humanists” and the humanities, those disciplines of humane society, the university curricula formed by Aristotle’s theses, in the Athenian way of paideia.  Our first humanist, Bruni, also translated Greek and Latin authors (including Aristotle), and Bruni, in the way of Plato’s and Aristotle’s schools, composed a treatise on a constitution, the republican, Florentine Constitution … and this he did in Greek … well, I mean to say, “great man”.   His tomb in Santa Croce bears the inscription,

Since Leonardo passed from life, History mourns, Eloquence is mute, and the muses, both Latin and Greek, are unable to hold back their tears.

These days, we recognize Bruni’s “Modern” to extend from Italy’s classical Renaissance through Europe’s Enlightenment into America’s classical harvest in the early 20th century of Christ.  Too early to say that “the antique Progressive has murdered its brother Classive”, though we seem to be awoken into a second dark age of censorious superstitions and totalitarian dominations.  Certainly, the study of accomplished human endeavors, humanities, have been replaced by institutionalized social constriction and dogmatic critical theory.  Certainly, we are in a Dark Age of expression in the Arts.


Bernardo Rossellino Leonardo Bruni Tomb Santa Croce Florencee Italy. credit Sailko

Bernardo Rossellino, Leonardo Bruni Tomb, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. credit: Sailko




As you know, the Renaissance was a decisive break from illiterate darkness of the Middle Age, was a delayed extension of literate classical Antiquity.  Artists, architects, poets, scholars of the Renaissance knew themselves to have ascended from classical, Roman civilization, knew themselves different from the Goth.  “Gothic”, of the barbaric, invading Goths, a term of derision coined by Raphael to disparage the art and architecture of the anti-classical Middle Age.

Without question, the Renaissance was an enlightening, a cultural advance from the previous, dark Middle Age.  Without question, the Renaissance was a retying of the thousand threads of classical antiquity with Modern, Quattrocento Italy.  Later, the retied threads spread the Classive fabric over all of Europe and its satellites, through the noble Anglosphere into these united states.  Our early America was poignantly classical, powerfully anti-dark.  How not.  A Renaissance Man, Christopher Columbus, polymath and classical scholar*, discovered our land when seeking China in hope of trade, of wealth for Christendom that we might retake from Islam, Constantinople (Istanbul), antique capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  How could Columbus have known that he would initiate a Christian Empire, The United States of America, which would bring Liberty and Enlightenment to all the world.  You might say, “Christopher Columbus found what he sought.”

We Classives of the Quattrocento called ourselves new men of a New Age (Bruni’s notion of Modern**), men arising from darkness, recovering excellence to come again into light.  The word, “renaissance”, ascends from rinascita, “rebirth”, and is derived from Giorgio Vasari’s Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550).  The word, “Renaissance”, is a mid-19th century French coining that extends the notion of “rebirth” into a cultural blossoming, a being “born again”.  The word is serviceable and was employed by the inventors of scientific art history to distinguish a superstitious Middle Age from Antiquity’s reasoned traditions.  In truth, the Renaissance is a recurring season of Classive Civilization, a fertile reseeding of all that is Beautiful, Good, and True.


Pietro Perugino Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter Sistine Chapel Vatican City.

Pietro Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.


Renaissance Man


“Renaissance Man”, Alberti, Leonardo, Shakespeare, et alia, continued the tradition of “Classical Man”, Pythagoras, Phidias, Sophocles, et alia.  Renaissance men and women (yes, there were female philosophers, scientists, artists both Classical and Renaissance) are now called, “well rounded” in the polite, humane sense, though in truth, these Renaissance Men were ambitious, brilliant, confident, and sometimes ruthless.  By competition, that winnowing to the best of the best, each Renaissance Man achieved glory for his city, fame for himself.  You might remember, agon, the Greek word for “struggle and contest” is descriptive of the Olympic Games, those javelin, boxing, running war games of ancient Greeks.  Too, agon is the root of “agony”, as between protagonist and antagonist, a word descriptive of Athenian theatre contests that improved to near perfection comedy and tragedy.  Agon is expressive of the intense competition that spurred Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, et alia to excellence, that inspired Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael to heights of brilliance achieved by few, before or since.

