Alberti's Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua: Facade & Interior

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua, Italy is considered to be one of the masterpieces of famed architect Leon Battista Alberti. In this lesson, we'll look at various elements of this structure and what inspired Alberti's design.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea

In the modern world, most architects can expect to see their buildings completed within 3-5 years. They get to see the finished product, which must be a very nice feeling. Historically, not everyone got to experience that. Architects in the past often designed structures they knew would never be finished in their lifetimes. The results, however, were still spectacular. A great example can be seen in the Italian city of Mantua. Here one of the greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance: Leon Battista Alberti designed his famout Basilica of Sant'Andrea, a Roman Catholic cathedral. He never got to see the completed version of Sant'Andrea, partly because it was begun just before he died, and partly because it took roughly three centuries to fully complete.

Alberti

Before we talk about the cathedral, let's get to know Alberti a little better. Leon Battista Alberti was a 15th-century Italian and one of the preeminent architects of the Italian Renaissance. He is responsible for many of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture across Italy, so by the end of his life he was pretty darn good. Like other Renaissance intellectuals, Alberti was obsessed with the works of ancient Rome and Greece, which we call the Classical civilizations. A devotion to classical art defined Renaissance styles. Yet, Alberti did not simply copy Roman buildings. He saw Classical architecture as the starting point, and used those ideas to build new structures for 15th-century needs. Thus, the mathematical logic, cool use of rational space, and devotion to geometric perfection that characterized Greek and Roman pagan temples could be used in Catholic churches of the Renaissance.

The Facade of Sant'Andrea

Okay, now let's turn our attention to the Basilica of Sant'Andrea. As you approach the building, the first thing you notice is the facade, the exterior surface. The facade was, traditionally, a canvas for architectures to showcase their designs and the facade of Sant'Andrea is considered one of Alberti's masterpieces. This facade is defined by the logical interaction between geometric shapes. Everything is mathematically organized, reflecting ideal ratios and proportions. There is also a clear nod to antiquity with the use of a Classical triangular pediment and Corinthian-style capitals over the pillars. These pillars have actually received a lot of attention; the juxtaposition of short pillars around the central arch and tall pillars on each side creates a dynamic visual element unique to Alberti. It also sets the tone for the repetition of shapes in different sizes found across the facade.

The Basilica of Sant Andrea
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What is most striking about this facade, however, is the influence of the design. Alberti modeled this facade on a roman triumphal arch, a major archway built by Roman emperors to celebrate a successful military campaign. Both the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Trajan have been proposed as the direct inspiration for Alberti's facade. Triumphal arches were supposed to be grand, awe-inspiring, and monolithic testaments to the power of the Roman Empire. So, the use of this form for a cathedral should not be overlooked. Alberti wanted the basilica to feel monumental, and triumphant.

Triumphal arches like this one served as the inspiration for Sant Andrea
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Part of this likely had to do with the purpose of Sant'Andrea. This cathedral was famous in the 15th century as the location of a very important religious relic. According to Catholic sources, Sant'Andrea in Mantua contains vials of the blood of Christ, collected by a Roman centurion who was present at the Crucifixion. Considering that the story of the Crucifixion ends in Christ's triumph over death, the use of a triumphal arch as the basis of this facade is significant.

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