Early Western Architecture

New Architecture & New Society in the West: early European architecture and the history of architecture in Europe

Eventually, Western Europe would move into a period of “rebirth,” a period known as the Renaissance. Renaissance literally means “rebirth,” and in Western Europe, this period was marked by a renewed interest in the arts and higher learning. These new interests, of course, led to an increased focus on architecture and to higher quality architecture and new architectural achievements. Below, a few of the greatest architectural achievements of this unique period in history are explored.

Palazzo Medici, Florence

The Palazzo Medici is a Renaissance palace that was built in Florence, Italy. Michelozzo di Bartolomeo was the Italian architect and sculptor who was commissioned to design the palace by Cosimo de’ Medici. Medici was the first member of what would become the Medici political dynasty, a group that would rule Florence throughout most of the Renaissance. Medici was a well-known banker, which was how he earned his sizable fortune and how he could afford to have the palace built.

The palace took several years to build, with construction starting in 1444 and ending in 1484. Featuring classic stone masonry and a tripartite elevation, the castle is a perfect example not just of Renaissance architecture but of the values that pervaded the Renaissance period as a whole. The structure of the palace honors three values deemed important to people of the period: rationality, order, and classicism.

Though the palace is very obviously a Renaissance structure, Bartolomeo still drew influences from other architectural periods and schools of thoughts, namely Roman architecture and Brunelleschian architecture. The Roman influence can be seen particularly in the masonry and the cornice, though a close inspection will reveal that even those features have uniquely Renaissance and Florentine characteristics.

Another example of a Roman-and-Florentine styled feature is the open colonnaded court. Also, the “kneeling windows,” which feature scrolling consoles, are indicative of both architectural styles.

A truly unique and much-celebrated feature of the palace is the Magi Chapel, a 15th century piece featuring frescoes designed by Benozzo Gozzoli, the famed Italian Renaissance painter. The frescoes contain what are believed to be thinly veiled portraits of the Medici family and other important and influential figures of the period.

Sephardic Synagogue, Amsterdam

The Sephardic Synagogue, also known as the Portuguese Synagogue or the Esnoga, was built in the 17th century in Amsterdam. At the time of the synagogue’s construction, Sephardic Jews made up a huge part of the Dutch population. And, not only were these Jews prolific in number, but they were very wealthy as well, which allowed them to construct such a large and impressive synagogue.

Perhaps another reason for the massiveness and grandiosity of the synagogue was the fact that the Jews who built it had escaped great persecution encountered in Spain and Portugal.

The Sephardic Jews hired architect Elias Bouwman to create their synagogue. Bouwman began work on the project on April 17, 1671 and had completed the structure by August 2, 1675. His work is a completely freestanding synagogue supported by wooden poles and foundation vaults. Inside, the Sephardic Synagogue features rustic wooden benches and classically Dutch sand floors. The floors are particularly unique; the Sephardic Synagogue is one of only five synagogues in the entire world to have sand floors.

Villa Rotunda

The Villa Rotunda, which is also known as the Villa Almerico Capra, was designed by Andrea Palladio, a famed architect who built many structures in the Venetian Republic. The Renaissance style villa, located just outside of Vicenza in Northern Italy, is considered by many to be Palladio’s crowning achievement.

The rotunda sits atop a small hill and features six columned porticoes and a central dome, believed to be one of the first domes to be used in a non-religious structure. Another unique feature of the rotunda is that its living quarters are located solely on the ground floor. Palladio’s intriguing design would live on long after his death since many used the rotunda and the surrounding structures that came later as inspiration for the homes of 18th century British aristocrats.

Despite the long-lasting influence of the rotunda, however, Palladio would not live to see it completed, nor would it be completed to his exact specifications. Palladio, for example, had no intention of making the villa amenable to a farm as it now is. Like Palladio, the original owner, Paolo Almerico, would also not live to see the structure complete or to oversee progress on the building. Instead, Vincenzo Scamozzi, a Venetian architect and architectural writer, was hired to oversee the completion of the project.

Under his direction, the planned-for center hall was covered with a small dome featuring an oculus that drew inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome. Other features of the circular shaped hall include a beautiful balcony, a cupola, and heavily decorated walls and frescoes. It should also be noted that the rotunda, though it appears symmetrical, is designed with slight twists and shifts to offer the most pleasant views of the countryside possible.

Vitruvius Britannicus

Vitruvius Britannicus is a unique architectural contribution and a unique contribution to our list since it is not actually a structure in and of itself. Instead, it is an architectural encyclopedia of sorts, penned by Colen Campbell, a Scottish architect credited with creating the Georgia style.

His work, Vitruvius Britannicus, which means “The British Architect,” was published in three volumes, all published from 1715 to 1725. The work is the first real example of architectural literature to be released in England other than John Shute’s older First Groundes.

Contained in the volumes are listings and definitions of different types of designs and styles, engravings from respected architects of the time, layouts of outdoor structures like courts and parks, and opinion pieces related to architectural styles. Many full building plans and drawings of buildings from different perspectives are also included.

Each of the volumes was quite popular and contributed to architecture in that it brought about an interest in neo-Palladian architecture, leading to many structures being erected in this style throughout the 18th century.


Monticello is well known as one of the residences of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Not only did Monticello serve as his primary residence, but it was also a large slave plantation. Jefferson’s plantation, which he began constructing at the young age of twenty-six, was 5,000 acres and featured tobacco crops, mixed crops, and wheat crops.

The major connection between Monticello and Europe is that Jefferson designed the plantation based on principles held by Andrea Palladio, an Italian Renaissance architect, whom, if you’ll remember, was responsible for the Villa Rotunda. As a result, Monticello is very neoclassical in terms of its design and has many elements that are distinctly reminiscent of 18th century European architecture, odd for a plantation based in Virginia.

Monticello, as one might expect given Palladio’s influence on its design, looks very much like a villa. It is important to note, however, that Jefferson desired to create “a new architecture” and added some of his own unique design concepts into the structure.

Construction began on Monticello in 1768 but wasn’t truly complete until 1809. Throughout the building of Monticello, Jefferson would regularly make adjustments to the plans to suit his evolving tastes, including an interest in the French architecture popular around 1784.

While Monticello is certainly a testament to who Jefferson was and what he preferred, it is often compared to other structures, such as the Chiswick House. The Chiswick House is a Palladian villa located in England. Designed by Lord Burlington, the villa features English landscape gardens and is considered an excellent example of neo-Palladian architecture, as is Monticello.


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