THE IDEAL CITY OF THE RENAISSANCE

Ho trovato una città di mattoni, ve la restituisco di marmo1
Ottaviano Augusto in Svetonio, Vite dei Cesari, Aug., XXVIII, 3

Quante Città vedevamo noi mentre eravamo fanciulli fatte tutte di asse, le quali hora sono state fatte di marmo?2
Leon battista Alberti, De re aedificatoria, VIII, 5

The serene dream of the ancient, with its pacifying regularity, comes from afar. Perhaps it was already taking root at the beginning of the fourteenth century in the imagination of a child Petrarca, because of his father’s stories about the Florence of his youth; the same city sprinkled with the human and material ruins of the internal struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines in which a young Dante was also wandering, and for certain innervated the speeches of scholars scattered in the Italian courts a century later, easily overflowing in the iconographic programs of the great paintings.

It was only a matter of time before the artistic and philosophical vortex of the early Renaissance also touched on architecture and that time arrived in the mid-15th century at the hands of Leon Battista Alberti and his De re aedificatoria (1450-2). If the city of the Renaissance dreams of change it is because the structure of power that always gave shape to urban reality has changed. Swept away the levelling forms of the communes, where possible the town-planning schemes respond to the new needs of the prince, anxious to eternalize his personal and dynastic fortunes by shaping the city like a theater, in which a concentration of power and financial resources unknown in the recent past is staged and which makes it possible to dispose of the urban fabric at will.
In addition to political and cultural considerations, the building renovation also responds to hygienic-sanitary logic: it will be the memory of the thousands of victims of the plague in Milan in the years 1484-5 that Leonardo wrote in his notes for a memorial to Ludovico il Moro in 1497: “disgregherai tanta congregazione di popolo, che a similitudine di capre l’uno addosso all’altro stanno, empiendo ogni parte di fetore, si fanno semenza di pestilente morte3, just that it would have been valid for any European city of the epoch and for its anarchic medieval grid forced within walls by now useless.

Just the walls introduce us to a further order of considerations about the fever of urban renewal, those of military nature. The Gordian knot of the old walls was not untied by humanistic or humanitarian scruples but cut by a paradigm shift in the use of artillery. A very effective description is provided by Guicciardini with his comparison between the almost useless bombards commonly used in Italy:

Il nome delle maggiori era bombarde […] grossissime in modo che, per la macchina grande e per la imperizia degli uomini e attitudine mala degli instrumenti, tardissimamente e con grandissima difficoltà si conducevano […] era dall’uno colpo all’altro tanto intervallo che con piccolissimo frutto molto tempo consumavano4 

and the new French cannons of Charles VIII:

…di tal sorte che giammai aveva veduto in Italia le simiglianti […] né d’altro che di bronzo i quali chiamavano cannoni e usando palle di ferro dove prima era pietra […] gli conducevano sulle carrette tirate non da buoi, come in Italia si costumeva, ma da cavalli con agilità tale […] che quasi sempre al pari degli eserciti camminavano e condotte alle muraglie erano piantate con prestezza incredibile, e interponendosi dall’un colpo all’altro piccolissimo intervallo di tempo […], quello che prima in Italia fare in molti giorni si soleva, da loro in pochissime ore si faceva.“.5 

If we add to the words of Guicciardini (and Giovio who will say the same things) the unification of the calibers and the training of the 4000 artillerymen that the French army could already boast at the time, it is evident that the high, vertical and thin medieval walls days, most of the times designed to face nothing more than attackers on foot, were numbered.
The ideal city of the Renaissance tended towards horizontality as much as the real one of the Middle Ages tended towards verticality, but in spite of the more advanced theoretical intentions, only a few particularly opulent centers or sensitive to demographic pressure will be able to demolish the old walls to conurbare the outer villages that had grown out of all proportion, while in many cases one will have to resign oneself to partial if not purely cosmetic interventions. The most significant example of both the will to reform and its subsequent folding, dictated largely by the wars and crises of the sixteenth century, is represented by Ferrara that in 1492 at the behest of Ercole d’Este and under the direction of Biagio Rossetti abandoned the elongated shape modeled on the riverside to overturn the town inward making it larger and more compact within the new walls but the momentum, financial before ideal, will have a short life and the work will remain unfinished.

