Urban Design & Architecture


Physical Realization of Renaissance Ideals in Urban Renewal Streets of Italian Cities

by Randy D. Bosch, B.Arch., M.Arch., University of California, Berkeley  (c)1969, 2010 Randy D. Bosch

Changes in the ideas of theoreticians, and in the interpretation of the functional needs of the city, brought about a new view of the street during the 15th through 17th Centuries in Italian cities.  Generally speaking, the medieval street was functionally inadequate, aesthetically ill-considered, and lacking in unifying qualities.  Such a condition contributed to the multi-centric quality of the medieval city.  Its major focal points often floated in a tangled web of disjointed, unplanned streets.  The major edifices thus existed as workable cores of the city only at close range, and the city itself grew in a disjointed, seldom planned, fashion. 

Renaissance Florence (c)2006 Randy D. Bosch

The ideas of the Renaissance planners, coupled with a creative use of power upon the parts of leaders of church and state, brought a reconstruction which gave a form of unity to cities of multiple powers, and gave to the citizen a visible understanding of his position within the hierarchy of power of the city.

 It is the judicious surgery upon the fabric of the city, the physical realization of Renaissance planning ideas, with which this study is concerned.

Church and State

The interplay of church and rising state powers during the Renaissance served to vastly alter the social structure of the Italian city.  The importance of the citizen declined markedly, and with it a citizen’s influence upon the scope and scale of theory and planning for the public spaces which the citizen used.

The conceptual view of the role of the fabric of the city to connect the major points of interest thus revolved around the nodes of church and palace.  The streets which were conceived to connect such points did much to eliminate the “social” aspects of the spaces that they penetrated.  This disruption of traditional functions within pre-existing urban public spaces did, however, have the utility of easing acceptance of their functions, and the resettlement of activities into proper locations within the new pattern.

The major impetus for construction of a wide, orderly network of streets was, of course, a functional one.  The natural increase of traffic which accompanied the growth of the cities combined with the long ceremonial parades of Renaissance aristocratic functions to severely overburden the medieval street system.  The churches and palaces, as representations of the real power of the Renaissance city, the real focus of the major activities of the citizen’s lives, were logical focal points toward which to orient the new street systems.

Of course, the exact relationships which produced renewal plans varied considerably from city to city, although producing solutions which were remarkably similar in interpretation of concepts and the clarity achieved by the use of these concepts as tools in the physical realization of the plans.

Case Studies

The cities of Parma, Ferrara, Turino, Florence, and Rome in Northern and Central Italy, and the cities of Naples and Catania in Southern Italy and Sicily serve as useful examples of the actual interpretation of Renaissance street planning concepts and necessities.  Although some of the cities developed renewal schemes on vastly larger scales than other cities, it is the use of the street planning ideas, and the outcome of their existence, which is important uniformly throughout such Renaissance activities.


The Duchy of Parma maintained close links with the most important courts of Europe after the 15th Century.  Originally a Roman settlement planned on a rectangular grid, the later Italian city retained the principal Roman streets to a great degree as it grew.  The main piazza was located at the intersection of the two main axial Roman streets.

The medieval extension of Parma followed the major east-west axis across the Parma River towards the west.  When the area had developed, new streets were constructed to connect the major churches of the west bank.  The routes converged upon two of the more important churches, Santissima Anunziata and Chiesa del Quartiere, passing state government buildings en route.

Parma was successively dominated by the Farnese and then the Bourbons during the 16th and 17th Centuries, with a corresponding fluctuation in the relative powers of church and state to control the development of the city.

Several focal points and significant structures which reacted symbolically upon the street system were constructed during this period in developing a “second step” process of city revitalization, a step which often followed the rectification of street patterns.

The ducal palace was constructed on an extension of the Piazza Marconi beside the major north-south avenue in Parma.  The palace was located back from the street so as to guide one into the piazza and in order to have the position of central prominence within the piazza.

The Campanile and the Baptistry of the Duomo were built encroaching upon opposite sides of the Strada al Duomo, another ancient Roman way.  This positioning forced visual emphasis upon the two structures and thence to the piazza which lay in front of the Duomo, and thus to the Duomo itself.  In such a manner, the existing street was kept functional for traffic, while the Duomo was still heralded appropriately.  This same arrangement served also from the north-south Strada which passed immediately before the Duomo, as the two tertiary structures were placed diagonally opposite one another at the intersection, a brilliant stroke on the part of the planner.[1]

Again, the Campanile di San Paolo was constructed at the end of an existing street to give purpose and direction to the street, and to again signify the location of its church, and its importance to the city, to those who traveled upon the street.

Civic structures were constructed around the old central piazza, where the functional purpose was almost exclusively the dispersion of traffic.  This piazza contrasts with the other two quite importantly.  The piazza in front of the ducal palace is fully removed from the stream of traffic, approaching in character an almost purely courtyard status.  The piazza was thus a quiet, semi-private yard of the palace, providing unobstructed, easily used space for any ceremonial function that might arise.  On the other hand, the Duomo piazza allows traffic to flow around the sides, if so desired, leaving the central space open for gatherings and festival occasions in relation with the church.


