In 1459, Pope Pius II decided to transform the village of Corsignano, where he was born. This was to be a massive urban planning project. The pope turned to architect Bernardo Rossellino to lead the project. Rossellino was a student of the Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti. Within five years, the project was complete. The sleepy village of Corsignano was transformed into a quintessential Renaissance-style town which was renamed Pienza after Pope Pius II.
The rebuilding project was massive. The description on UNESCO’s website gives a glimpse of the scale. “ The new vision of urban space was realized in the superb trapezoidal square known as Piazza Pio II. The construction of new major buildings around the square began in 1459 and included the cathedral as well as Piccolomini Palace, the Borgia Palace (or Episcopal Palace), the Presbytery, the Town Hall, and the Ammannati Palace. While the medieval urban plan was largely respected, a new main axis road, Corso Rosselino, was built to connect the two main gates in the medieval wall, which was also reconstructed during this period. Pius II’s plan, to develop the town as his summer court, involved the construction or reconstruction of approximately 40 buildings, public and private, which further transformed the medieval town into a creation of the Italian Renaissance. These included new buildings for the cardinals in the papal retinue as well as 12 new houses constructed for the general populous near the walls and Porta al Giglio.” Pope Pius II did not get to enjoy his retreat for long. He died of a fever in 1464.
The notion of an ideal city layout was explored in great detail by architects in the Renaissance. Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) was the most notable in the mid-fifteenth century. Alberti was deeply influenced by what remained of ancient Roman architecture. A treatise on architecture called De architectura (or Ten Books on Architecture) by Vitruvius was rediscovered an popularized by early Renaissance humanists in the fifteenth century. The city of Pienza was one of the few urban planning projects of the Renaissance in which an entire town was totally rebuilt. In contrast, cities like Florence tended to grow organically. One can see this just by looking at the Florentine skyline — most of the towers one sees are from the Middle Ages. The one Renaissance structure to dominate the skyline is the dome of Santa Maria del Fiori designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.
Organic urban development over the long term is both more stable and are better able to meet local demands in most cases. Antecedents of the Renaissance urban ideal can be traced to Plato’s Republic (part of a Socratic thought experiment related to the larger theme ‘what is justice?’). The dialogue moves from discussion of justice in the individual to justice in a city based on the idea that it would be easier to identify the essence of justice on a larger scale first. As any reader of Plato’s Republic can tell you, the ideal city imagined involves both censorship and a noble lie to maintain the hierarchy. Indeed, utopias tend to have an unnerving, even authoritarian element about them. Perhaps, most centers of Renaissance culture were better off not replicating the case of Pienza on a larger scale.
This is not to dismiss entirely the utility of drawing from ideals to better our surroundings. Urban planning should have one foot in the ideal and one foot in the practical. It was this mentality which appears to have been behind the dome of Filippo Brunelleschi. He drew inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome, developed a special brick pattern (spina pesce/herringbone), and likely did not have all of the details worked out when he initially proposed his ideas for completing the carthedral. Donato Bramante and Michelangelo drew on ancient models for their respective projects (Tempietto and St. Peter’s Basilica (both men contributed to this project)).
Renaissance architects tended to have detailed knowledge of fortifications as well. Old medieval city walls were unable to withstand the innovative cannons of the Renaissance. Among the most notable military engineers were Francesco di Girogio Martini (1439–1501) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).
As the fifteenth century gave way to the sixteenth, the Italian Peninsula became a battlefield with outside forces (notably France and the Holy Roman Empire) invading. Star-shaped fortifications developed around cities.
Urban design, so important in the Renaissance, remains important to composing a public space. Classical, human-centered development is badly needed nowadays. Bad architecture, often centered around highways and strip malls, has left many modern cityscapes mutilated. The post-World War II generations of urban planners have produced a cascade of garbage the ‘development’ of which continues to this day. New Urbanists, influenced by successful human-centered development, offer compelling though limited pushback. Much of suburbia will have to be redeveloped to undo the great harm of aesthetically bankrupt architecture.
Urban planners of today can learn a lot from Renaissance urbanism. Slow, organic development of cities would be far preferable to radical changes or new city projects. The urban planners of today, when considering improvements, should look more toward Florence and less toward Pienza. While there is much benefit in looking at ideals, a cityscape is not a canvas on which the present generation can completely redevelop as much as possible. Just as Edmund Burke once wrote “cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases,” so I would argue that no city planners should consider an urban landscape as nothing but carte blanche upon which to scribble utopian planning.