Gothic architecture (1100–1500)

Milan Cathedral, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 602, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy, Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
Milan Cathedral, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 602

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
Photo gallery
  • Milan Cathedral, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 602, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Doges Palace, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 611, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Palazzos in Italy, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 612, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Siena Cathedral, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 617, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Details, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 628, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • , Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo )
  • The buttresses at the Cathedral of Amiens, from Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1856) by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc)
  • Evolution of Gothic Vaulting, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Fletcher)
  • Details, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 629, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Details, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 630, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Details, Italian Gothic, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 631, Gothic architecture in Italy (1100–1500), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)

Where to find Gothic architecture in Italy

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The arcades of the campanile (Photo by Frans-Banja Mulder)
Leaning Tower
Pisa: Around Campo dei Miracoli

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is world's most famous bell tower, and an icon of pizza boxes everywhere

 
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The mosaics of the transept (Photo by amberapparently)
Free
St. Mark's Basilica
Venice: San Marco

The gloriously mosaicked Basilica di San Marco

 
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The Battistero (Photo by Kiste11)
Baptistery
Pisa: Around Campo dei Miracoli

A massive drum-like Romanesque base with a Pisano-designed Gothic skullcap of a roof

 
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The Palazzo Ducale facade (Photo by Michael aus Halle)
Doge's Palace
Venice: San Marco

The gothic Palazzo Ducale with its Renaissance art and hidden rooms

 
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The facade (Photo )
Duomo
Milan: Duomo

The Cathedral of Milan is one of the largest Gothic churches in the world, an intricate festival of soaring spires and statuary

 
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The gorgeous Cathedral of Pisa (and its famously tipsy bell tower in the background) (Photo by Vitbaisa)
Free
Cathedral
Pisa: Around Campo dei Miracoli

The glorious Gothic cathedral of Pisa

 
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The inner courtyard (Photo by Zairon)
Ca' d'Oro
Venice: Cannaregio

Venice's Ca' d'Oro (Golden House) is a gorgeous 15th century palatial home housing the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti museum

 
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The Salone dei Cinquecento, with Vasari frescoes and statues by Michelangelo, Giambologna, and others (Photo by Juan Carlos Peaguda)
Palazzo Vecchio
Florence: Centro Storico

Florence's Palazzo Vecchio is a Gothic town hall decorated by Renaissance masters

 
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The central cemetery of the Campsanto, filled with dirt from the Holy Land (Photo by Luca Aless)
Il Camposanto
Pisa: Around Campo dei Miracoli

The famous ruined frescoes and ancient sculptures inside Pisa's holy burial ground

 
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Detail of the facade (Photo by JoJan)
Free

A statue-studded facade and tapestry-lined cathederal—plus a digression on ancient local hero Pliny the Elder

 
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The medieval shop-lined Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) over the Arno River in Florence (Photo by Gary Campbell-Hall)
Free
Ponte Vecchio
Florence: Centro Storico

Florence's "Old Bridge" is a medieval span lined by tiny goldsmith shops

 
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The statue-filled upper hall (Photo Public Domain)
The Bargello
Florence: Centro Storico

A flock of Donatellos and other great works in this sculpture gallery annex of the Uffizi

 
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"The Madonna Enthroned with Saint Andrew, Saint Nicolas, Saint Paul, and Saint Peter" (1487) a polyptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini (Photo Public Domain)
I Frari
Venice: San Polo

The Titians, Bellini, and Donatello in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

 
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The Basilica of Santa Croce on Piazza Santa Croce (Photo by Augusto Mia Battaglia)
Santa Croce
Florence: Santa Croce

Santa Croce church is the Westminster Abbey of Florence: The tombs of Renaissance giants Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Rossini (plus some great Giotto frescoes—and a renowned leather school)

 
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Mosaic ceiling inside the Battistero di San Giovanni (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
The Baptistery
Florence: Centro Storico

Florence's Battistero di San Giovanni and Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise

 
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The Campanile di Giotto (Photo by Txllxt TxllxT)
Giotto's bell tower
Florence: Centro Storico

The Campanile di Giotto is one of Italy's loveliest bell towers

 
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The cloisters (Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST)
Santa Chiara
Naples: Centro Storico

The most beautiful cloisters in Naples

 
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Juliet’s House
Città Antica di Verona

The most mobbed sight in town is a medieval house that probably never belonged to the "Capulets"

 
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transport
Free

A massive cathedral with one of the great fresco cycles of the Renaissance and a facade of stunning Gothic carvings

More about Duomo of Orvieto

 
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 (Photo by Sailko)
Free
Loggia de' Lanzi
Florence: Centro Storico

An airy medieval porch filled with Renaissance and ancient Roman statues

 
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The church (Photo by Chris Light)
Free
Santa Chiara
Assisi centro storico

The Gothic church where St. Clare rests

 
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Perugia's lovely main square is anchored by a spectacular Gothic fountain

 
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The Duomo
Around Siena's Duomo

Siena’s striped cathedral is a rich treasure house of Tuscan art.