Returning to Alberti, to provide the backbone for his treatise, as well as those of all his colleagues and successors, was precisely the De Architectura of Vitruvius, the only source on the subject fully survived by classicism. Vitruvius’s treatise, a figure of whom we know very little but whose lines reveal more an engineer/geometrician than an architect, was not unknown either to intellectuals of previous eras or to contemporaries (Lorenzo Ghiberti, in exactly the same years, used it, albeit much more mildly, as a source for his Commentaries) but if between the Carolingian era and Petrarch it had been used for purely philological purposes, Alberti was the first to realize its potential, putting it at the service of both the recovery and rethinking of the ancient, an indispensable condition of any speculation of the time, and the political and social demands that were becoming concrete in those decades, first of all the will of magnificence of the Italian courts.

Alberti, however, does not confine himself to recompiling Vitruvius, but blows the spirit of his time into it, transfiguring it into an overall vision of the general structure of the urban plan, and then into an analysis of the elements of the city fabric examined from the point of view of functionality and use, all distributed over solemn and dilated volumes and spaces, and permeated by an omnipresent ideal of decorum and harmony that makes the classical canons its hinge.
But it was about ten years later, between 1460 and 1464, that perhaps the most bizarre and in some ways fascinating work of the genre came to light: the Architectural Book of Antonio Averlino better known by the nickname of Filarete. Originally a goldsmith and sculptor, in the late 40s after working at the gates of St. Peter’s he left Rome accused of theft of relics and for three years wandered between Florence, Arezzo, Venice and other centers until he landed in ’51 in Milan at the newly founded court of Francesco Sforza, on the recommendation of Piero de ‘Medici. Sforza’s idea was to erect a large hospital and modify the Castle according to the new Renaissance fashion, as well as to equip himself with one of these new figures of artist-intellectual to give prestige to the court making it less provincial, but the strong opposition of the local architects, still tied to the late gothic paradigm and jealous of their autonomy, generated a climate of permanent confrontation from which the Filarete did not come out victorious6.

Si può affermare, credo senza mancare di rispetto a nessuno, che Filarete non era un genio dell’architettura ed evidentemente non doveva essere dotato di una personalità spiccata se nemmeno l’appoggio del Duca gli fu sufficiente ad avere l’ultima parola sui detrattori che affollavano gli apparati tecnici deputati ai lavori pubblici; fatto sta che dopo un decennio di liti, probabilmente stanco e deluso, si rintana nel suo studio e passa i successivi quattro anni a scrivere i primi ventiquattro (su venticinque) libri del suo trattato.
La prima differenza che salta agli occhi paragonandolo a quello albertiano è la grande quantità di disegni con cui Filarete volle arricchire il testo ma la più notevole riguarda la natura profonda delle due opere. Se quello di Alberti è un cosciente ripensamento dell’architettura classica, ideato e voluto come leva culturale da mettere in mano alle corti per disegnarsi un mondo su misura, quello di Filarete è un ibrido denso di fantasia nel quale, sotto e accanto a un ragionamento su razionalità e funzionalità dell’architettura, emerge una seconda linea di natura magico-simbolica figlia di un’immaginazione utopica che fa ricorso tanto alla tradizione dell’astrologia e dell’alchimia quanto a fiabe di animali, letteratura fantastica, e racconti di viaggio.
Il Libro, nella forma di un dialogo immaginato tra lui, il Duca Francesco e suo figlio Galeazzo Maria, tratta della fondazione di una città di nome Sforzinda (da Sforza e una non meglio specificata Valle Inda sito della città) e di una sua propaggine portuale chiamata Plusiapolis.

It can be said, I think without disrespect to anyone, that Filarete was not a genius of architecture and evidently he was not endowed with a strong personality if not even the support of the Duke was enough to have the last word on the detractors who crowded the technical apparatus deputized for public works; the fact is that after a decade of quarrels, probably tired and disappointed, he hid in his studio and spent the next four years writing the first twenty-four (out of twenty-five) books of his treatise.
The first difference that comes to mind when comparing it to Alberti’s is the large number of drawings with which Filarete wanted to enrich the text, but the most remarkable is the profound nature of the two works. If Alberti’s work is a conscious rethinking of classical architecture, conceived and wanted as a cultural lever to be put in the hands of the courts in order to draw a tailor-made world, Filarete’s work is a hybrid full of fantasy in which, underneath and next to a reasoning on rationality and functionality of architecture, a second line of magic-symbolic nature emerges, child of a utopian imagination that makes use of the tradition of astrology and alchemy as well as animal fairy tales, fantasy literature, and travel stories.
The Book, in the form of an imagined dialogue between him, Duke Francesco and his son Galeazzo Maria, deals with the foundation of a city called Sforzinda (from Sforza and an unspecified Valle Inda site of the city) and its port offshoot called Plusiapolis.

