Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was a Florentine architect and sculptor credited for helping to create the Renaissance style in architecture. His most famous work, the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence, was mentioned in the latest novel Inferno by Dan Brown.
His original and daring ideas in architecture, engineering, and linear perspective made him the most well-known and respected architect of his time. Most of what is known about Brunelleschi’s life and career is based on a biography written in the 1480s by his admiring younger contemporary Antonio di Tuccio Manetti.
Brunelleschi was the second of three sons, and his father was a distinguished notary in Florence. He initially trained as a goldsmith and sculptor before enrolling in the Arte della Seta, the silk merchants’ guild.
In 1401, Brunelleschi competed against Lorenzo Ghiberti, a young rival, and five other sculptors for the commission to make the bronze reliefs for the door of the Florence baptistery. In his panel depicting “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Brunelleschi showed his ability to arrest narrative action at the moment of its greatest dramatic impact and to perfectly display the vigorous gestures and animated expressions of the figures.
It was Ghiberti, however, who was declared the winner of the commission. Brunelleschi’s extreme disappointment at losing the commission probably accounted for his decision to concentrate his talents on architecture instead of sculpture.
From 1402-1404, Brunelleschi and Donatello, a fellow painter and sculptor, traveled to Rome to study the ancient Roman ruins. While in Rome, he began to understand how objects are perceived by the human eye, using correct proportion to the distance in which they are shown in art.
Carrying out a series of optical experiments, Brunelleschi was responsible for introducing linear perspective in art, known to ancient Greeks and Romans, but lost during the Middle Ages, using a unified vanishing point toward which all lines on the same plane appear to converge, making objects appear smaller as they recede into the distance.
By using Brunelleschi’s perspective principles, artists of his generation were able to use two-dimensional canvases to create illusions of three-dimensional space, crafting a realism not seen previously.
Although the laws governing perspective construction were brought to light by Brunelleschi, they were codified for the first time by the humanist architect Leon Battista Alberti in his famous treatise on painting Della pittura.
Brunelleschi and the Florence Cathedral Dome
In 1418 the cathedral officials announced a prize for models presenting technical devices for the construction of the dome, which had been designed in the late Gothic period as an eight-sided vault of pointed curvature without exterior buttresses (structures built for additional support).
Brunelleschi, along with many others (including his archrival, Lorenzo Ghiberti), submitted a model. In 1420, a decision was reached in favour of Brunelleschi’s model, which demonstrated that the dome could be constructed without the traditional armature or wooden skeletal framework by placing the brickwork in herringbone patterns between a framework of stone beams.
In 1420, Brunelleschi’s dome was begun; in 1436, the completed structure was consecrated and his design for its lantern (a structure set upon the dome to help illuminate the interior) was approved.
Brunelleschi also invented the machines for the construction of the dome and its lantern, which represents his greatest feats of technological ingenuity.
Other Principal Works and his Death
Brunelleschi’s first major architectural commission was the Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419), which was originally a children’s orphanage. The building featured a nine-bay loggia with impressive arches, a notable example of his early Italian Renaissance architecture.
By the early 1420s, Brunelleschi was the most prominent architect in Florence. At this time, the powerful Medici family commissioned him to design the sacristy of San Lorenzo (known as the Old Sacristy, to distinguish it from Michelangelo’s “new” 16th-century sacristy in the same church) and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which was not completed until after his death.
Around 1429 another wealthy and influential Florentine family, the Pazzi, commissioned Brunelleschi to design a chapel adjacent to the monastic Church of Santa Croce which remained incomplete until 1457.
Brunelleschi was also commissioned to design the Santo Spirito church, which was to be constructed over the 13th-century Augustinian priory, destroyed by fire. Design began in 1428, and construction began after his death.
Brunelleschi is also known for building or rebuilding military fortifications in such Italian cities as Pisa, Rencine, Vicopisano, Castellina, and Rimini. He also created a hoist-like mechanism to help stage theatrical religious performances in Florentine churches (to assist angels in flying, for instance) and is credited with securing the first modern patent for a riverboat he invented.
He died in Florence on April 15, 1446, and was buried in the Duomo. He is remembered as one of the giants of Renaissance architecture.