 
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The Baptistery, Duomo, and Campanile (Leaning Tower) on Pisa's Campo dei Miracoli (Photo by Char)
Free
Campo dei Miracoli
Pisa: Around Campo dei Miracoli

Pisa's Field of Miracles

 
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The criptoportico archaeological excavations underneath San Lorenzo Maggiore (Photo by Sergioizzo)
San Lorenzo Maggiore
Naples: Centro Storico

Burrow through 2,500 years of Neapolitan history in this best of Naples' churches

 
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The little Gothic church along the Arno (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
Santa Maria della Spina
Pisa: Along the Arno

A gorgeous, miniature pile of Gothic spires by the Arno

 
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San Pietro
Southern Perugia

A Gothic church filled with great art by Perugino and others

 
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The distinctively Gothic nave (Photo by Saint Joseph)
Free

Sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini, the bodies of Fra' Angelico and St. Catherine, and the tombs of two Medici popes—so why isn't this church right behind the Pantheon more famous?

 
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 (Photo by Mia Battaglia)
Free
Orsanmichele
Florence: Centro Storico

A Gothic granary-turned-church decorated by early Renaissance sculptures

 
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"Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule" (1483–85) by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Sassetti Chapel (Photo Public Domain)
Free
Santa Trìnita
Florence: Centro Storico

A church by the river with amazing, courtly Renaissance frescoes by Ghirlandaio

 
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transport
Free
San Domenico
Terza di Camollia

A Gothic church (and Siena landmark) housing the relics of St. Catherine of Siena

 
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Piazza dei Signori
Città Antica di Verona

A genteel piazza surrounded by Gothic and Renaissance palazzi

 
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The main facade (Photo by Palickap)
San Domenico Maggiore
Naples: Centro Storico

Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque art masterpieces in a Neapolitan church

 
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This detail from the "Madonna della Misericordia" (1342) by Bernardo Daddi shows the oldest view of the city of Florence (Photo by Sailko)
Museum of Bigallo
Florence: Centro Storico

The Loggia del Bigallo houses a small medieval museum and facade at the main intersection of Florence

 
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The Chiostro degli Aranci (Oranges Cloister) (Photo by Sailko)
Badia Fiorentina
Florence: Centro Storico

That pointy tower in Dante's neighborhood is one of the nicest (and least visited) older churches in Florence

 
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Palazzo Tolomei
Terza di Camollia

The oldest Gothic palazzo in Siena

 
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Palazzo Salimbeni
Terza di Camollia

This Gothic palazzo is home to one of the world's oldest banks

 
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The Piazza Sant'Anastasia with the Basilica di Santa Anastasia (right) and Chiesa di San Giorgetto (left) (Photo by Didier Descouens)
Sant’Anastasia
Città Antica di Verona

A huge gothic church with fine Renaissance works

 
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Palazzo dei Priori
Around Corso Vannucci

Perugia's medieval town hall is home to several amazing spaces and museums

 
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 (Photo by Anton Nistratov)
Free
Santa Margherita de' Cerchi
Florence: Centro Storico

A tiny medieval church with several Dante associations

 
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The nave (Photo by Sailko)
Free
San Felice
Florence: Oltrarno

Beautiful Gothic paintings and a reference in English literature

 
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The facade (Photo by Luca Aless)
Free
San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno
Pisa: Along the Arno

The oldest church in Pisa with a lovely Romanesque chapel

 
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There is lots of great Gothic carved detail in the facade (Photo by Sailko)
Free
Santa Caterina
Pisa: Eastern Downtown Pisa

A Gothic facade and Pisano carvings

 
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Porta Ovlie
Terza di Camollia

A medieval city gate with a Siense-School fresco

 
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A pretty medieval fountain just outside the city gates

 
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transport
Free
San Francesco
Terza di Camollia

A Gothic church with works by the Lorenzetti Brothers

 
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Romeo's house
Città Antica di Verona

Another impressive medieval Verona house that no Shakspearian character actually lived in

 
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transport
Free
San Pietro
Assisi centro storico

A pretty little Romanesque church

 
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