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In this instalment of our exploration of architecture through the ages, we reach the Renaissance and the influence of England upon it.

Brunelleschi's Dome: How ARenaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, says the title of a recent bestseller. It conjures up images of Filippo Brunelleschi emerging with a triumphant flourish of ancient knowledge when the competition to design Florence Cathedral's cupola was launched in 1418, but what do the words 'Renaissance' and 'genius' mean? The cultural output of the 'Big R' has been tested and re-tested in the academic laboratory for a century and a half, but its essence has not yet been distilled - quite the contrary, it is now regarded as a vague term rather than an absolute one.

And, even though the term 'Renaissance' (coined from the French word meaning 'rebirth') wasn't used until 1855, some Italians, such as Petrarch, thought the golden age first dawned in Italy during the 14th century.

In architecture, 'Renaissance' usually means 'Classical', but if reviving the culture of a Classical golden age was indeed the spirit of the Renaissance, then we encounter several problems with Brunelleschi's dome. Firstly, the classification of history and its monuments was very much in its infancy 580 years ago and an archaeological eye with which to imagine the original appearance of ancient monuments was some way off: for example, the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome was thought to be the 'Temple of Peace'.

A bigger problem with Brunelleschi's dome is that he didn't envisage it - a similar version, created half a century before the competition, appears in a fresco painting of the cathedral in the Spanish Chapel (chapter house) of the nearby Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. Structurally - albeit an unquestionably grand and iconic achievement - Brunelleschi's dome is essentially a pointed rib vault of stone ribs infilled with brick webs. You won't find any from ancient Rome, whereas northern Italy had plenty of Medieval baptisteries with octagonal brick vaults, like the one next to Florence Cathedral. The dome seems less a recreation of the only surviving major ancient authority - the concrete hemisphere over the Pantheon - than a reworking of the brick-webbed rib vaults in the Holy Trinity in Hull. (It's intriguing that English architects were among the northern-European designers called to Italy to advise on Brunelleschi's dome).

A century earlier, similar challenges must have been overcome in building the steeple of Lincoln Cathedral - then the world's tallest structure at 524 feet - but they are unrecorded, and those that built it aren't upheld as geniuses today. It's a problem of publicity: they'd be celebrated if an English version of the celebrated Italian biographer Vasari had written about them.

Anyway, it stretches credulity to say that the dome of Florence Cathedral reinvented architecture: a fat lot of good that intrinsically beautiful and fine work was for a villa or a palazzo, the domestic stuff that fills most of the towns and cities of Europe and most of the books on Renaissance architecture. But was Brunelleschi the first modern architect in any sense? The broad Renaissance period (say, 1400-1550) is often claimed to be the dawn of the architectural profession, but the reality is that there was no separate established career for architects - buildings were part of the curriculum of the artistically gifted Renaissance craftsman, as they had been for the Italian artist for some centuries.

Other artisans - cobblers, saddlers, fletchers - had defined roles and skills, but architects such as Brunelleschi, Raphael and Michelangelo had no standard training or architects' guild membership and they diluted their time spent on buildings by also working as sculptors, painters, or goldsmiths.

They arguably hold a weaker claim to be architects than Medieval masons, who trained in the one subject of building via the established Masonic guild system. The exceptions of purely architectural practitioners are few, but include Donato Bramante, the architect of St Peter's, who had learned much from the early Christian churches of Milan, and Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo, architects at the court of Pope Leo X (1513-21).

'Renaissance' architecture is a subjective idea because no straight copy of a Classical building was made in the Renaissance age. Many of Florence's seminal buildings pay credence to the city's 13th-century Republican style of pointed arches combined with rustication. Venice had its own links with the Levant, that brewed up a heavy exoticism. Spanish Renaissance work, like the Hospital de Santa Cruz in Toledo, combined Florentine work with Mudejar ceilings and native traditions of crepuscular ornamental masonry.

France's great achievement of La Première Renaissance was Château Chambord, a turreted, castellated block with a tall slate roof that used local materials to withstand the rain. Everywhere, the genius loci played a part in tempering whatever ancient authority was understood, or considered, to be useful and valid.

The biggest difference Italian architects made for posterity is that they liked to write about architecture and this repositioned the standing of the architect as a theoretician as well as a practitioner. Leone Battista Alberti is the name to whom immeasurable credit must be given for advances in the way people understood the business of building. De Re Aedificatoria (first published 1486) was his rewriting of Roman architect Vitruvius's treatise, De Architectura, the only ancient Roman text on general principles of architecture to survive. Vitruvius' terminology was peppered with Greek words like peristyle, anthemion and acroterion. 'He may as well have written nothing', complained Alberti, 'than something we cannot understand'. So Alberti's task was to overhaul an impenetrable text from about 27BC, an era of column and lintel construction, before concrete had moulded Rome's characteristic bath-houses, the Pantheon and the vaulted basilicas. A rethink was necessary if builders of Alberti's day were to be properly instructed, so he changed the first chapter from 'First Principles and the Layout of Cities' (imposing a defensible settlement: a primary concern for the builders of an identikit urban empire) to 'Lineaments' (making outlines: the primary concern of an intellectual obsessed with order).