For instance, mano a mano, “hand to hand”, man to man, as in the painting competition at the Palazzo Vecchio, capitol building of republican Florence.  There, a competition, a “contest” between the renaissance men Leonardo and Michelangelo for acknowledged, artistic supremacy.  On the huge facing walls of the Palazzo’s great hall, Leonardo pictured The Battle of Anghiari, Michelangelo pictured The Battle of Cascina (both, foundational battles of the Florentine Republic).  Though abandoned and long-lost, we know these ambitious pictures from drawings and from partial cleaning of many centuries’ over-paint.  In those days as in these days, some champion Leonardo, some champion Michelangelo, some call the tie.


Raphael Sanzio School of Athens Vatican City. credit PDArt

Raphael Sanzio, School of Athens, Vatican City. credit: PDArt


For instance, agon between countries, in time and over time, as in the statue, David.  Michelangelo, saved by Christ’s sacrifice, elevated by testament of the Bible, assumed himself and all Florentines superior to antique artists; assumed himself possessed by a genius (from the Latin, meaning “particular or tutelary spirit”) both personal and Christian; assumed that his David would be superior to the statues of antiquity.***  Later, Michelangelo saw the Laocoon (uncovered by Raphael) and upped his game, adding pathos, “suffering and pity” to his statues, as in the statued “Captives”.  Much the same, our Randolph Rogers, sculptor, American president of the world’s oldest art school (in San Luca, Italy), assumed that his Columbus Doors for the United States Capitol Building would be superior to Ghiberti’s Florentine Baptistry Doors, “The Gates of Paradise”.  Not judging, just reporting.

The Renaissance Man, our Thomas Jefferson, for instance, architect, author, historian, scientist, statesman, patriciate, was of the type, the mold, the model of Pericles, if Pericles had been an architect, historian and scientist, or the model of Vitruvius, if Vitruvius had been a statesman and patriciate.  Point is, the Renaissance Man is something of and yet something more than Classical Man, the Renaissance Man is a cultural, cultivated hero who by genius extends human endeavor into the universe.  Yes, we little, flesh-eating monkeys who can know Greek and love God, by virtue can exceed angels, can in our works become almost divine, or we can descend to the vulgar, Rap eating, product consuming ants that devour American civilization.


Antonio da Sangalo Palazzo Farnese Rome Italy.

Antonio da Sangalo, Palazzo Farnese, Rome, Italy.


Renaissance Architecture


Italian Renaissance architecture is the architecture of Rome reborn with a Christian soul, personally heroic.  True, Rome’s Pantheon and Florence’s Pazzi Chapel have much in common, even so, there is in the Florentine chapel a gentlemanliness quite different from the Roman temple’s imperium.  Filippo Brunelleschi, architect of the chapel, was also a sculptor, an engineer, an inventor, holder of the world’s first patent****, a “Renaissance Man”, you might say.  What else to say: Brunelleschi developed the mathematical science of linear perspective, a drawing technique which ordered all that is intelligible in a scale believable, in space comprehensible, a logical perception of reality reassuring because true.  When entering a Renaissance building you will notice that you are in a mind that organized space logically, beautifully, sympathetically in respect to fellow men.

Yes, you find in Renaissance architecture a rediscovery of Classical order and Orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, et cetera), of various elements and ornaments (architrave to frieze, dental to egg-and-dart), of geometry, of symmetry.  Then too you find a new, Florentine fullness of air and of light, of logical hierarchy, of scale, those natural ornaments sized to ourselves that make us comfortable even in gargantuan cathedrals and halls of state.


Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Palazzo Medici Riccardi courtyard Florence Italy.

Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, courtyard, Florence, Italy.


And then the trivium, Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas, “firmness, commodity, delight”: id est, a building should not merely be firm, but should appear so, “we want confidence in our structures”; a building should serve not only the necessity of body but also the wants of the mind, “we expect a structure to be humanely empathetic”; a structure should lend a mind ease while it delights the senses, “we expect beauty of the whole and delight in the particular”, as in conversation, theatre, pictuary, statuary, friendship.  Firmness, Commodity, Delight, the architectural trivium, was composed by Vitruvius’ (Roman, c. 80–70 BC – after c. 15 BC), contained in his De architectura … discovered in 1414, translated and illustrated circa 1450 by Leon Battista Alberti, a translation which allowed a practical and a conceptual continuation of Classive Civilization.  Should mention, the architectural trivium is most often titled the Vitruvian Triad, or the Vitruvian Virtues.

