Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was an Italian architect, goldsmith, and sculptor. The first Renaissance architect, he also formulated the principles of linear perspective which governed pictorial depiction of space until the late 19th century.
In Florence during the second and third decades of the 15th century, the visual arts were transformed into the Renaissance style. The concept of the Renaissance, whose aim was the re-creation of ancient classical culture, occasioned in painting and sculpture a revival of naturalism based primarily on antique statuary and in architecture a revival of classical forms and ornament. All the arts revealed an increased concern for the delineation and unification of space, which the development of linear perspective satisfied. Three Florentine artists—the architect Filippo Brunelleschi the sculptor Donatello, and the painter Masaccio— were the leaders in this new movement and soon made Florence the artistic capital of Europe.
Brunelleschi was born in Florence, the son of an eminent notary. Filippo entered the silk guild as a goldsmith in 1398. The following year he was employed by a goldsmith in Pistoia, where he made several silver figures for the altar of St. James in the Cathedral. Brunelleschi entered the competition of 1401 for a new set of portals for the Baptistery in Florence; his trial piece, the Sacrifice of Isaac, compared very favorably with that of Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was awarded the commission. Brunelleschi's relief is derived stylistically from the work of his predecessor Andrea Pisano, but it already reveals an interest in classical antiquity, as the servant in the relief was inspired by the Hellenistic statue Spinario, or "thorn-puller." In 1404 Brunelleschi was admitted as master to the goldsmiths' guild in Florence, and later that year he was consulted regarding a buttress of the Cathedral.
Method of Constructing Linear Perspective
During the next decade the details of Brunelleschi's life are very vague. He undoubtedly made several trips to Rome to survey its ancient monuments. A wooden crucifix in S. Maria Novella, Florence, perhaps from this period, is sometimes attributed to him. In 1415 he repaired the Ponte a Mare in Pisa, and 2 years later he and other masters presented opinions on the design and construction of the great dome projected for the Gothic Cathedral of Florence. It was perhaps at this time that Brunelleschi devised the method of constructing linear perspective, which he illustrated in two perspective panels (now lost): one depicted the Florentine Baptistery as viewed from the Cathedral portal, and the other illustrated the Palazzo Vecchio.
Beginning in 1418 Brunelleschi concentrated on architecture. In two small domed chapels in S. Jacopo Soprarno and S. Felicità (now destroyed or altered), Florence, he experimented with domical construction. That same year he began the church of S. Lorenzo (1418-ca. 1470), commencing with the Old Sacristy (1418-1428), a cubical chapel with an umbrella dome. The church is a Latin-cross basilica with three arcaded aisles, side chapels, and a dome over the crossing. All the ornamentation is classical, with Corinthian columns, pilasters, and classical moldings of a soft blue-gray stone (pietra serena) against light stucco walls. The loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (designed 1419, constructed 1421-1451), Florence, usually considered the first Renaissance building, is a graceful arcade with Composite columns and windows with triangular pediments regularly spaced above each of the arches. It may have been at this time that Brunelleschi worked on the Palazzo di Parte Guelfa, Florence; he designed giant pilasters at each end of the exterior (altered in completion).
In 1420 Brunelleschi began to erect the great dome of the Florentine Cathedral in collaboration with Ghiberti, who eventually withdrew from the project. The dome has a skeleton of eight large stone ribs closed by two shells, of which the lower portions are of stone and the upper parts of brick laid in a herringbone design probably derived from ancient Roman construction. In its rib construction and pointed arch form, the dome still belongs within the Gothic tradition. With the closing of the oculus in 1436, Brunelleschi designed the lantern (completed in 1467). Meanwhile he was consulted on projects elsewhere; he was in Pisa during 1426 to work on the Citadel and in Volterra in 1427 to advise on the dome of the Baptistery.
