European Architecture History

European Architecture History; Palaces for Western Princes: Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo c.1400 – c.1750

Western princes were very important people from 1400 to 1750, so it’s no surprise that they lived lavish lifestyles. A major part of those “lavish lifestyles” involved living in richly designed palaces. Fortunately for students of architecture, many of those palaces are still standing today and provide great insight into the cultural systems in place during that time and to the great reverence paid to royalty.

European Architecture History; Chambord

In the city of Chambord, France stands the famous Château de Chambord. Even those who have never been to the structure or who have not studied architecture intensely could easily recognize this amazing building. It features an easily distinguished French Renaissance style, meshing traditional French medieval architecture and classical Renaissance architecture. Though the building was never quite finished, it still stands strong today and is an impressive and oft-visited site.

The Chateau was commissioned by King Francois I, who intended to use it as a hunting lodge. Despite the fact that it was not intended for residential purposes, it is the biggest and grandest chateau in the entire Loire Valley.

Many argue that the immensity of the structure was not the idea of Francois but of the architect who designed it. Exactly who that architect was, however, is a subject of much debate. Many believe that the architect was Domenico de Cortona. However, others claim that Philibert Delorme and/or the esteemed Leonard da Vinci were behind the design. It has also been speculated that all three men played a role in creating the structure.

The confusion over the architect is likely owed, in large part, to the long period of its construction. Chambord took twenty-eight years to complete, having been started in 1519 and not finished until 1547. Throughout the entire construction period, Francois eagerly awaited its completion. Whether or not he had planned for the structure to be so immense, historians assert that he very much came to enjoy the thought of showing off his great wealth and the vastness of his power.

It is important that architecture scholars do not confuse chateaux with castles. Though they are derived from castles, they are very different structures, and this fact holds especially true for Chambord. While traditional castles were designed with defense, strength, and protection in mind, chateaux, like Chambord, were created for beauty and power display.

That is not to say, however, that Chambord does not have some features that are reminiscent of the traditional castle design. A keep, moat, and towers, all structures common to castles of the time, are all included in the Chambord’s design. The towers, however, are different from standard towers in that they do not feature turrets or spires, suggesting that they may have been influenced by Milanese architecture.

Instead of the standard corridor rooms, however, the chateaux actually contains a series of self-contained rooms. There are four corner towers, two towers connected to the keep, 440 rooms, and four vaulted hallways.

Interestingly, the chateaux also has some features of Italian Renaissance architecture, including loggia, open-air lounging areas, and open windows. One also must mention the double helix staircase, located at the heart of the Chambord. This staircase and it artistic design is the main reason that many accredit at least part of the chateau’s design to da Vinci.

Aside from the staircase, other impressive features include a vast stretch of façade and hundreds of columns.

European Architecture History; Escorial

Escorial, whose full name is San Lorenzo de El Escorial, is home to the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. The “Royal Seat” or simply “The Escorial,” as it is often referred to, was at one time the home of the King of Spain. Today, it still stands strong, and, unlike many other historical locations, is actually  functional. Residents use the sites within as a monastery, a museum, and a school.

Though often referred to as one unit, the Escorial is actually made up of two architectural complexes. First, there is the royal monastery. Then, there is the La Granjilla de La Fresneda, which served as a hunting lodge and retreat. Both were widely used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries as important sites for members of the Spanish monarchy and important persons affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, the palace was not just a palace but a religious site as well, functioning as a monastery.

Phillip the II of Spain was the one who commissioned the structure. He handed over the project and much of the design responsibility to architect Juan Bautista, the man behind the basilica of St. Peter’s. He was appointed architect-royal in 1559 and shared Peter’s vision of creating an El Escorial that would be a symbol to the world that Spain was the major player in Christianity at the time. Unfortunately, Bautista would not live to see his vision completed. He died in 1567, and the project was passed down to Juan de Herrera, who would complete the building, started in 1567, by 1584.

In addition to serving that symbolic purpose, Peter II had more practical purposes in mind as well. The structure would serve not just as royal (and Christian) palace but also as the necropolis for his parents, Charles I and Isabella of Portugal, as well as those from his lineage to die after.

The structure has an interesting layout, including a gridiron floor plan, believed to be a respectful nod to St. Lawrence. Whether this story is true or not, El Escorial was certainly not the first structure to use the seemingly unique floor plan. Indeed, other structures, including King’s College in Cambridge and the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan have a similar structure. Some argue that El Escorial was not intending to “copy” these structures and others like them but that it was actually using the design of the original Temple of Solomon.

The main construction material for El Escorial, which ended up being more than two times its intended size by its completion date, is strong, quarried granite. With an odd quadrangle shape, the structure is made up of passageways, chamber rooms, courtyards, spired towers, pointed belfries, and a distinctive round dome atop the basilica.

European Architecture History; Sans Souci, Postsdam

Sanssouci was, at one time, the summer palace of Frederick the Great, who was the King of Prussia. Located in Postsdam,  the structure is built in the Rococo style and features temples and follies that make it distinctive and rather impressive for its time.

The designer of Sanssouci was Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, who worked on the structure from 1745 to 1747. After he was fired from the project due to an argument (some would say a power struggle) with the King, Jan Bouman eventually took over.  Regardless, Sanssouci was originally designed to be the private home of King Frederick , and as such, is designed much like a villa.

Featuring only ten rooms and one story, the structure is unique unto itself. Indeed, many have termed the style as “Frederician Rococo,” since the King had such a large say in its design and look.

While the original King’s input is still noticeable, so is the fact that Frederick William IV would later reside there. After he moved into the palace in the 19th century, he had it enlarged and slightly re-designed by architect Ludwig Persius.

In spite of the many changes Sanssouci would undergo, the light, playful nature of the design is still highly evident. Motifs within the structure center on aristocratic life and romantic love, though scenes of battle and religiosity were commonplace at the time. 

Also notable are the flanking side wings, the central bow that interrupts the façade, and the hipped roof. The North façade is also rather distinguished with its 88 Corinthian columns .

European Architecture History; Tres Riches Heures: Charles V’s Louvre; Peasant Huts

While most people are familiar with the famed Louvre museum, many do not realize that it was originally the Louvre Palace. The structure was intended to be a fortress when it was erected in the 12th century after being commissioned by Phillip II.

The original structure had a quadrilateral shape, featured 8 wings, and also featured 8 pavilions.

The Louvre, however, underwent some changes in the 14th century at the hands of Charles V.  He began enlarging the Louvre in 1358 and had grand plans for the structure overall. Unfortunately, however, King Francis I demolished much of the structure, and consequently, Charles’s work, in the 16th century.

Finally, in order to fully see and understand the contrast between the royal lifestyle and the peasant lifestyle, one must examine the many peasant huts that existed during this time. While kings and other important members of society were dwelling in immense palaces, peasants resided in small huts, which usually consisted of only one room. The huts had dirt floors and rarely featured chimneys, meaning they were nothing short of cold hovels. Since the huts were poorly (and cheaply) constructed, not many still stand today.