You will recognize the Renaissance Man in the “Vitruvian Man”, Leonardo’s reasoned conception of man resolved into universal geometry, man measured in all things.  You will recognize that Vitruvian Man is at home in buildings that have a bottom, a middle, a top, a center and two sides, in houses that are hierarchical and bilaterally symmetrical, houses that compose themselves as we are composed, bottom, middle, top, sides, et cetera.  You will notice this humane, bilateral symmetry in the villas of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), an architect and theorist who led our American, Georgian architects to reasoned Beauty, who extended to Thomas Jefferson the grand tradition of Classive architecture.  From antique Rome to Florence to Veneto, to London to Charlottesville to Monticello and beyond … the Renaissance tradition is found in the United States Capitol Building, in your state capital or library, in the tradition of the American home, perhaps your home, and in today’s houses of The Beautiful Home.


Renaissance Revival House, Breakers

Richard Morris Hunt, The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island. credit: Walter Rowe


Renaissance Revival Architecture


“It takes one to know one”, we say because true.  The American Renaissance Revival was popular among bankers, traders, nation-builders, the Villards, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, et alia, families who knew themselves to be cousined with the Medici, the Borgia, and other princely dynasties.  Most architecture styles are a form of branding, the Mid-Century Mod and the Wrightian Prairie no less than the Renaissance Revival.  Each style has some fine quality to recommend it.  The Renaissance style has fine qualities in abundance, not the least of which are beauty, artistic patronage, memory, and public wealth, that virtue of contributing something great to a community, a municipality, and a nation.

This nation, The United States of America, was Classive from the first, and each generation of patrons, architects, and artists built to the best of ability.  In time, ability matured, ambition grew, and wealth increased until the late 19th Century when Americans were capable of creating a Renaissance.  Between 1880 and 1930, American artists and architects were greatest in the world, a truth seldom told because socialistic art histories conspire against excellence, dilate upon the Darwinian narrative of progression to some ever closer, ever impossible end … the resolution of all human problems.  Because socialistic art historians are trained to parrot party lines, because blind to the objects of art and architecture, because they are gate lockers, you know the middling Pablo Picasso but you do not know the great John Russell Pope and his fellows, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and a hundred others.


Renaissance Revival House, McCormick

Stanford White, McCormick Residence, Chicago, Illinois.


The period 1880 through 1930 is often termed by we Classives, “The American Renaissance”, a period that rivaled the best art, architecture, and invention of Athens, Rome, Florence, London, Paris.  Visit what is left of our great cities, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C., et alibi, and you will see through the clutter of modernistic ugliness, in what survives the Progressive destuctions, a great civic beauty, exceeding aesthetic intelligence, and a humane sympathy worthy of God-souled creatures, you and me.  Yes, The American Renaissance is rich in Beaux Arts and other Classive styles, yet all sister styles, except the Greek Revival, participate in the muscular expansiveness and bold confidence of Renaissance style genius.

For instance, the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition, Chicago, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the continent’s discovery by a civilization both literate and historically conscious (Classive Civilization).  The exposition was visited by 27,300,000 people in six months, and this in a broad nation of 63 million people without automobiles or aeroplanes.  In one day alone, October 9, 1893, 751,026 people visited the 690 acres of great civic buildings, civic spaces, civic statuary, and other delights that both proved American greatness and also inspired Americans to ever greater feats in the arts of civic accomplishment.  What you see of greatness in our American cities is the remainder of America’s High Renaissance.  Yes, even the skyscraper, an invention of American Classive architects (now debased to the illiberal glass boxes of modernist designers), is the aspirational accomplishment of the American Renaissance.