The Pazzi Chapel (1429-1467), in the medieval cloister of Santa Croce, Florence, has a charming porch with six Corinthian columns supporting an entablature broken in the center by a semicircular arch, reflecting the dome behind it. The upper part of the facade is incomplete. The interior is rectangular with a large umbrella dome at the center covered by a conical roof with a lantern. As in all his architecture, Brunelleschi used the darker pietra serena for the classical details. The glazed terra-cotta reliefs of the four Evangelists in the pendentives of the dome were designed by Brunelleschi; the remaining decoration was by Luca della Robbia. In 1432 Brunelleschi went to Mantua and Ferrara on unknown commissions, and in 1433 he was again in Rome to study the antiquities.
During the Renaissance the ideal church plan was centralized as a circle or Greek cross with four equal arms. On his return to Florence in 1434 Brunelleschi began a central-plan church, S. Maria degli Angeli, which was never completed. It would have been the first central plan of the Renaissance. Octagonal on the interior with eight chapels, it was 16-sided on the exterior; a domical vault was probably intended to cover the center. In 1435 Brunelleschi was again in Pisa working on the bastion of the Porta al Parlascio.
In 1436 Brunelleschi designed another basilican church in Florence, Santo Spirito (constructed 1444-1482), which shows a much greater concern for a unified composition than S. Lorenzo does. The arcaded side aisles are continued around the transept arms and choir and were intended to go across the interior of the facade (never executed), which gives a very unified and centralized impression around the crossing dome. The shallow chapels are curvilinear in plan and were to be so expressed on the exterior, but after Brunelleschi's death a straight external wall masked the chapels. The interior is carefully organized in simple proportional relationships which result in a very harmonious space that is the ideal of Renaissance architecture. In 1440 Brunelleschi returned to Pisa for further work on the Citadel. On April 15, 1446, he died at Florence and received the unusual honor of being buried in the Cathedral.
Style and Influence
Brunelleschi was particularly adept in solving engineering problems, as the construction of the Cathedral dome reveals. His architectural style is of a very refined classicism and was inspired as much by the Tuscan Romanesque or proto-Renaissance style of the 12th century as by ancient Roman architecture. He used the Corinthian order, the most decorative of the classical orders, almost exclusively, and he made sure that all the decorative elements of his architecture were cut in a very crisp style.
Because of Brunelleschi's innovation of linear perspective and his adaptation of the classical style to architecture, he is one of the major figures of the early Renaissance period. His architecture remained influential in Florence through the 16th century.
The only monograph on Brunelleschi in English is Leader Scott, Filippo di Ser Brunellesco (1901); although out of date, it is still informative. More recent scholarly studies are in Italian: Piero Sanpaolesi, Brunelleschi (1962), and Eugenio Luporini, Brunelleschi (1964). Antonio Manetti's 15th-century biography of Brunelleschi was published in English, with an introduction by Howard Saalman, The Life of Brunelleschi (1969). See also Frank D. Prager and Gustina Scaglia, Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions (1970). General works which include references to Brunelleschi are Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (1948); Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1949; 3d rev. ed. 1962); and Peter Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (1963).
Battisti, Eugenio, Filippo Brunelleschi: the complete works, New York: Rizzoli, 1981.
Brunelleschi, Filippo, Brunelleschi: the complete works, London: Thames and Hudson, 1981. □
His Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospice for the Innocents, or Foundlings' Hospital), Florence (1419–44), with its elegant arcades on Corinthian columns, glazed terracotta medallions in the spandrels, architrave dividing first and second floors, and small rectangular windows over which are pediments, is reckoned to be the very first truly Renaissance building, but its sources are local. Brunelleschi designed two basilican churches (San Lorenzo (from 1418) and Santo Spirito (from 1436)): both have nave-arcades with Classical columns carrying fragmentary entablatures from which the arches spring, and both have domed crossings with transepts, although at Santo Spirito the aisles and semicircular side-chapels carried all round the church give a rhythmic unity not present at San Lorenzo. At the latter Brunelleschi designed the Old Sacristy, also the Mortuary Chapel of the Medicis, as a cube roofed by a dome with ribs radiating from the central lantern giving an impression of sail-like forms over ribs. The entire interior was painted white with bands of grey on the dominant architectural motifs, the first time such a decorative scheme was employed. Brunelleschi may have designed the Pazzi Chapel in the cloister of Santa Croce, Florence (1429–61), where the Old Sacristy themes are developed with a central domed space flanked on two sides by barrel-vaulted side bays and on the third by a small domed recess set behind an arch. The chapel is approached through an entrance-loggia consisting of two groups of three Corinthian columns carrying an entablature between which is an arch. Behind the arch is a saucerdome. The fine interior is articulated by means of pilasters, entablatures, archivolts, and other architectural elements, all in local grey stone (pietra serena), set against the white walls, while glazed terracotta roundels complete the scheme.
