Soaring ceilings, pointed arches and spires, stained glass windows, gargoyles, statue-festooned facades, and those flying buttresses
The Gothic started infiltrating Italy as architecture. It was originally imported by French Cistercian monks, who in 1218 created near Montalcino the huge San Galgano abbey church, now roofless (and terribly romantic).
By the late 12th century, engineering developments—most significantly the pointed arch, which could bear a much heavier load than a rounded one—freed architects from the heavy, thick walls of Romanesque structures and allowed ceilings to soar, walls to thin, and windows to proliferate.
Instead of dark, somber, relatively unadorned Romanesque interiors that forced the eyes of the faithful toward the altar and its priest droning on in unintelligible Latin, the Gothic churchgoer's gaze was drawn up to high ceilings filled with light, a window unto heaven. The priests still gibbered in a dead language, but now peasants could "read" the Gothic comic books of colorful frescoes lining the walls and panels in stained glass windows.
In addition to those pointy arches, another Gothic innovation was the famous flying buttress. These free-standing exterior pillars connected by graceful, thin arms of stone help channel the weight of the building and its roof out and down into the ground.
To help counter the cross-forces involved in this engineering sleight of hand, the piers of buttresses were often topped by heavy pinnacles or statues. Inside, the general pointiness continues with cross vaults: The square patch of ceiling between four columns instead of being flat would arch up to a point in the center, creating four sail shapes, sort of like the underside of a pyramid with bulging faces. The "X" separating these four sails was often reinforced with ridges called ribbing.
As the Gothic style progressed, four-sided cross-vaults would become six-, eight-, or multi-sided as architects played with the angles they could make. In addition, tracery—delicate, lacy spider webs of carved stone curly-cues—graced the pointy end of windows and just about any acute angle throughout the architecture.
The true, French-style Gothic only flourished in Northern Italy, and the best example is Milan's massive Cathedral, a festival of pinnacles, buttresses, and pointy arches begun in the late 14th century. Venice's I Frari is a bit airier and boxier; Padua's Basilica di Sant'Antonio is largely Gothic, though its Romanesque facade and Byzantine domes try to throw you off. In palace architecture, the Venetian developed a distinctive style of insetting lacy, lithe, pointed marble windows with a distinct eastern flair into pale pastel plaster walls. This is seen in countless palaces across Venice, but most strikingly in its most lavish: Ca' d'Oro, Ca' Foscari, and the model against which all were measured, the Palazzo Ducale itself.
Although the classic, French style of the Gothic never caught on, the church was still at the time revolutionary in introducing some of the new forms, which were adopted when Giovanni Pisano overhauled Siena’s cathedral and Gothicised it. Gothic architecture introduced the pointed arch, the concept of a high hall church—which the Tuscans still wanted held up by a timbered roof—with either aisles almost as high as the nave or no aisles at all, and a bit of that lacy stone frills theme and the idea of facades studded with statues.
The preaching orders of monks were responsible for Gothic architecture’s spread. Since it allowed for huge, barn-like churches with a single wide nave and few supports, the architecture was convenient for Dominicans and Franciscans who needed to be able to pack throngs of people into the churches to hear their sermons. Almost every major city has at least one of their huge, usually aisleless churches with a rounded apse or squared-off choir behind the altar and a short transept of chapels off either side of it.
The thin-columned windows and lace-like stone tracery the Gothic used to fill up arch points and the crenellations it strewed across the tops of buildings both caught Tuscan fancy, and were incorporated into many palaces[md]especially in Siena—where the architectural forms otherwise pretty much stayed the same old solid, reliable medieval masonry. Out of this marriage were born the civic palaces of Siena and more importantly of Volterra, which served as the model for Florence’s own famous Palazzo Vecchio (and similar buildings across the region).
The Palazzo Vecchio’s architect was Arnolfo di Cambio, the Gothic master of Florence’s building boom in the 1290s. Arnolfo was also responsible for the Franciscan church of Santa Croce and the original plans for the Duomo. The kind of Frankish Gothic building most people associate the term, with lots of spires and stony frills, really only showed up in the tiny carved stone jewel of Santa Maria alla Spina along the banks of the Arno in Pisa.
Orcagna, who was also a painter, gave us another bit of this sort of Gothic in miniature with his elaborate, marble-inlaid tabernacle in Florence’s Orsanmichele (the church also a Gothic structure itself, but an odd one), but Orcagna was really already moving toward the Renaissance when he designed the wide-arched and proportioned space of the Loggia dei Lanzi on Florence’s Piazza della Signoria.
Identifiable features of Gothic architecture
- Pointed arches. The most significant development of the Gothic era was the discovery that pointed arches could carry far more weight than rounded ones
- Cross vaults. An extension of pointy arches. The square patch of ceiling between four columns instead of being flat would arch up to a point in the center, creating four sail shapes, sort of like the underside of a pyramid with bulging faces. The "X" separating these four sails was often reinforced with ridges called ribbing. As the Gothic progressed, four-sided cross-vaults would become six–, eight–, or multi-sided as architects played with the angles they could make
- Tracery. Delicate, lacy spider webs of carved stone curly-cues gracing the pointy end of windows and acute lower intersections of cross-vaulting.
- Choir screen. The inner wall of the ambulatory/outer wall of the choir section, often decorated with carvings or tombs
- Flying buttresses. Free-standing exterior pillars connected by graceful, thin arms of stone that help channel the weight of the building and its roof out and down into the ground. To help counter the cross-forces involved in this engineering sleight of hand, the piers of buttresses were often topped by heavy pinnacles or statues
- Stained glass. The pointy arches allowed walls to thin down, and the larger windows this created were often filled with Bible stories and symbolism writ in the colorful patterns of stained glass