Nels Michelson Berry Gordy House Detroit Michigan credit Michael Schuster

Nels Michelson, Berry Gordy House, Detroit, Michigan, credit: Michael Schuster


The Renaissance Revival House 


The typical American house averages some 2,400 square feet, a size suitable to a family of five.  The Renaissance Revival house is, well, bigger because its size is suitable to ambition that exceeds the typically measured man, wife & children.  The Renaissance Revival house is, for the most part, a house fitted to the patrician, both Roman and American.  As in Rome, our patricians could, and yet do purchase their elevated station.  As in the Roman Republic, so too in the American Republic: economic liberty, a dynamic meritocracy, and wealth, reward for virtuous behavior, hos epi to polu.  By design, our nation’s Founders modeled this republic on the best examples of antique Rome, and it is fitting that American architecture of our expansion remembered the ways and forms of Rome.

Renaissance Revival houses take several forms, each in its way ambitious, each a continuation of the Italian Renaissance: the palace, the villa, the townhouse, the single-family home.  Too, Renaissance Revival houses are accurate in archeological, architectural detail.  Architects of the style, most often educated in Europe (all of which was once Rome), made detailed drawings of both antique Roman and Italian Renaissance buildings.  Touching, measuring, and observing, fixed the feel of old structure in the architect’s mind, and the idea of structure was expressed in new buildings uniquely American.


Renaissance Revival House, Kahn

Stenhouse & Gilbert, Otto H. Kahn House, New York, New York. credit: Matthew X. Kiernan


The Renaissance Revival Palace is dignified, monumental, imposing, a home suitable to royalty.  Consider the difference between the old, inherited, European palace and the new American palace of Citizen Kane, **** a palace built in one generation.  Apocryphal, yet true.  Our American wealth is merited rather than inherited … in first generations, after which a palace passes into public, common, or corporate use.  In the first instance, wealth to build a palace is acquired by good behavior, by giving, by selling to people what they needed to improve life and allow ease.

The American “palace” ascends from imperial residences of the “Palatine” Hill, ancient center of patrician Rome.  Rome’s Capitoline Hill, from which our word “capitol”, was repurposed by Pope Paul III and redesigned by Michelangelo into palaces of the Renaissance type, a type continued in the American Renaissance Revival.  American palaces, sometimes named, “palazzo”, rival and occasionally surpass the Italian precedent, notably in the designs of McKim, Mead & White, J.R. Pope, Cass Gilbert, and many others.  If over fussy, the Renaissance Revival Palace busies itself into the Beaux Arts.


Clarke Waggaman Zambia Ambassadorial Residence side Washington D.C. credit APK

Clarke Waggaman, Zambia Ambassadorial Residence, Washington, D.C. credit: APK


The urban rowhouse and suburban Renaissance Revival Villa is smaller than the palace, its planes are flat, its bays direct.  On the whole, the villa is reminiscent of Palladio’s Veneto villas, stately and bold; the rowhouse is sometimes restrained, sometimes energetically lush.


Renaissance Revival House, Fisher

George Mason, Frederick Fisher Mansion, Detroit, Michigan.


The suburban, Renaissance Revival Single-Family House can tend to the Italianate, though pure examples follow Palladio’s geometries rather than the asymmetries of Tuscan, agrarian houses and outbuildings.


Renaissance Revival House, Ospo

John Russell Pope, Villa Ospo, Jeckyll Island, 1927. credit: Historic Jeckyll Island


Renaissance Revival House Characteristics


Tight and cubic.
Roof Features
Low-pitched, hipped or flat roof.  If flat, a parapet or balustrade.  Most often bracketed and clay tile topped.
Windows are both horizontally and vertically arranged in odd numbers, allowing for a centered window in 3, 5, 7, or 9 bays.  Windows decrease in size with each story.  Arched and Palladian windows are common.
Structure and Materials
Palace style is most often ashlar (finely dressed – finished) in a variety of stone.  Villas and row houses might be sandstone or Roman brick (long and thin and fine grained).  The single-family home is most often stucco.  Quoins are common.
Space and Floor Plan
The front door is likely to be centrally placed, often arched and quoined.  From the front door, a logical interior layout that satisfies expectations.  Windows tend to be centered in rooms, each room having a terminal point or vista.  Ceilings tend to be high.  Walls are usually in an Order (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian), even when without column or pilaster.
Celebrated with columns, pilasters, and other elements that dignify the ceremonial passages of life.
Classical and correct, archeological in accuracy, inventive in variation.  Structural details are the excuse for decoration; hinges, pegs, and joints become practical, aesthetic abstractions.
Natural colors when of stone.  If stucco, muted in nature’s modest way, restrained.  Ochres, grays, greens of earth, of olives and terra-cottas.
Formal and formalized, geometric, and peopled with architectural elements, statuary, armillary spheres, fountains, et cetera.
Little play, much maturity, soberness and dignity, one example into the next.