The uncompleted oratory of the Camaldulensian convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli (1434–7) is the first truly centrally planned Renaissance building, with a domed octagon set on eight piers which also provide the divisions between the radiating chapels: it is quite clearly based on Antique precedent, notably the so-called Temple of Minerva Medica, Rome. The astylar rusticated Palazzo Pitti, Florence, may have been partially designed by Brunelleschi, for its severe Antique quality and carefully ordered proportions suggest at the very least his influence. Brunelleschi used simple proportional relationships throughout his buildings, and this gives his architecture a pleasing harmonious quality that was sought by Renaissance designers.
R. King (1999);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Prager & and Scaglia (1970);
Saalman (1980, 1993)
The future architect Filippo Brunelleschi was born the son of a notary who worked for the city of Florence. His mother was from a prominent local family. Brunelleschi spent most of his life in Florence. As a child, Brunelleschi received a thorough education, including training in the reading of Latin, in the hopes that he might follow in his father's footsteps and become a notary. Early on, he took great pleasure in drawing, and in 1398, he joined Florence's Silk Guild, membership of which also included goldsmiths. Brunelleschi soon became a master of the goldsmith's trade. He completed his first commissioned sculptures in silver for the cathedral of the nearby town of Pistoia. By 1401, after having completed several other major sculptural projects, he entered the competition to create new bronze baptistery doors at the cathedral of Florence. The subject chosen was the "Sacrifice of Isaac," and Brunelleschi completed a highly dramatic and moving panel for the doors that still exists today. The judges of the competition were unable to decide between his submission and that of the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. They asked the two to share the project, although Brunelleschi allegedly refused. Disheartened, he turned now away from sculpture to study architecture. In the first decade of the fifteenth century he made several journeys to Rome, where he measured and studied the proportions of ancient buildings. He also became one of the first Renaissance figures to excavate ancient buildings so that he could examine their foundations. During these years he studied mathematics and geometry. Even in this early stage of his development as an architect, he became fascinated with problems of numerical proportions and perspective. Contemporaries in Florence credited him with solving the riddles of linear perspective, and his system for working out geometric relationships on a picture plane allowed artists to represent three-dimensional space in their paintings and sculptures more rigorously than previously. Up to this time artists had used perspective only intuitively. Brunelleschi's breakthrough permitted paintings and sculptures to be constructed with a single vanishing point in the background. This system found expression in the Florentine frescoes of the great painter Masaccio, and the theoretical treatise of the humanist Leon Battista Alberti on painting codified and communicated it to artists throughout Italy. Later in life, Brunelleschi used his knowledge of linear perspective in the creation of his architecture. In his designs for the Church of San Lorenzo he constructed the interior much like a three-dimensional pictorial space so that the lines of the building converged at a single vanishing point in the rear of the church.
