A country that is rich in heritage and history is home to a place that is critical in the development of architecture not only in Europe but throughout the world. Italian gothic architecture represents a movement of gothic architecture that transitioned through Europe and transformed style and the typical depiction of the word “gothic.” Italy’s choice of design and placement of buildings shows the Italians approach and style in terms of gothic design. The Italian approach to gothic design allows for an individual expression of a style in architecture that seemed outmoded and repetitive throughout northern Europe.
In its development of a Gothic style, Italy stood apart from the rest of Europe. While in most European countries’ artists imitated the architectural styles that derived from northern France, however that was not the case in Italy. This was due to both geographic and geologic factors. Italy’s arts were heavily influenced with classical antiquity and Byzantine Constantinople more than in countries north of the Alp Mountains.
In addition, the Italian architectural style was decisively affected buy the fact that brick and not stone was the most common building material and that marble was the most common decorative material.
The distinctive traits of Italian Gothic are best understood by referring to the Italian Romanesque and its likewise exceptional position. The basilica pattern and timber ceiling were very common in Italy, especially in Tuscany, through the Romanesque period and that the Romanesque character was mainly apparent in decorative traits. It was not till the close of the Romanesque period that vaulted churches became widespread throughout Italy, with ornamental traits which reflected some slight northern Gothic influence.
Twelfth-century buildings such as Laon, Chartres, or Saint-Denis, that appeared to have been so important in the north, were virtually not imitated in Italy. The Italians were not aware of the French standards of how a church was to look. There are sprinklings of churches belonging to the first third of the century that have northern characteristics, such as attached (partially recessed in the wall) shafts or columns, crocket capitals, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults. Some of these were Cistercian like the Fossanova, others were secular like of the Sant’Andrea, Vercelli. The most common feature of the larger Italian 13th-century churches, such as the Orvieto cathedral and Santa Croce in Florence, were the size of their arcades, which allowed for the interiors to have a spacious feeling.
In detail the churches vary from that of the French pattern in a highly individual way. Rayonnant architecture (French gothic architecture) was particularly concerned with the manipulation of two-dimensional patterns while the Italian masons produced their own version of the style. The Cathedrals of Florence, of Siena, of Orvieto are prominent examples. In the views of Florence and of Orvieto we notice a system of marble paneling or horizontal masonry striping, which is common to many Italian buildings at the time which was derived from earlier buildings under Byzantine influence, like the Pisa Cathedral and St. Mark’s at Venice. The most superficial comparison with the exteriors of the northern Gothic will show how foreign this use of colored marble must be to the accented rising lines, buttresses, pinnacles, and large windows of the north.
The only first-class truly Gothic cathedral in all Italy is that of Milan, which was largely built by German architects, and in locality stands nearest of important towns to the influence of the north. Even this cathedral shows important deviations from the style of the northern Gothic. Otherwise the Church of St. Francis at Assisi is one of the rare instances of an approximately northern style and was also built by a northern architect.
Italian gothic architecture shows a versatility of medieval architecture that is not displayed within that of the other gothic style that is predominant throughout the rest of Europe. However, it does reflect an underlying phase of general history. The Italians were the earliest moderns, the first to deliberately set up the ideal of modern civilization and to consciously antagonize the culture and feudal institutions of the Middle Ages. Their prejudice against Gothic culture and Gothic art, ultimately shaped itself in the Renaissance. In fact its main features are quite antagonistic to the Gothic system. The words specify a period rather than a style. They reflect a period of individual taste and style that transitioned the idea of architecture that we know today.