Renaissance Revival Houses showing great variety in potenialities of treatment Kalorama Washington D.C. credit M. Curtis

Renaissance Revival townhouses showing great variety in potentialities of treatment, Kalorama, Washington, D.C. credit: M. Curtis


Renaissance Quotes


Not much was really invented during the Renaissance, if you don’t count modern civilization.  P. J. O’Rourke

In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.  Graham Greene

Architecture was revived during the Renaissance, every educated person knew that it symbolized admiration for the achievements of the ancient world.  Architecture had become a metaphor for civilization.  Tom Turner

No account of the Renaissance can be complete without some notice of the attempt made by certain Italian scholars of the fifteenth century to reconcile Christianity with the religion of ancient Greece.  Walter Pater

If I am not mistaken, the word “art” and “artist” did not exist during the Renaissance and before: there were simply architects, sculptors, and painters, practicing a trade.  M. C. Escher

In the early twelfth century the Virgin had been the supreme protectress of civilization.  She had taught a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion.  The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages were her dwelling places upon earth.  In the Renaissance, while remaining the Queen of Heaven, she became also the human mother in whom everyone could recognize qualities of warmth and love and approachability.  Kenneth Clark


Renaissance Revival House, Gordy

Nels Michelson, Berry Gordy House, Detroit, Michigan, credit: Clement Jameson


*   *   *

* The scholar and natural scientist, Admiral Pliny, in his Natural History, calculated the circumference of earth; Admiral Columbus, referencing Greek geographers, including Pliny, trusted the accounts and calculations, assumed their conclusions and then learned by experience, as we all do.  Yes, it might be true that some of the Middle Age believed the world flat, as now some of the Progressive Age believe a girl can be a boy, yet Classives have always known the world to be round, have always known that girls are not boys.

** “Modern”, a coining of 18th Century English popularized by Jonathan Swift in his Battle of the Books (ancient and modern) and meaning “just now”.  It has been observed that the modern “just now” is always just passed, a thing made old and older by each fleeting second of time, by each passing consideration.  Seems to me that the old Modern wants a dusting whenever it is drawn down from the shelf, as we have done, here.  Then too, you should know that Bruni humanized history by removing history from Divine Time, where, seems to me, it should be located, and gave history a shape of mortal life, mortal time, a conception simpler, more comprehensible to creatures of our type.  And then, Bruni did not divide human time, human history, into Old, Middle, Modern, but into ages of Antiquity, Middle Dark, New, the “new” a renewing of antiquity, as yet we do … in the Renaissance Revival house, our children, our ways, et cetera.  The subperiod of the Classive, “Modern”, has just passed and we are entering a new subperiod … expect you have witnessed the erasures and felt the loss in change … what the qualities and character of this new period might be, we cannot yet say.

*** Before the Florentine republic’s tutelary god, the statue of David, the city’s statue, the city’s god was Mars, placed there by Julius Caesar … our Florence (Firenze) was first an Etruscan settlement raised by Sulla and repopulated by veterans of Julius’ army … the Mars statue stood at the Ponte Vecchio until 1333 when it was taken by flood … we might assume that if ever the statue is fished from the water, we might learn of its features and character … for my part, I would like to see the feet where Bondelmonte’s veins were opened by his enemies … Florentines are a theatrical people, bold and beautiful, occasionally bloodthirsty, something in the legionary DNA, we might assume.

*** Kane’s castle, Xanadu, is based on Hearst’s Castle, San Simeon.

**** When constructing the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Filippo Brunelleschi invented a device for hoisting and conveying heavy stones, the ‘Il Badalone.

Featured image credit, McKim, Mead, & White, Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, New York, National Park Service.

*   *   *