Brunelleschi's first great achievement as an architect was his successful design of the dome over the crossing in Florence's cathedral. The construction of this massive church had continued throughout the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, even though no one knew at the time how a roof might be constructed between the enormous piers that stood at the central crossing of the structure. Florence's foremost builders had estimated that it might consume the wood of several forests to construct scaffolding sufficient enough to build a roof over the structure. Previous designers feared that any structure that covered this space could not stand without some kind of central support that rose from the cathedral's floor, thus obstructing the view of the altar. Brunelleschi turned to the problem and realized that a central support was unnecessary. The building might be covered with a freestanding dome made up of an inner and outer shell. In designing the dome he created a huge octagon drum, which added height to the structure and dispersed the dome's weight. He buttressed this drum with hemispherical constructions at its base. Over this, he created a huge conical structure supported by eight stone ribs on its outer shell. Between these ribs, Brunelleschi devised a pattern of brickwork that added great strength to the dome's outer shell. Consequently the inner shell—in effect the ceiling of the church—hung from the outside ribs and masonry. Brunelleschi's accomplishments in building the dome were far more than a mere design marvel. The dome was the greatest practical construction feat of the fifteenth century. A key problem to contemporaries had been the issue of scaffolding, which Brunelleschi resolved by designing hanging platforms that could be moved up as the construction progressed and the dome grew higher. To bring materials to workmen who were hundreds of feet in the air, the architect built a system of sturdy winches that hoisted the stone, brick, and mortar to the scaffolds. Brunelleschi duplicated this system in the great projects he designed throughout Florence in the years after 1420.
Brunelleschi's dome, completed in 1436, established his reputation as an architect of great merit. Despite the punishing schedule of his duties as master builder at the cathedral, the architect also undertook many commissions in Florence. These works form the foundation of the early Renaissance in architecture, and include his designs for the Orphanage of the Innocents (in Italian, Ospedale degli Innocenti), the churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, and the gem-like Pazzi Chapel on the grounds of the Church of Santa Croce. Key elements in Brunelleschi's classicism, which was not nearly as rigorous as that of later fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian architects, were the construction of graceful colonnades that supported Roman arches. The designer was the first European architect to rely on a system of clear mathematical relationship in his buildings. These are readily distinguishable to the astute observer, and in the fifteenth century these numerical proportions were intended to convey underlying religious and philosophical truths. The interiors of many of Brunelleschi's structures appear to many today as severe, since his buildings are less highly decorated than those constructed in later Renaissance styles. All his public buildings relied on simple gray pietra serena, a stone quarried near Florence, set against white stucco. The result was harmonious and elegant, and it was a style that Florentines embraced enthusiastically. Until the nineteenth century, buildings modeled on Brunelleschi's early Renaissance achievements were built in Florence and the surrounding region of Tuscany. The architect himself lived to see few of his creations completed, since the painstaking building processes of the time meant that their construction usually lasted over many decades. Lack of funds, too, sometimes dogged the construction of his great public buildings in Florence, and changing tastes and demands altered some of his designs. Still, Brunelleschi has long been credited with being the "father of Renaissance architecture," and his key position in the creation of the early Renaissance style is even now maintained, although more recent scholarship has located many of the designer's seeming innovations within the contemporary context of widespread building practices in the Florence of his day.
E. Battisti, Filippo Brunelleschi: The Complete Work. Trans. R. E. Wolf (New York: Rizzoli, 1981).
F. D. Prager and G. Scaglia, Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970).
H. Saalman, Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings (London, England: Zwemmer, 1980).
(b. Florence, Italy, 1377; d. Florence, 16 April 1446)
architecture, engineering, geometry.
While Brunelleschi was undoubtedly the first great Renaissance architect, it remains difficult to assess his importance to the history of science, and in particular to the development of a systematic mathematical perspective. Most of what is known of his life and work is derived from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, a book perhaps more notable for its charm than for its accuracy.
Brunelleschi was born into comfortable circumstances; his father, Ser Brunellesco di Lippo Lapi, was a notary and his mother, Giuliana, was a member of the noble Spini family. He had to abandon his formal education at an early age, but showed so much artistic talent that his father apprenticed him to a goldsmith.
Here, according to Vasari, “having become skilled in setting stones, and in niello work, and in the science of the motion of weights and wheels, not content with this, there awoke within him a great desire for the study of sculpture.” It may well be that the mechanical knowledge gained in his apprenticeship aided Brunelleschi in the design and construction of engineering devices; certainly, he made some remarkable clocks.
