Brunelleschi, Filippo 1377–1446 Italian Architect

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Brunelleschi, Filippo
Italian architect

Filippo Brunelleschi was an architect, sculptor, and engineer from Florence, Italy. His ideas helped shape Renaissance art, architecture, and engineering. Brunelleschi's major work, the dome of Florence's cathedral, has been called the greatest architectural and engineering feat of the 1400s.

Early Works. From an early age, Brunelleschi enjoyed drawing and painting, and in his late 20s he became a master goldsmith. He also worked as a sculptor, creating four silver figures for the cathedral of Pistoia, near Florence, and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene. In 1401 his reputation as a craftsman and artist earned him an invitation to enter a competition for creating the bronze doors of the baptistery* in Florence. The judges, unable to decide between Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, offered the job to both as a joint project. Brunelleschi refused to work with Ghiberti, however, and turned his attention to architecture.

Between 1402 and 1409, Brunelleschi traveled to Rome to study its architecture, make drawings and measurements, and examine the foundations of ancient Roman buildings. He used his findings to work out a system of structural proportion based on mathematics and the principles of perspective*. Brunelleschi's work on perspective drawing, though not new, led artists of his time to regard him as its inventor.

Building a Dome. In 1417 the caretakers of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence called on Brunelleschi for advice on constructing a dome for the unfinished building. The cathedral's central octagonal space, 130 feet in diameter, made creating a suitable dome difficult. The large, heavy dome would need more support than a wooden structure could provide.

Borrowing ideas from the Roman buildings he had studied earlier, Brunelleschi suggested doing away with the wooden framework normally used in the construction of a dome. Instead, he proposed a cone-shaped dome with an inner and outer shell connected by eight ribs that were linked horizontally by rings of stone blocks. Used around the dome, the ribs provided the necessary support and became a design element.

Brunelleschi's plan faced ridicule and opposition, but it was accepted. Work began in 1420, and within a few years of construction Brunelleschi had full control of the project as chief architect. He invented special tools, cranes, hoists, and scaffolding to make the work go more smoothly. In 1436 Brunelleschi completed the dome, a major achievement of Renaissance architecture.

Other Works. During the early years of construction on the dome, Brunelleschi designed a shelter for orphans. It was for this structure that he created a much admired portico* in front of the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence. The portico's harmonious design with wide semicircular arches supported by slender columns had a strong influence on later Renaissance architects.

Brunelleschi also designed a chapel and family tomb for the Pazzi family of Florence. Due to a lack of funds, construction did not start until 1442 and was not completed until after Brunelleschi's death. Many consider the small, perfectly proportioned chapel as Brunelleschi's masterpiece.

(See alsoAlberti, Leon Battista; Architecture; Art in Italy. )

* baptistery

building where baptisms are performed

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

* portico

porch or walkway supported by regularly spaced columns

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Brunelleschi, Filippo 1377–1446 Italian Architect

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