In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urbanism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Renaissance and Reformation Urbanism
Fabrizio Nevola
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0407


The study and practice of urbanism broadly encompass town planning and urban improvement, often a technical activity overseen by professionals; it is also taken to relate to the processes and interactions of urban society with the built environment, a more all-encompassing definition in which agency is afforded to urban populations in the shaping of the environment they inhabit. An established tradition views the Early Modern period in Europe as a defining moment in the formation of post-Antique cities; Italy led the way in this process, as theorists and their patrons, often increasingly powerful city-based rulers, gave built expression to ideals frequently fashioned after models drawn from classical Antiquity. While the key components of urban form—such as streets, open public spaces, monumental buildings, and infrastructure—were of course present in earlier periods, during the Renaissance these elements of urban armature came to acquire more regular forms and symmetrical layouts, which often survive to the present day. In this respect, the urban-scale interventions of the period often followed ideals set out in manuals and treatise literature, and the systematic application of large-scale building campaigns was expressive of the authority and power of the individuals or governments that oversaw them. Urbanism then was a significant tool that articulated authority over the city and its territory. The widespread adoption of gunpowder during the latter years of the 15th century into the 16th and the changing technologies of warfare made ballistics an inevitable new technology with which cities needed to contend. As systems of urban fortification were radically redesigned, so military urbanism emerged as a major catalyst in reshaping both the external profiles and internal layouts of cities throughout Europe and colonial America. Here again, ruling authorities or dominant external powers oversaw these major infrastructure projects, which were often published widely through printed views of cities that showcased their new wall systems; these representations served to articulate the power of ruling regimes and the security of resident populations. More broadly, it is helpful to consider a wide spectrum of artworks that depict the city’s built form (views, maps, genre scenes) as capturing differing expressions of urbanism and urban life. Indeed, visual representations of everyday scenes of life in the city do much to counterbalance the view that urbanism was uniquely an emanation of centralized authority, and instead reveal the complex social practices that shaped the built environment of Early Modern cities. See also the Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation articles “Cities and Urban Patriciates” and “Civic Ritual”.

General Overviews

A great deal has been written about the Early Modern city, its social composition and built form, usually with a varying degree of focus given to one or the other. Historical studies such as Friedrichs 1995 dwell more on urban history and the social factors affecting populations resident in urban environments, with less attention afforded to the built environment. The work of historical geographers, such as Lilley 2002, instead observes the patterns emerging from common morphologies associated with shared sociopolitical factors, an approach not dissimilar to the predominantly image-based analysis of Braunfels 1988. A somewhat distinct method can be grouped around the work of architectural approaches to urban history, which are perhaps obviously more concerned with the built form of the city, and how this might express prevailing sociopolitical conditions or their idealized formulation. Benevolo 1993, for example, offers a synthetic narrative of urban form and the increasingly effective deployment of urbanism as a practice expressive of the centralized authority of sovereign rulers. Others, such as Saalman 1996, home in on the architectural typologies common to cities (street, church, palace, etc.) in an attempt to highlight the key features worthy of further study. While grounded in an architectural and art historical approach, Anderson 2013 moves beyond formal typologies to explore how these shape urban life and behavior. This latter conflation of built form and social practice is at the heart of Kostof 1991, whose approach sets out a grand narrative of urban design, built form, and its meanings that is imbricated with the social activities and functions that cities accommodate. Such an approach, which showcases the social in understanding the architectural form of cities, is exemplified by Girouard 1985.

  • Anderson, Christy. “Shaping the Renaissance City.” In Renaissance Architecture. By Christy Anderson, 141–175. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    A brief but innovative survey that draws on the traditional themes of urban design structured around monuments and infrastructure (streets, squares, city halls, etc.) while introducing more sensory and experiential categories (urban performance, hygiene, trade) as well as some discussion of New World encounters.

  • Benevolo, Leonardo. The City in the History of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

    A survey of the history of urbanism in Europe from Antiquity to the present. Central chapters review the late medieval resurgence of the city, and consider the separation of idealized theory from built practice (chapter 3), examining the export of European centralized expressions of authority in urban form through the colonial experiments of the 16th and 17th centuries (chapter 4), to the development of absolutist urbanism in the 17th-century state capitals (chapter 5).

  • Braunfels, Wolfgang. Urban Design in Western Europe: Regime and Architecture 900–1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

    A broad-brush survey that touches on countless examples of cities in Europe over a millennium, structured around a chronological approach that loosely categorizes cities according to the prevailing political structures of successive periods (episcopal, merchant city-state, princely, industrial) through a consideration of topography (ports, road and river settlements, etc.), but above all morphology. Comparative analysis is largely focused on macro-scale patterns expressive of authority explored through maps and diagrams.

  • Friedrichs, Christopher. The Early Modern City 1450–1750. London: Longman, 1995.

    A wide-ranging survey of urban history, primarily focused on sociopolitical aspects; common features across the region are identified that shaped the experiences of residents, from elites and merchants to paupers and criminals. Chapter 1 provides firm grounding in the physical environment, with discussion of key features of the city, how these were altered over time, and how different monumental buildings shaped urban life (churches, markets, hospitals, city halls, etc.).

  • Girouard, Mark. Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1985.

    A remarkably wide-ranging book, richly illustrated with examples drawn from across Europe, with a principal focus on the premodern city. The built form of streets, squares, and the buildings that line them are animated through exploration of a wider range of festivals and everyday actions that took place in these settings. Urban form here emerges as a protagonist of the give and take between policy and practice.

  • Kostof, Spiro. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings through History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

    This comparative study offers a valuable framework for addressing any study of urbanism and urban form through the ages. Kaleidoscopic chapters consider such topics as the grid (traced through the European tradition from the Roman grid), to diagrammatic layouts (often associated to idealized visions for new towns), the grand manner (of authoritarian capitals), and skylines. Kostof provides insights and interpretation that can be applied to most cities.

  • Lilley, Keith D. Urban Life in the Middle Ages, 1000–1450. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002.

    A survey account of the early process of urbanization of Western Europe exploring political, legal, and institutional systems of town formation and transformation to around 1450. Chapter 5, on “urban landscapes,” adopts a more formal approach to design and layout of a range of “townscape” typologies, while chapter 6 addresses fine-grained implications of private property on the urban fabric; chapter 7 considers the impact of design and policy on urban society.

  • Saalman, Howard. The Transformation of Buildings and the City in the Renaissance, 1300–1550: A Graphic Introduction. Champlain, NY: Astrion, 1996.

    A somewhat summary account, largely based on Florentine evidence. Nevertheless, this short book provides a helpful view of urbanism in the period, revealing as it does the breadth of contextual evidence required to analyze the phenomenon (chapter 1) and the innovative features that characterize the city in this period, in particular the rise of the monumental elite domestic residence (chapters 2 and 3).

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