The relationship between the craft of the goldsmith and the art of the sculptor in the fifteenth century is defined by the competition, open to both sculptors and goldsmiths, held in Florence in 1401 for the design of a pair of doors for the baptistery of the church of S. Giovanni. The sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti won the commission and Brunelleschi, who had also submitted a design, went to Rome with the sculptor Donatello to study architecture. From 1402 to 1418, Brunelleschi lived alternately in Rome and Florence. It was perhaps during this period that, during one of his residences in Florence, he met Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli and learned geometry from him. He may also have learned some of the principles of perspective from Toscanelli; at any rate, Vasari states that he not only studied perspective, but also taught it to his friend Masaccio.
Vasari also tells of a meeting of architects and engineers in Florence in 1407 for the purpose of determining how to complete the cathedral of Sta. Maria del Fiore. The medieval architects of the building had intended a dome to be built over the crossing of the cathedral, but the problem of how to erect such a dome had never been solved. Brunelleschi entered the open competition for the design of the dome in 1418—Vasari says that he had already built a model for it—and won. He undertook the work in partnership with his rival Ghiberti, but the latter withdrew from the project. Brunelleschi worked on the cathedral dome from 1420 until his death, just after the lantern had been begun. He did not, as some sources suggest, rediscover the dome, but rather he invented a technique for building it without scaffolding.
Besides his work on the cathedral, Brunelleschi designed notable secular buildings—of which the Ospedale degli Innocenti is perhaps the outstanding example—and carried out military commissions. He may have drawn the plans for the fortress of Milan, constructed by the Sforzas; in 1415 he fortified the Ponte a Mare, and in 1435 he worked on the fortress of Vicopisano. Brunelleschi also worked on the fortification of the old citadel of Pisa and furnished the plans and built the model for the fortifications of the port of Pesaro. It seems likely that he always started such work with the construction of small-scale models; certainly he used such a model for the double dome of Sta. Maria del Fiore.
While many authors have considered Brunelleschi’s chief scientific contribution to be his pioneering work in perspective (Vasari even credits him with the invention of monocular perspective), recent research has assigned him a more modest part. As an architect, Brunelleschi was certainly concerned with mathematical proportion, and from this an interest in the theory of perspective may well have been born. And in the Florence of the time, marked as it was by a self-consciously Academic exchange of ideas among artists and scientists, perspective would almost undoubtedly have been a subject for discussion; we know, for example, that Paolo Ucello was simultaneously at work on the problem, and eventually published a treatise on perspective projection that almost certainly incorporated many of Brunelleschi’s ideas.
Brunelleschi’s initial experiment in perspective may have been his ingenious painting of the baptistery as viewed from the porch of the cathedral. This painting, carefully rendered in perspective, was mounted on a thick wooden panel. A hole was then drilled through the panel at precisely the point that represented the eye of the artist. The aperture was, at the back of the panel, approximately the size of a lentil and widened to an opening about the size of a ducat at the front. The painting was placed to face a perpendicular arrangement of mirrors; when the viewer placed his eye to the hole at the back of the painting, he saw, through an optical illusion, the scene in three dimensions. (Brunelleschi made a second such picture showing the palace of the Seigniory, while Alberti made one of St. Mark’s Square in Venice.)
Brunelleschi thus demonstrated his knowledge of conical projection and vanishing points, although it is possible that the concept of the optic box was Toscanelli’s, and that Brunelleschi simply made it a reality. In any event, the idea of such a device, known to the ancients, may well have been drawn from the common scientific fund of the fifteenth century.