Lineaments are the lines by which the design is conceived, a three-dimensional wire framework for containing the regular envelope of a building. These, Alberti says, should be rectangular, square, hexagonal or octagonal, then each part could bear a harmonious relationship to the whole, following the immutable laws of geometry. But what about the details of Classical columns and entablatures? Here, we quickly get out of our depth, because Alberti is so proud of his Latin that any illustration would be an admission of the failure of his powers of verbal description. So the piles of twisting cymas and ovolos that constitute bases and capitals are tortuously explained, when a picture would say a thousand words.

What did other Europeans make of Alberti? The shortcomings were soon recognised. Filarete (real name Antonio Averlino) wrote an illustrated treatise that reads like a storybook and many manuscript versions were created that helped to spread its aesthetic: fabulously impractical arrays of arcades, domes and minarets. Then, 25 years after Alberti's first printed edition, Fra Giocondo's inspired translation of Vitruvius appeared in 1511.

Here, in a pocket-sized book that looked forward to 18th-century manuals such as The Builder's Jewel, were pictures of plans upon grids, the classical orders and ornament. Now, with engraved illustrations, we were capable of mass-produced visual information that could span a continent. By 1521, Cesare Cesariano had translated Vitruvius into plain Italian, with a lavishly illustrated book that included a highly complex depiction of the triangulated 'German manner' of planning used in Milan Cathedral as a contrast for the boxier geometries by now accepted as those most closely relatable to the manner of the ancients.

And what has the Renaissance got to do with British architects? More than is usually recognised. Alberti's book was in England within a year of its initial publication in Florence - it was purchased in 1487 by the Bishop of Durham, John Sherwood, who lived near the Piazza Navona when he was representing Henry VII at the Papal Court. He also bought a copy of the combined Vitruvius and Frontinus edition, published in 1486, in Rome, and annotated both books. He loaded his copy of Alberti with comments (and even made corrections to Alberti's Latin), highlighting points of interest with cartoons of pointy fingers, gaining extra emphasis from a laser-like beam extending from the index finger to the significant word or phrase. And his excitement peaked at Alberti's only reference to 'Britannia', which was underlined for good measure. Cardinal Wolsey's library list for his new college at Oxford (begun 1525) included a copy of Vitruvius.

So people were interested in relating Italian ideas on architecture to England, but it is difficult to say what the practical results of this engagement were, because the Tudor age is filled with architectural strangenesses. Contemporaries of Henry VII (1485-1509) and Henry VIII (1509-47) saw vaults more fabulous than any before or since. Brick-turreted gatehouses were standard on great houses and symmetry prevailed, while Classical columns and wreaths served to frame walls, ceilings and plaques.

So should we think of Tudor architects' imaginations as the culmination of the native skeletal pier-and-vault tradition we now call 'Perpendicular Gothic'? Or as an engagement with the Burgundian empire's brick-built wool trading cities of Flanders, such as Bruges and Ghent? Or as the emulation of the FrancoItalian ideas of classical proportion and detail that we label as Renaissance? Or is Tudor eccentricity the result of a combination of the three influences - and perhaps more - in an age of international expansion?

The presence of architectural volumes in the English court circle of the 1490s means that Vitruvius' and Alberti's unillustrated prescriptive advice on planning and metrology, and the example of Sherwood's intelligent responses to it, must be borne in mind as an interpretive tool to explain the increasingly symmetrical arrangements of English buildings of the turn of the 16th century. This is particularly so because of a rather enigmatic comment made by John Shute in his earliest of English architectural treatises, The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture, published in 1563. Though this book comes some time after Sebastiano Serlio's Four Books of Architecture, the series that was published from 1537, and also after the earliest French publications concerning architecture, Shute specifically recognises an earlier culture of architectural study in England: '[?]concerning ye proportion & simetry to use the accustomed terme of the arte of the fornamed columbes, whiche I have not as well seen in Italie, from whence they cam first unto us amongst the Antique woorkes as read and studied in the Autentique writers, that I might with so much more perfection write of them as bothe the reading of the thinge and seing it in dede is more than onely bare reding of it' (Shute 1563).

A further clue to the British reception of internationally championed ideas can be found in John Dee's writings of before 1570, when he published the earliest known English commentary on Albertian principles from Book One of De Re Aedificatoria: 'The whole Feate of Architecture in buildyng consisteth in Lineamentes, and in Framyng. And the whole power and skill of Lineamentes, tendeth to this: that the right and absolute way may be had, of copying and joyning lines and angles: by which, the face and frame of the building may be comprehended and concluded. And it is the property of Lineaments, to prescribe unto buildynges, and every part of them, an apt place, & certaine number: a worthy maner, and a semely order: that, so, Ye whole forme and figure of the buildying, may rest in the very Lineamentes &c [?] Lineamentes, shalbe the certaine and constant prescrybyng, concieved in mynde: made in lines and angles: and finished with a learned minde and wyt [by] the Architect, [who is] master over all, that make any worke.

Whereupon, he is neither Smith, nor Builder: nor, separately, any Artifi cer [?]' (Dee 1570).

All ages are transitional but the early 16th century seems to have provided a more seismic shift toward our own age than any other, as Britain entered a dialogue with Europe which, via some strange and wonderful manifestations of buildings, opened the door to the realm of the gentleman architect. Now that's reinventing architecture.

Jonathan Foyle is an architectural archaeologist and TV presenter.

He appears in the next series of BBC's Time Team

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