A brief reconnaissance on the foundation ceremony and the choice of the moment in which to carry it out will give us a clearer picture.
Filarete explains to the Sforza that “Il buon dì e ’l buon punto si è in questo millesimo del sessanta, a dì quindici d’aprile a ore dieci e minuti ventuno sarà utile, per edificazione della città, a mettere giuso la prima pietra, però che in quello punto sarà ascendente un segno fisso terreo levando il Sole, el signore dell’ascendente7. The rite must take place on April 15 1460, 10 hours and 21 minutes after sunset (if the calculation of Filarete is based on the Italian time) that is, at the entrance of the sun enters the sign of the ram, a moment identified with that of the creation of the world by the famous Thema Mundi, arrived virtually unscathed until the Renaissance by the Chaldean astrology through the Hellenistic and Roman world. Even if Filarete goes far enough in the deepening of the question, the search for a moment astrologically propitious to the foundation of new buildings or cities is certainly not his exclusive, but is also reflected in the words of the much more rationalizing Alberti and Martini. On the other hand, that the theme was popular is also testified by a work by Giovanni di Paolo in 1445 in which God is depicted in the act of creation overlooking an Aristotelian sky with the sun aligned exactly under the sign of the ram.

as well as Marsilio Ficino in his De vita coelitus comparanda (1489) indicates precisely that the moment when the sun enters the first degree of the ram is ideal to craft talismans modeled on the archetype of the universe.
The consecration of the site will take place according to a ceremony that sees interpreters the Sforza, a bishop, eight aristocrats representing the most illustrious families and the architect himself as the master of ceremonies. The procession must cross the Inda valley accompanied by songs and music with each of the participants carrying a symbolic object (for Filarete, for example, there is a clay jar full of food) and once on the site the bishop will arm himself with a shovel and start digging a hole with three palates to symbolize both the trinity and the past-present-future triad, imitated immediately afterwards by all those present. At this point, since the physical activity (even if a bit bland) gets tired and a certain hour has been made, a banquet is served while some labourers finish digging the hole that the gentlemen had symbolically inaugurated. After the banquet, the first stone of the city (a block of marble engraved with the names of the founder, the reigning pope and the architect) is blessed and placed at the bottom of the hole; above it are deposited numerous symbolic objects, including an urn containing a bronze book, portraits of those present and vases with water, oil, milk, wine and honey, and the hole is finally closed with songs and hymns8.
During the same ceremony carried out for the other city, the port Plusiapolis, a golden book written in Greek is found. Its author, as the reading reveals, is Zogaglia king of the ancient Galisforma (the two words are an anagram of Galeazzo Maria Sforza) that once occupied the same site.
In an attempt to provide the prince with a sort of historical legitimation through a glorious past, the story told in the book turns out to be the same as that of the Sforza family. Filarete goes so far as to invent an illustrious ancestor even for himself, such “Onitoan Nolivera […] per patria notirenflo” which, anagrammatic, gives us “Antonio Averlino florentino”9.

What I have provided is only a skimpy summary of the procedure, but it is enough to get an idea of how much Filarete’s vision was imbued with mystical-magic elements as well as classical, medieval and christian10. Another element of the Book strongly characterized in that sense is the shape of the map of Sforzinda.

The two superimposed squares, staggered by 45° and inscribed in a circle, are a symbol that contains more than one meaning.
In the first instance, the motif seems to come directly from some volumes of cosmography produced between the 12th and 13th centuries, such as the Image du Monde by Gossouin of Metz, the Liber de figura seu imagine mundi by Ludovicus de Angulo or the Liber de Sphaera by Sacrobosco (perhaps the most widespread manual of astronomy and cosmography in the 15th century), volumes that were then available to the Sforza library that Filarete must have eagerly consulted.

What we are dealing with is a cosmogram that intersects the four classical elements with the four fundamental qualities, so that at the extremes of the diagonals pairs of opposites are formed that tend to balance each other. If in the square of the elements we find fire as opposed to water and air as opposed to earth, in that of the qualities we will find heat as opposed to cold and dry as opposed to wet. A further degree of relationship is given by the balance between centrifugal force generated between opposites and centripetal force given by the sharing between elements and qualities: earth and water have in common the cold, water and air the wet, air and fire the hot, fire and earth the dry.
The harmony and balance of this system are symbolized by the circle that encloses everything. This structure in which everything is held is nothing more than the geometric structure of the cosmos, a diagram of the universal order attributed to Pythagoras, supported by Aristotle, reiterated by the authorities of the Middle Ages and accepted by most scientists and philosophers of the Renaissance; after all, it is the archetypal idea of the creative divinity that impresses its own form at all degrees of creation, so that all things are established “ad similitudinem archetypi” (Sacrobosco) through a dense network of correspondences between the planes of creation.
This dialectic between macro and microcosm defines the universe as a sort of crystal whose parts, even the most infinitesimal, have the identical structure of the whole and repeat its harmony and balance. One of the best known representations of this concept, with the consequent abundance of circles and squares, is the famous “homo ad circulum et ad quadratum” of Vitruvian origin.

