Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi

(1377, Florence — 04/14/ 1466, Florence)

One of the brightest representatives of Italian Renaissance — the seminal architect, sculptor, mathematician and engineer of the XV century. As a true incarnation of the ideal of “homo universalis” (many-sided man), his personality and oeuvre had a great imact on the art of the Western world up to the XIX century.

Contest for the doors of the Baptistery

Born in the family of a lawyer, Brunellesco Di Lippo, he started his artistic education in the goldsmith’s workshop of the Arte della Seta (the silk guild of the Florence) in 1392. Among apprentices, who received training there, a name of another great artist of the epoch — Donatello — is worth mentioning. Filippo passed the examination and became a guild master goldsmith in 1398. Two years later, in 1401, he undertook the first major attempt of self-assertion as an artist and entered a competition proposed by the Lord of Florence to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery. The story claims that his panel, depicting Abraham sacrificing Isaac, was appraised equal to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s one, but didn’t win. Ambitious and “desiring to be the first in some other art”, as Giorgio Vasari described him, Brunelleschi refused the proposal to become Ghiberti’s’ assistant. According to another version, the masterpiece of Ghiberti technically and artistically surpassed the relief of Brunelleschi.

The chief trait of the Quattrocento epoch was an emerging interest in humanitas — sciences that included grammar, rhetoric, poetry, philosophy and history, of Ancient Rome particularly. Brunelleschi’s contest work gives us a clear evidence of the sculptor’s interest in antique art. The figure of Abraham on it referred to a bronze Hellenistic sculpture “Boy with Thorn”, which was displayed at Palazzo Laterano at that time.

Inspiration with antiquity — Brunelleschi’s visit to Rome

Despite defeat in the competition, Brunelleschi continued to sculpt some images, mostly of religious character, during 1400-1410s. A famous Crucifixion (1412), made as a reply on the challenge, thrown down by Donatello, and some figures of Madonna with Jesus-child (1405, 14011), remained till nowadays. Struggling for new ideas and inspiration Filippo left for Rome together with Donatello between 1402 and 1404. That was a crucial point of his career that marked a rapid shift from goldsmith to architecture. Besides observation of Classical building techniques, he extended theoretical knowledge, needed for replicating them, working on excavations together with a famous mathematician Paolo Toscanelli. Together with advanced engineering skills (Brunelleschi worked as a clock master in Rome), it formed a footing for his future creative break-through after his comeback to Florence in ten years.

First architectural project — Ospedale degli Innocenti

In contrast to his rather conservative manner in sculpture that was still close to the Middle Ages, Brunelleschi managed to become one of the foremost innovators in the art of building. His architectural debut was made in 1419, when Filippo was given an order design the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, commissioned by the Art of Lana (the wool-guild). As orphanage, it was the first socially orientated project of the time that reflected philanthropic spirit of the Renaissance. Therefore, some novelty in the approach to its style was required. For that purpose Brunelleschi used rather common at that period building type of loggia (an exterior gallery on the facade of a building), enriching it with round columns of Composite order and circular arcades — elements he saw, exploring ancient roman ruins. Ospedale degli Innocenti became the first construction in Florence with quotes from classical antic architecture.

Basilica of San Lorenzo — the persuit of style

The renewal of Florence’s “architectural face” was a vital issue that preoccupied Brunelleschi’s contemporaries. The Prior of San Lorenzo decided to replace the 11th century Romanesque building of the church with more classicistic one and commissioned its design to Filippo in 1419. However, Brunelleschi’s project wasn’t fully accomplished. The only part of the building that can authentically demonstrate his style is the Old Sacristy, ordered by Giovani di Bicci de’ Medici. Here so-called “brunelleschian” traits showed up: rational, plain geometrical forms, centric planning, restrained color-palette (only grey and white) usage of ancient roman architectural elements. The ambient light effect was reached by the contrast of architectural decorative elements of dark stone on the white light walls — the distinctive feature of the master’s architectural language. Unfortunately, it was only the Old Sacristy that had been erected by the 1440s, as periodical financial problems made the rebuilding of a church a long-going story (around forty years) that finished after Brunelleschi’s death.