The most important city of Southern Italy has been Naples.  Rapid growth away from the classical grid pattern center of the city, combined with a royalty which had vastly increased its physical domain and temporal powers, brought forth a need to give the overall city a common bonding arrangement during the 16th Century.  To this end, a relatively straight street was constructed to connect the “country” palace in the hills behind the city with the “city” palace, which was located in close proximity to the harbor.[2]

At the base of the hills, a redirection of the street was made necessary by topography and the desire to retain essential existing features of the city.  The redirection was facilitated with a “junction sector”, a wide avenue section approaching a piazza in size and character.  Thus, the overall concept of the street could be preserved by movement through the piazza-like space, using the language of a piazza to preserve continuity where the use of the normal language of the street would have been lost.

The “city” palace, with its piazza, was strongly oriented towards the port, redirecting the force of the street.  Thus, it connected with and met the force of the economic life blood of the city, as well as with the forces which controlled that artery.  The powerful new street, held taut by the two palaces, which equally represented power in the city, was thus intended to serve as a central axis, collecting all of the important activities of the city into one viable core.


In 1492, the city of Ferrara successfully resisted an attack by Venice.  A need to reinforce the city against further attacks was seen, with the necessary requirements to fulfill of building new walls and brining essential industries into the safety of the city.

The addition to the city, the “Addizione Erculea”, was planned by Biagio Rossetti, who was considered to be the first urban planner of modern Europe.[3]  Rossetti was motivated by the classical gridiron city plans of Hippodemeous, and by the economy of construction provided by the quadrangular form.  Thus, he introduced two axial cross streets as the main roads of the new addition, with a general grid pattern laid out between them.  The plan was an expression of technical needs only, for it allowed the spread of the functions of the city.

The medieval pattern of the old town was joined to the new sector by means of the major cross axis, and by an avenue along the line of the old city walls separating the two portions of the city.  The centralizing point of the juncture was the old fortress in the center of the wall, thus reinforcing its symbolic position as the force which made the new addition to the city possible.

The city of Ferrara secretly purchased much of the rural land which was to be included within the new walls before announcing its expansion plans.  In such a way, real estate speculation was prevented to a great degree, and a more correct implementation of the plan was relatively well assured.

Ferrara’s independence ended in 1598, when it became an addition to the Papal States, thus preventing a generally ordered completion of the plan as it was originally intended to be fulfilled.  This action revealed the relatively limited nature of Renaissance renewal operations, for they were concentrated in the capital cities of independent states and at the site of other royal residences.  Seldom did conquered cities or other subsidiary cities experience any real efforts towards a physical fulfillment of the Renaissance city planning ideals.


The 16th Century change in the economy of Northern Italy, as the importance of agriculture decreased, combined with a multitude of wars which often rendered the countryside unsafe, producing a large migration of people into the cities.  At the time, Turino was one of the most economically viable and politically active cities in all of Italy.

In Turino, as in many other cities, the contemporary idealistic tendency for centralization of the city, by connecting points of major interest with the street system, was considered.  In Turino, the majority of these major points, the cathedral, ducal palace, theater, archives, university, seminary, and civic government, were centralized in one small area on the northern side of the city, the “Zone of Command”.  The major eastern gate of the city was connected to the “Zone of Command” with a broad, straight avenue cutting across the existing fabric of the city.

Since the focus of the new street was to be primarily one emphasizing the dominance of Turino over the countryside, the street itself was focused upon the castle-like Palazzo Madama at the “Zone of Command”.  The entry into the city at the opposite end of the street was created as a very large, completely ordered piazza serving to funnel all traffic into the street.  The creation of continuity with arcaded facades similar to each other in design along the principle portions of the street produced an elegant, regal atmosphere.  Altogether, the effect of the two end piazzas and the grand street between them was one of absolute power and dignity, creating a more worthy setting for the seat of centralized power that Turino had become.


The city of Catania in Sicily was, along with Naples, one of the few cities of Southern Italy which undertook city renewal on a significant scale.  The interest in Catania was precipitated to an overwhelming extent by an earthquake on January 11, 1693, which almost completely destroyed the city.  Catania was reconstructed according to a plan which was approved by the Duke of Camastra.  The plan meant to find the correct traffic system for the city, but the theoretical design of the city could be valid only from the formal point of view.

The principle thoroughfare, the Via Stesicoro Etnae, served to connect all parts of the city to the Piazza del Duomo, which was the center of life in the city.  The piazza was flanked by palaces and municipal government buildings, and the hub of traffic to and from the port and the countryside.  The axial focus of the Via Garibaldi upon the Cathedral served to provide a proper centralizing element for the structure, which it had lacked before.  The position of the municipal building between the Piazza Cattedrale and the Piazza degli Studi gave it a great prominence without entering it into competition with the Cathedral.


Florence, the “birthplace” of the Renaissance, early exhibited a sensate use of the Renaissance tools of city renewal and design.  Originally a Roman camp, laid out on a grid pattern, the later rapid growth of the city was along roads beyond the grid, and was disorderly.