Thus, the architect, under the benevolent auspices of astrology, performs on a small scale the act of creation, demiurge and even mother:

l’edificio prima si genera, per similitudine lo potrai intendere, e così nasce sì come la madre partorisce il figliuolo […] sì come niuno per sé solo non può generare sanza la donna un altro, così eziandio a similitudine lo edificio per uno solo non può essere creato, e come sanza la donna non si può fare, così colui che vuole edificare bisogna che abbia l’architetto e insieme collui ingenerarlo, e poi l’architetto partorirlo e poi, partorito che l’ha, l’architetto viene a essere la madre d’esso edificio.11.

The fact that the cosmogram represented the order imposed on the cosmos by the hands of God makes it almost inevitable that it was also used and understood as a symbol of authority and power, and not only in the Christian field. It in fact stands out curiously 12 both on frontispieces and bindings of some Bibles and on ancient editions of the Koran. We also find it in the so-called Pendòn de Las Navas, the banner that Alfonso VIII of Castile managed to steal from Caliph Muhammad an-Nassir in Las Navas de Toulouse in 1212 during a pivotal battle of the Reconquista.


in the cloak of Henry II

And on the carpet under the chair of the Virgin on the throne in the famous Montefeltro altarpiece by Piero della Francescaa

Further examples of the alchemical and metaphysical value of this architecture can be found in other symbolic buildings of Sforzinda.
The area of the ducal fortress, surrounded by a labyrinth that serves as protection of the magical center of power (only the duke has direct access through a bridge), is divided into squares of the same size arranged three by three. From the central square rises a tower that symbolizes the course of time13. The four overlapping buildings represent the four seasons, the windows are 365 like the days of the year and measure 365 arm’s length in height (about 183 meters) and every 30 arms is interrupted by a cornice to suggest the twelve months of the year.

As for the decoration of the ducal palace, in frescoes and mosaics in the inner courtyard the four elements are symbolized by mythological scenes and historical events. While the floor houses the representations referred to the earth and water, on the vault we find the elements opposed to them that is air and fire. The mythological scenes represent transitions and conjunctions from one element of the floor to one of the vault, such as the Abduction of Ganymede, which binds earth and air to each other, or the Fall of Icarus or Phaethon in which the opposites of fire and water are united in an attempt to allude to birth, decay and transformation of matter.
Looking at this work today it is not difficult to imagine that Filarete has created a fantasy world with a triple purpose: to flatter his protector, to give him an idea of what he could have done if they had let him do it and probably also to find refuge and comfort from the irreducible aversion of his hostile Lombard colleagues. That Filarete professionally was not really a leading figure and that his projects were often more ornamental than efficient, if not not not of scarce feasibility, today can make one smile, but we must keep in mind that the task of this intellectual model was not so much to provide cold technical solutions as to convey a way of understanding architecture and urban planning, to correctly insert that new world in the flow of mysterious-philosophical relationships that innervates the universe.
Even the fact that Filarete moved at a lower theoretical level than Alberti’s, at the time should not have been a big problem: if Alberti investigated antiquity in a critical and philological way, Filarete approached it through the outdated filter of the imaginary and the antiquarian, but on the other hand at Francesco Sforza’s court there was probably no one able to notice the difference.
It was only with Leonardo in the last years of the century that the debate on the ideal city began to lose the utopian, symbolic and abstract connotations that had monopolized its nature until then. His contribution, which is not part of the real treatise nor will ever be understood by Sforza’s politics, with his new awareness of the effects of excessive population density and attention to degradation remains a proposal with a profoundly different flavor in view of a solution to the problems of Milan at that time.