Duomo — the architectural masterpiece of Brunelleschi

Anyway, Basilica of San Lorenzo wasn’t the most protracted structure of those days. Despite rather intensive building activity in the city, its major cathedral — Santa Maria del Fiore (commonly named Duomo) — remained unfinished for over a century! Filippo’s father was a member of the committee that unsuccessfully tried to solve this question in 1367. A serious engineering mission had to be solved — to build a dome around 150 feet across on the height of 180 feet above the ground and, what’s more, ‑ on the octagonal base. Five decades later, in 1418, “Signores of the city” decided to revert to the problem and announced a contest for a project of the cupola for the cathedral with the prize of 200 golden florins. The design of Brunelleschi was marked out of many proposals by prominent architects of their time. He suggested to use a scaffolding and, despite skepticism, made the commission believe in his affair. In 1420 he was appointed as the provveditore (superintendent) of the project. Filippo developed double-shelled system: two brick domes (inner and exterior one) were connected to each other with eight ribs that corresponded to eight sides of the octagonal base. The lower levels of the dome were stone, and upper — brick, so the construction became much lighter. To provide more stability, a special system of masonry was developed, as layers of bricks formed a herringbone pattern.

The dome was almost completed in 1436, appearing to be the largest one since the Pantheon of the Hadrian Emperor: 157 feet high and 143 feet in diameter, weighing 37,000 tons and made of more than 4,000,000 bricks. For Florentines Duomo became a symbol of the city’s might and splendor. A perfect synthesis of constructive finesse and visual grandeur made it an embodiment of western civilization values — rationalism, individualism and innovation.

Re-discovery of linear perspective

Another attainment of Brunelleschi is also indirectly connected with Duomo. The entrance of Santa Maria del Fiore became the site, where an influential experiment was held circa 1420. Concerned with the problem of representation of three-dimensional space on two-dimensional surface, Brunelleschi rediscovered the principal of linear perspective. This idea framed long ago in antiquity, but dropped out of sight during Middle Ages, as irrelevant to the main art purpose of that time ‑ depiction of the ideal world in sacral scenes. With the formation of the Renaissance, the human became the reference point, so the interest to the reality and ways of its accurate capturing rose steeply.

Standing in the doorway of unfinished at that time cathedral, Filippo painted the famous Baptistery in front of it. To prove the exactness of the image, he made a peephole in it and held a mirror towards the panel. Through the hole in the painting and the mirror, the Baptistery itself could be seen. The reflection of the picture precisely replicated the building. Brunelleschi corroborated his system of constructing perspective that used several lines converging in vanishing point on the horizon line. Very soon, a true obsession with this concept began among the artists. Works by Donatello (bronze reliefs in the Siena cathedral) and Masaccio (paintings “Trinity” and “Tribute money”) shows first example perspective application in the art of Quattrocento.

Brunelleschi’s works of the last period

Gradually Filippo got the recognition among Florentines and became the architect of a great demand. He made settings and theatrical machinery for religious performances: rich in various effects, from fire and explosions to the flying angels, they were very successful among the people. As a celebrated master, Brunelleschi was sent to Pisa, Siena, Livorno, Lucca. It was after his failure with dam around the town of Lucca in 1430 he fell into disgrace. In 1434 he, considering himself a free creator, refused to pay guild fees and was sent to debtor’s prison. But Opera del Duomo pressed for his release.

Unfortunately, Brunelleschi didn’t saw most of his works finished. The Pazzi Chapel is thought to be planned by him. But it’s active building started in 1442, only four years before his death, so the project, brought to a conclusion by others, seems to be only a high-quality imitation of the master’s style. Unlikely the case with the Pazzi Chapel, basilica of San Spirito — the last project of Filippo — was executed strictly according to his plan. It inherited the mathematical elegance of the whole Brunelleschi’s oeuvre: laconic three-aisled plan, flat roof and nave arcade with Corinthian columns. The design was based on explicitly calculated classical proportions between its parts. The completeness was reached in the interior by means decorative elements of stucco and pietra serena — special dark-grey stone. This church occurred to be one of architect’s utmost achievements.

Brunelleschi was buried in 1446 in Duomo — the place he had dedicated all his creative genius. This way Florentines paid tribute to a person, who deduced a unique style — a junction of antique lucidity, Christian spirituality and renaissance desire for cognition of reality.