In the political split between the Guelphs and the Ghibillines, Florence was a Guelph city.  Since the church had associated itself with the Guelphs, its influence in Florence was considerable.  The five great district churches, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Crocce, Il Carmen, Santissima Annunciata, and Santa Espirito, became the focal points around which the life of the city was organized.

The Piazza Signoria represented a centralization of the city on a medieval scale.  The rise of the merchant princes and the subsequent increase in the power of Florence led to attempts to increase the viability of the merchants’ claims to positions within the aristocracy. 

Cosimo de’Medici commissioned Georgio Vasari to join the Piazza Signoria with the Arno River to indicate the regional importance of Florence.  Vasari’s solution was the Uffizi Palace, a principally bureaucratic office structure, and its street to the river, connecting the medieval tower of the Palazzo Vecchio to a culminating arch at the riverside.  “With superlative mastery, Vasari fulfilled the hopes of his client.  The palace visually relates the ancient monuments, the Palazzo Vecchio, the dome of the cathedral, and the sculpture in the Piazza della Signoria, and fuses the perpendicular movement from the square onto the movement along the course of the Arno, thus dramatizing the river’s existence.”[4]

The Servite monks owned property between the Duomo and Santissima Annunziata.  In the thirteenth century, they had connected the two churches with a straight street.  This action later opened the way to a realization of Renaissance theories into architecture in the sensitive design of the buildings around the Piazza Annunziata, beginning with Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital.  Without the step of centrally focusing the street upon Santissima Annunziata, the complete and orderly unification of the square with arcades and fountains would most probably never have been conceived.  These actions led to a citywide redesign of the street system to interconnect the major church buildings, with a careful integration of old and new buildings, throughout the Renaissance.


During the Renaissance, Rome was the exclusive domain of the church.  Except for periods such as 1527, when Rome was invaded and sacked because of the political finagling of the Popes, the rebuilding of the city was pushed energetically forward.  The Popes wished to make Rome a fit place to serve as the symbolic capital of the church.  The occurrence of the Reformation encouraged an even greater move toward a strong statement of unity in Rome.

It remained for Pope Sixtus V, who ruled from 1585 to 1590, to lead the development of a unified, long-range plan for Rome.  His architect, Dominico Fontana, planned to establish a major street system interconnecting the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome.  Such an operation would both relieve traffic problems and impress visitors to the city, making all of Rome a single “holy shrine”.

The use of the obelisk or free-standing column to mark important parts of the city and landmarks opened the way for following sensate designs for the entire area of each focal point.  Symbolic entrances, such as the Piazza del Populo and the Piazza Ponti, received a reinforcement of attention and focus with a trident spread of street stemming from each.  The most important of Sixtus V’s streets was the Strada Felice, which was built within a year after his accession to the Pontificate.  Strada Felice was meant to connect the Piazza del Popolo with Santa Croce past Santa Maria Maggiore, the favorite church of Sixtus V.  The long straight streets and their terminal obelisks did bring a degree of order out of the chaos that was medieval Rome, for they opened the eyes of later planners to the possibilities of full realization of Renaissance ideals.  Acts of will of Sixtus V and Dominico Fontana, like the Quatre Fontane, unifying details of a most important intersection built even before the buildings to assure a correct continuation of the plan, also enlightened the way.  Thus, actions like the creation of a pair of almost identical churches framing the trident exits from the Piazza del Popolo into the city were presaged by the visions of Sixtus V years before they were realized as physical realities.


Of all these cities, Florence and Rome are the most significant in the aspects of their changed urban fabric, for they embodied the principle of a complete, fully interacting set of nodes for the new street system.  That of Florence was a more leisurely, fragmentary process, slowly producing the greatness of its various spaces out of medieval mediocrity.  Rome, on the other hand, was ordered in the main by one grand, rapid sweep of the hand of Sixtus V during his brief reign.  Although preceded by activities of a more local, smaller scale, it was the plan of Dominico Fontana which put into motion a wave of consideration for every focus and intersection of the entire city scheme.  Without a solid, complete network of tremendous sensitivity and perfection, these foci and intersections could not have been seen in a light suitable for excellent design.

The single most important driving force in all of the cases was the power and ideals of one man who was able to push for order in his particular city.  Such men did this as a means of assuring a physical structure that would bring the city even greater influence and growth, to their benefit, and as and expression of what they personally owed the city for their power.


Bacon, Edmund, Design of Cities, Viking Press, New York, 1957.

Dodi, Luigi, La Formazione Urbane del Parmense, Azzoni Editore, Parma, 1965.

Giedion, Siegfried, Space, Time and Architecture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1965.

Mumford, Lewis, The City In History, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1961.

Zocca, Mario, Urban History of the Italian City, Liguori Editore, Naples, 1961.

[1] Dodi, Luigi,  La Formazione Urbane del Parmense, Azzoni Editore, Parma, 1965; page 37.

[2] Zocca, Mario, Urban History of the Italian City, Liguori Editore, Naples, 1961; page 261.

[3] Ibid; p.216.

[4] Bacon, Edmund, Design of Cities, Viking Press, New York, 1957; p. 85.


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