Skyline Definition Example Essay

Nadine Beck

AR 201 The Renaissance in Tuscany

Essay 2

What was the importance of the skyline of the major cities of Tuscany and how were they shaped and to what effect?

In this essay, I shall depict one of the reasons for and ways of shaping the city during the Italian renaissance. I will be looking at the architecture of a handful of Tuscany’s bigger and smaller cities and the way they represented themselves throughout the centuries. What were the major differences between them, and what did they have in common? Referring to the title and taking the skyline as a measure to differentiate, I shall show and explain the motivations to build the significant buildings of these cities. Starting with Lucca, Siena, Volterra and San Gimignano in comparison, however, the focus in the end will be on Florence as the major Tuscan city. Where possible, pictures will be given to help visualising my arguments and for better understanding.

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once uttered in one of his lectures on the philosophy of art the statement: “Architecture is symbolic; it reflects the spirit.”1 Especially for the cities of Tuscany, before, during and after the renaissance I think this sentence is very true. In no other way we can trace the way a city has seen itself so directly as by its architecture. Their symbolic character is a perfect source for they way the city’s inhabitants thought and searched to express themselves at that time. If we imagine ourselves to be back in the 14th or 15th century in central Italy, the paradigms for what was important need to be reset onto a totally different level. To make a provocative statement, our time is dominated by overstimulation, freedom of choice and a life of plenty, making us insensitive and indifferent towards sensations and unable to measure the greatness of some things in life. Back in the early renaissance, the meaning of faith, power, wealth and life itself was bigger. The dimension of a building was still something to amaze people, and the greatness of its designer worth to praise him. To have the power and wealth to build anything of significance meant either to be a rich man or to belong to the church or to both, as we will see later.

But coming back to the measure of the greatness of a whole city: the skyline. If I want to examine the different skylines of the Tuscan cities according to their phenotype and relevance, I should give a definition of the term first. According to my idea of what skyline means, we are talking about the most prominent - in the literal Latin sense of prominens = projecting, and in the common meaning of excellent - buildings or visible characteristics like hills etc. of a city seen against the sky, of course changing according to one’s point of view. In contrast to Lubbock’s definition2, I personally define it as a two-dimensional silhouette-like simplification of the horizontal and vertical extension of a town or city, for example the skyline of Volterra as in the picture below. The difference to a true silhouette is that a skyline leaves out

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unimportant details or lower buildings in favour of the most important, highest and characteristic ones. They are the visually easily accessible buildings, visible from great distance and, to come back to the renaissance, most likely to indicate the centre of a city. For a very long time, the highest buildings in Christian Europe were the churches; even until today they dominate the skylines of some cities or towns. In Italy, however, the domes, cathedrals and churches had to compete with worldly buildings. Cities like San Gimignano, for example, were crammed with 71perpendicular and skyscraping towers of rivalling noble families, of which 15 can

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still be seen today (see San Gimignano: Close-up of the family towers and skyline3 picture). According to its skyline it is often called the `Manhattan of the Middle Ages´ - these witnesses of pride and power must have looked even more impressive to anyone approaching it back then.

The aristocracy in San Gimignano, and elsewhere, tried to outdo each other by building bigger and higher and more exclusive towers4. The tower itself as a private building inside a city, not as part of a fortress, is a symbol for luxury, power and importance and fulfils at the same time its defensive duty as a watchtower against enemies. What we can hardly imagine is the fact that even cities like Rome were dominated by this competition of tower-mania5 ; in early Florence, the highest of its 400 towers reached 250 feet before the communal governments in northern Italy restricted their erection during the 13th and 14th century6, because the private power, and therefore its consequences, grew to strong for them in relation to the public power. Even Leon Battista Alberti ridiculed the amount of towers in some cities in his book De Re Aedificatoria7 (Book VIII, Ch.5), although that fashion at that time was already deceased. In his aesthetic sense it is not quantity but quality that makes a city looking well, it should represent a harmonic interaction between the necessity, the outward appearance and the value of the usefulness for oneself. So maybe one should add a third dimension to the skyline and that is the one of inherent meaning and quality rather than sheer size or conglomeration like in san indignant, for example. A skyline can be like a statement, or to say it again with Hegel , architecture and thus the skyline reflects the spirit of a city. If it is dominated by defensive architecture, as we will see in the case of Volterra later, like fortresses or impressive and high city walls the city at the same time makes a statement of power.

Nevertheless, towers were a sign of immense wealth, because it required a huge amount of money to build them; on the other hand it is characteristic for a city how high the level of wealth is and how its wealth is spent according to the city’s social structure8. Cities like Bologna (however, no Tuscan city) or Lucca showed the same symptoms of inner rivalries, although Lucca today is called the ´City of 100 Churches´ and only the Guinigi-tower is left and still visible in the cityscape9.

Another secular building type of a larger scale is the palaces and fortresses. In Volterra, for example, existed many towers like the above mentioned, until they were destroyed during its wars with mighty Florence. On the highest point of Volterra the Florentine Medici family built themselves a massive monument, the Fortezza, a fortress with large tower, not to be missed from a remote view and demonstrating impressive defensive power and the presence of the influential Medici. There again, the architecture reflects the spirit, in this case an aggressive and dominant one, representing the victory over the citizens.

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Volterra today (left to right): church, baptistery and Medici-fortress dominate the skyline10

Apart from the power-emphasizing fortresses, the Palazzi dei Priori, the town halls, form the other type of non-religious buildings which obtain a representative communal but not private character and therefore are built in larger scales as we will see closer with Florence. The only other remarkable spots in this skyline and that of most other cities are religious buildings, as the baptistery and the dome. Although it should be paid more attention to it, and especially because it was originally an even bigger city than Florence, I will only briefly mention Pisa and its skyline with its famous leaning tower, the baptistery and the dome, in favour of an extended view on Florence.

By referring to churches, we reach another significant type of buildings for a city already touched above. The relevance of religion and the church determined the life of the medieval people more than today. Not only for the sake of the safeness of their souls, but for their reputation, too, rich citizens often agitated as sponsor for the building or enlargement of church houses or domes. The consequence of a wealthy and ambitious client for a building is often not only excellence in design, but the sheer size to leave a long lasting impression.

But staying with churches, there has been a competition on several layers between Florence and Siena. Not only has Florence attacked Siena several times, as so many other cities, but the city of Siena had managed to set high standards by building a magnificent cathedral on top of its highest hill. The marble-decorated bell-tower of the gothic dome could be seen from far away, demonstrating the importance, wealth and power the city obtained. If it was not for the Black Death, the plan to outdo its rivals Pisa and Florence would have succeeded by Siena’s cathedral, which was planned to be gigantically high and large.11

Siena saw itself as a directly derived from the founders of Rome and claimed to be the ideal city12, as you could see by Lorenzetti´s allegorical fresco of the Good Government in the counsel chambers of the Palazzo Publicco, the town hall. Therefore, the tower of the town hall, Torre del Mangia is the highest building of Siena, rising over 100m up into the sky. Both buildings are equally important for the identity of Siena, but due to their position on different levels of the hilly city, they cannot appear in one skyline (see pictures).

Siena today: Palazzo Publicco and the Duomo13

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1 Hegel, G.W.F., Vorlesungen Bd.2 (Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg, 1998) p.206 1

2 Lubbock, Jules, Proof Of Evidence For Public Enquiry into the City of London Plan, 1987 2


4 Thompson, David, Renaissance Architecture. Critics. Patrons. Luxury (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1993) p.175

5 ibid.

6 ibid.

7 ibid. p.178

8 Goldthwaite, Richard A., The Building of Renaissance Florence () p.29






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