Say it with Windows

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What is a window? Anyone who didn't grow up speaking computerese would probably reply 'A window is a hole in the wall to let light and air in, and to look out of.'

True. That's what a window in a building nowadays amounts to - a hole in the wall. Look at modern facades and what you'll see, with rare exceptions, are simple apertures set in monotonous rows. Sometimes you can't even tell if they are the windows of a private residence or an office. Like the mask or hood worn by a person who wants to keep his identity a secret, the anonymous fašade with anonymous windows gives no hint of what happens inside the building or who inhabits it. The function that we assign to the window nowadays is primarily in relation to our own convenience. We want to let in daylight; we want to look outside; and we want to let in fresh air.

Not so in the past. Windows were considered key transmitters of information. The window's role on the exterior was of greater significance than its function on the interior. When the architect of a palazzo decided where to place a window and how to design it, he was more concerned with the overall composition of the fašade than the position and shape of the window with respect to the interior of the room. Windows also conformed to a specific hierarchy. The largest, most ornate windows were on the piano nobile, the floor with the reception rooms. The floor above, with the family's living quarters, had slightly smaller windows, and the top floor or attic, where the servants slept, had the smallest of all.

In earlier times, when the means of communication were very different from ours, people broadcast information, personal and impersonal, in a variety of ways. For example, they dressed in clothes denoting their rank - you could recognize scholars, lawyers, medical doctors, and government officials by the cut and colour of their gowns and the shape of their hats. The houses in which they lived were decorated with certain features expressing the owner's status or affiliation. The anonymity or homogeneity of modern fašades is exactly the opposite of what people of earlier times aimed for. Since a fašade is, literally, a building's face and therefore the first thing anybody saw, people wanted to be sure that the fašade communicated all the necessary information about them, such as what family they belonged to and their rank or position. They did this through the use of coats-of-arms or insignia, and inscriptions carved into the friezes and the lintels of doors and windows.

They could also communicate information using the language of architecture, a language that to some of us in this day and age is as obscure as ancient Greek or Latin, but which once upon a time was understood as easily as any text written in the vernacular. For instance, during the Renaissance, palaces built by eminent members of the church very often had cross-mullioned windows, which are known as guelf windows (the Guelfs showed allegiance to the Pope, whereas the Ghibellines sided with the Emperor). When you are in Rome and you see an old palazzo with cross-mullioned windows, like Palazzo Venezia or Palazzo Capranica, you can be sure that it had once belonged to a cardinal or bishop, or to a family that had guelf ties. And not only in Rome. Look at the fašades of Palazzo Piccolomini in Pienza, built by Pope Pius II for his family, and the palace across from it, built for Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI), and you will see the same kind of window. They are found in Florence, too. The Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni, in piazza S.ta Trinita, has cross-mullioned windows, in this instance with the vertical members transformed into colonnettes.

Cosimo de' Medici's palace, on the other hand, was built with bifora windows. The form of the windows, as well as the heavy rustication of the fašade, deliberately hark back to the architecture of Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government. A 15th century man looking at the Medici's palace would have had little difficulty understanding that Cosimo was boldly identifying himself with the supreme civic authority.

Windows of the past, then, were not for the benefit of the person inside looking out, but rather for the person standing outside. Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance architect and theorist, wrote that a painting is like an open window. The converse is true as well. An open window is like a painting. In the past, windows framed, in more senses than one, 'pictures' of the life behind the fašades. Think about this the next time you're looking at buildings. And when you're in a museum looking at paintings, don't stop there. Look at the frames as well.

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This page last updated: April 8, 2007.