The bibliography on Brunelleschi is not very extensive. His life as reported by Vasari has been followed by nearly all of his biographers. The most complete work so far is Venturi, Brunelleschi (Rome, 1923). Studies dealing with perspective are G. C. Argan, “The Architecture of Brunelleschi and the Origins of the Perspective Theory in the Fifteenth Century,” in Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1946); and J.B. Lemoine, “Brunelleschi et Ptolémée. Les origines géographiques de la ‘boîte d’optique,’” in Gazette des beaux arts (1958). One might also consult Francastel, “Naissance d’un espace. Mythes et géométrie du quattrocento,” in Revue d’esthétique.
Brunelleschi, Filippo (1377–1446)
Brunelleschi, Filippo (1377–1446)
The most renowned architect of Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi decorated the city with imposing architecture that has endured as a symbol of Renaissance genius. The son of a prominent notary, he joined the Silk Guild of Florence as a boy. Showing great talent in the demanding arts of metalworking, he was welcomed into the city's guild of master goldsmiths and won commissions to execute silver altarpieces for the cathedral of Pistoia. His reputation as a sculptor also was spreading through the city and in 1401 he was invited to enter a competition to design the bronze doors of the new Baptistery in Florence. Unable to decide between the entries of Brunelleschi and his rival Lorenzo Ghiberti, the judges invited both men to execute the doors, a commission that Brunelleschi turned down out of wounded pride. His dramatic rendering of the sacrifice of Isaac survived, however, and is now housed in a Florentine museum.
Discovering a passion for architectural design, Brunelleschi joined his friend Donatello in a journey to Rome in 1402 to explore the city's ancient ruins. From his explorations and measurements of ancient Roman structures, he developed a system of ideal mathematical proportions; he was also one of the first artists to work out the principles of linear perspective. He had the opportunity to apply his system of geometrical harmony in his first important architectural commission, the design of the Foundling Hospital in Florence. Brunelleschi's portico for this building was the first Renaissance structure to make use of classical elements such as columns and capitals.
The design earned widespread admiration in Florence and led to Brunelleschi's next important commission, a sacristy for the Basilica of San Lorenzo. At the same time, Brunelleschi was studying the design of a dome for the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, the central cathedral of Florence. Begun in the fourteenth century, the structure was now finished except for the dome, which would have to span a diameter of 130 feet, a scale well beyond any dome attempted since the time of the ancient Romans. The builders and architects of Florence had no idea how to construct such a dome; raising a wooden scaffolding to support it while building—the conventional method at the time—was considered impossible. In 1419 Brunelleschi defeated his rivals in winning the commission, then solved the problem of the dome by designing a rounded cone, made of inner and outer shells supported by vertical and horizontal stone ribs. The architect designed not just the dome but also the machines and support structures used to raise it, as well as a lantern that was added after the dome was finished in 1436. The work on Santa Maria del Fiore is considered to be the architect's greatest architectural and engineering achievement.
Brunelleschi's other notable works include the Pazzi Chapel, in the church of Santa Croce, and the basilica of Santo Spirito, a church raised in an artisans quarter on the southern banks of the Arno River. This church was unfinished at the time of the architect's death; its facade was eventually completed in a later Baroque fashion that awkwardly clashes with the careful proportions of the interior. Brunelleschi's floor design, in the form of a Latin cross with three naves, resembles that of San Lorenzo. Both churches became emblematic of the classical proportions and elegant style of Renaissance church architecture.
Fascinated by problems of engineering, Brunelleschi also turned his attention to the design of fortifications (for the city of Pisa), aqueducts (near Assisi), and river-boats for use on the shallow Arno. Brunelleschi's genius for design as well as engineering allowed him to establish the occupation of architect as an independent profession, free of the medieval restrictions of builders' and masons' guilds. He was honored at his death with burial in Santa Maria del Fiore, still the most prominent structure in Florence.
See Also: architecture; Ghiberti, Lorenzo
Florentine architect and artist traditionally believed to have played an important role in the development, and some say the invention, of mathematical perspective. While Brunelleschi was certainly the first architect and artist to study and systematically apply mathematical perspective in his works, recent research assigns him a more modest role in its development. He also invented a technique for raising domes without scaffolding.