In the sixteenth century the debate on the ideal city will definitely change its face. When the defensive aspect will have already climbed many positions in the ranking of concerns about urban settlements, the genius of Italian military architects-engineers will conceive the bastion fort and the starry, jagged plants transforming that ethereal dream into fortresses and entrenched fields such as Palmanova, Terra del Sole or Sabbioneta.
Through Sangallo, Peruzzi, Serlio, Cataneo, the Academy of Virtue and up to Palladio, the Vitruvian dictation is now, more than anything else, an excuse to talk about something else. If, on the one hand, the military component becomes more and more predominant, on the other hand, although within a certain variety in the search for solutions, the sacred and symbolic function of architecture will gradually diminish to make way for a vision that is in part exquisitely mannerist, tending towards polycentrism and dissonance in opposition to the formal rigor of the full Renaissance, and in part to the more exquisitely material and functional aspects of buildings.
In Pietro Cataneo’s Architettura, published in 1554, we find both the desire to please “the whims of the lords” through unusual plans, and the invitation to consider not only the “reasonable and corresponding proportions” but also, if not above all, the “expense“, the “health of the site” and the “comfort“, all immersed in a largely conservative framework filled with ethical maxims and biblical quotations in deference to the prevailing Counter-Reformation.
The apex of this anti-classical attitude, however, was reached by Andrea Palladio, who in 1570 condensed in a few pages his thought on the theme of the ideal city, a thought originally intended for a work in its own right but which never saw the light. With a technical language verging on aseptic, Palladio dismantled the symbolic neoplatonic apparatus, leaving streets, bridges and squares to their pure functional meaning and spatial nexuses now devoid of any emblematic sense in their own right.
Two treatises from the Medici environment, shortly after Palladio’s, confirm the clear change of ideal direction: that of Bartolomeo Ammannati in the mid-80s and that of Giorgio Vasari the Younger (nephew of the author of Vite) in 1598. If the former, in fact, focuses his attention on large community structures (schools, convents, prisons) in search of maximum efficiency, the latter also does the same with social housing, focusing on standardization to reduce expenses, but both seem clearly concerned to make visible the prince’s policy based on economic solidity and social welfare. If we add to these exquisitely political thrusts the spread of a technocratic, rationalist and anti-astrological ideology in the cultural climate of the Grand Duchy in those years, it is clear that the 15th century dream has now irremediably faded.

  1. “I found a city of bricks, I give it back to you of marble”
  2. “How many cities did we see while we were children made of planks, all of which now are made of marble?”
  3. “you will disintegrate so many congregation of people, that to similarity of goats one on top of the other are, filling up every place of stench, become seed of pestilent death”
  4.  “The name of the major ones was bombards […] very big so that, for the big machine and for the inexperience of the men and the bad attitude of the instruments, they were conducted very late and with great difficulty […] it was from one shot to the other so much interval that with very small fruit they consumed a lot of time”.
  5. “…of such a fate that he had never seen in Italy the simiglianti […] nor of anything else but bronze which they called cannons and using iron balls where before it was stone […] they led him on the carts pulled not by oxen, as in Italy it was customary, but by horses with such agility [… […] that almost always like the armies they walked and led to the walls they were planted with incredible speed, and interposing themselves from one blow to the other a very small interval of time […], what they used to do in Italy in many days was used, they used to do in very few hours”.
  6. Even the one still called “Torre del Filarete” was actually heavily reworked by his colleagues and detractors
  7. “The good day and ‘the good point is in this thousandth of sixty, on the fifteenth of April at ten o’clock and twenty-one minutes will be useful, for building the city, to put the first stone, but that in that point will be ascending a fixed earthly sign raising the Sun, the lord of the ascendant
  8. On the objects buried under the buildings and the spread of the idea of their power will be useful a passage of Orlando Furioso (IV, 38) in which the violation of their integrity literally disappears the castle that they were evidently called to protect:
    Atlantes from the threshold, graved by skill,
    With characters and wondrous signs, upturned
    A virtuous stone, where, underneath the sill,
    Pots, with perpetual fire and secret, burned.
    The enchanter breaks them; and at once the hill
    To an inhospitable rock is turned.
    Nor wall nor tower on any side is seen,
    As if no castle there had ever been.
  9. “Antonio Averlino from Florence”
  10. Precedents of founding rites were known since antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages. One of the most known at the time was probably the one narrated in the De consecratione of Abbot Suger in which he gives account of the ceremonies for the parisian abbey of Saint Denis in 1140
  11. “the building is generated first, by similarity you can understand it, and so it is born as the mother gives birth to her son [… ] just as no one for himself alone cannot generate without the woman, so, in similarity, the building cannot be created by only one person, and just as without the woman it cannot be done, so the one who wants to build it must dispose of the architect and together with him conceive it, and then the architect gives birth to it and then, having given birth to it, the architect comes to be the mother of the building”
  12. Curiosity destined to disappear once we are aware of the enormous debt contracted by the medieval Arabic culture with the Greek-Hellenistic one
  13. If the structure of the tower, although more slender and articulated, somehow reminds you that of the so-called Torre del Filarete of Castello Sforzesco you are probably right

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