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Bramante, Donato ca. 1444–1514 Italian Architect

Bramante, Donato
ca. 1444–1514
Italian architect

Donato Bramante, one of the leading architects of the Renaissance, developed a new style of architecture based on classical principles. Among his works are some of Rome's most notable monuments, including the Vatican Palace, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio. Scholars have called the Tempietto a perfect Renaissance building.

Training and Theory. Bramante first studied to be a painter, not an architect, and he specialized in frescoes*. He began his career in the city of Urbino and later moved north to Lombardy, the region around Milan. According to the Renaissance author Giorgio Vasari, Bramante became interested in mathematics before turning to architecture. During this time, Bramante came in contact with the cantiere, a stone-mason's organization in Milan. The cantiere combined Gothic* traditions of building with an interest in the architectural style called all'antica, based on classical principles.

During the 1400s, Italian scholars rediscovered classical writings on architecture that changed their ideas on building design. The ancients stressed the importance of precise mathematical proportions to achieve harmony and balance. They also had firm ideas about the proper use of orders, or types, of columns. Bramante created his own system of orders based on the classical types, and he was the first to use orders consistently in his designs.


Bramante in Milan. One of Bramante's first projects as an architect was the chapel of San Satiro in Milan, which he began in the early 1480s. The Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, asked Bramante to rebuild the existing chapel and make it one of the city's jewels. Bramante's design drew from a variety of styles and the latest architectural ideas of the day. With the help of stucco and paint, he created the illusion of a large choir stall on a wall of the chapel.

During the 1490s, Bramante continued to work on projects in Milan for the next duke, Ludovico Sforza. These included the expansion of the abbey of Sant'Ambrogio and the construction of a magnificent tomb for Ludovico and his wife. Bramante may also have played a role in the planned reconstruction of Pavia Cathedral (1487–1505) under Ludovico's brother, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. Parts of its design reveal ideas that Bramante later incorporated in his design for St. Peter's.

At Ludovico's court in Milan, Bramante mingled with many great figures in Renaissance art and learning. There he met the mathematician Luca Pacioli, formed a close friendship with Leonardo da Vinci, and learned more about classical theories from the sculptor Gian Cristoforo Romano. His contact with poets, artists, and humanist* scholars helped shape his ideas on architecture and design. This rich cultural court life ended in 1499, when the king of France invaded Milan. The court broke up, and Bramante fled to Rome.


Bramante in Rome. With the court of the pope expanding rapidly at this time, Bramante had little trouble finding patrons* in Rome. He soon found work designing the Tempietto in San Pietro for Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. The project had tremendous significance for Spain. Located at the traditional site of St. Peter's crucifixion, the monument served notice that Spain, its patron, had arrived as a world power.

Construction of the Tempietto began in 1502. Bramante used a strict yet simple system of proportions, basing the design on the circle (an ideal pattern). The building sits on a round platform and resembles a classical temple. A single row of columns rings the outside of the platform. It was the first building to use an authentic order of columns as described by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

In 1503 Julius II became pope. He named Bramante to head several impressive building projects. The first of these was an expansion of the Vatican palace that included the use of both classical and modern architectural features. Julius also planned to redesign the existing Basilica of St. Peter, originally built in the 300s. The structure was too old and small to reflect the glory of the Renaissance church.

Bramante sent the pope his model for a complete rebuilding of the basilica, featuring a huge dome set between four smaller domes and towers. The floor plan resembled that of Milan's San Lorenzo Cathedral—an enormous Greek cross with four arms of equal length—but included a dome at the crossing (center of the cross). Bramante's design also drew inspiration from great buildings of different eras: the Pantheon, Rome's ancient Greek temple; the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, built in the mid-500s; and the Cathedral of Florence, dating from the 1300s with Filippo Brunelleschi's magnificent dome added in the 1430s.

Workers laid the foundation stone for the new basilica in 1506, and the four supports for the crossing were soon in place. However, Bramante died long before the basilica was complete, and records show numerous changes to the plans. Besides the dome crossing, little of Bramante's original plan for St. Peter's appeared in the final building.

(See alsoArt in Italy; Classical Antiquity; Milan; Patronage; Popes and Papacy; Rome. )

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses; also, artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

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