Dictionary of Art and Artists



History of

Architecture and Sculpture


















SCULPTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

ARCHITECTURE - Part 1, Part 2



2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8






Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi, (born 1377, Florence [Italy]—died April 15, 1446, Florence), architect and engineer who was one of the pioneers of early Renaissance architecture in Italy. His major work is the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) in Florence (1420–36), constructed with the aid of machines that Brunelleschi invented expressly for the project. Most of what is known about Brunelleschi’s life and career is based on a biography written in the 1480s by an admiring younger contemporary identified as Antonio di Tuccio Manetti.

Early years
Brunelleschi was the second of three sons of Ser Brunellesco di Lippo Lapi, a Florentine notary of some distinction, and Giuliana Spini. After training as a goldsmith and sculptor, he applied for registration in the Arte della Seta and in 1401 was designated a master. Brunelleschi competed with Lorenzo Ghiberti and five other sculptors in 1401 to obtain the commission to make the bronze reliefs for the door of the Baptistery of Florence. Brunelleschi’s trial panel depicting “The Sacrifice of Isaac” is the high point of his career as a sculptor. His ability to arrest narrative action at the moment of its greatest dramatic impact and the vigorous gestures and animated expressions of the figures account for the merit of his panel. 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.

While still in the early phase of his architectural career (probably c. 1410–15), Brunelleschi rediscovered the principles of linear-perspective construction known to the Greeks and Romans but buried along with many other aspects of ancient civilization during the European Middle Ages. Brunelleschi demonstrated his findings with two painted panels, now lost, depicting Florentine streets and buildings. From Manetti’s descriptions it is clear that Brunelleschi had understood the concept of a single vanishing point, toward which all parallel lines drawn on the same plane appear to converge, and the principle of the relationship between distance and the diminution of objects as they appear to recede in space. By using the optical and geometric principles upon which Brunelleschi’s perspective devices were based, the artists of his generation were able to produce works of astonishing realism. On two-dimensional surfaces they were able to create extraordinary illusions of three-dimensional space and tangible objects, so that the work of art appeared to be either an extension of the real world or a mirror of nature. 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 1435 Alberti set them down in Della pittura (“On Painting”), his famous treatise on painting, which included a warm dedication to Brunelleschi—undoubtedly an expression of Alberti’s debt to his friend’s revolutionary discovery.

Architectural career
Solving complex problems of engineering and statics was another facet of Brunelleschi’s wide-ranging abilities. The machines that Brunelleschi invented for the construction of the soaring dome of the Duomo and its lantern (a structure set on top of the dome to help illuminate the interior) and his scheme for the construction itself represent his greatest feats of technological ingenuity. The cathedral was begun in 1296; during the 14th century the nave was completed and work commenced on the complex octagon of the east end. By 1418 construction had reached the stage at which the technical problems of constructing a vault above the enormous dimensions of the octagon had to be solved. These problems had involved previous generations of cathedral architects in bitter disputes. It was Brunelleschi who worked out a successful method to vault the dome, invented the machinery necessary to carry it out, and designed the structure’s crowning lantern and its lateral tribunes (semicircular structures). He was named chief architect (capomaestro) of the dome project in 1420 and remained in that office until his death in 1446.

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. This construction technique had been evolved by the ancient Romans and had possibly been first observed by Brunelleschi on his supposed trip to Rome (c. 1401) with his friend the sculptor Donatello, when both of these giants of early Renaissance art are believed to have studied classical sculpture and architecture. In 1420 Brunelleschi’s dome was begun; in 1436 the completed structure was consecrated, and, in the same year, his design for its lantern was approved. (The lantern, however, was not completed until after his death.) The imagination and the engineering calculations that led to the successful erection of the dome established Brunelleschi’s fame.

Mid-20th-century criticism modified the earlier approach to Brunelleschi’s buildings as the foundations of Renaissance architecture. They are now understood in the context of the influence on him of the classical elements in 11th- and 12th-century Tuscan Romanesque and proto-Renaissance buildings such as San Miniato al Monte. Brunelleschi, therefore, is seen as an artist still profoundly dependent on local forms of architecture and construction but with a vision of art and science that was based on the humanistic concept of the ideal. This is borne out by his first major architectural commission, the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents, or Foundling Hospital). Although the portico of the hospital is composed of many novel features, morphologically it still is related to traditions of Italian Romanesque and late Gothic architecture. The truly revolutionary aspects of the building emanated from Brunelleschi’s intuitive sense of the formal principles of the classical art of antiquity. The Innocenti facade offered a new look in Florentine architecture and a marked contrast to the medieval buildings that preceded it. Its lingering late-medieval echoes were subordinated to the new style that provided the facade with its antique air: a wall delicately articulated with classical detail (such as Corinthian capitals, pilasters, tondi, and friezes), modular construction, geometric proportions, and symmetrical planning.

By the early 1420s Brunelleschi was the most prominent architect in Florence. At this time the powerful and influential 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 itself. Work was begun in 1421. The sacristy was completed (without its decoration) by 1428. Construction on the basilica was halted at that time but began again in 1441 and lasted into the 1460s.

The San Lorenzo structures are considered keystones of the early Renaissance architectural style. In form the church did not depart from the traditional basilican church with nave (central aisle), side aisles, and apse (a semicircular projection at the end of the nave). What Brunelleschi added to the conventional format was a new vocabulary using his own interpretation of antique designs for the capitals, friezes, pilasters (rectangular columns set into the wall), and columns. Further, his design of the church as a whole was one of unusual regularity, where the separate parts of the church rationally corresponded to each other and created a profound visual and intellectual harmony.

Brunelleschi designed the Old Sacristy (originally intended as a Medici family mausoleum) as a cube vaulted with a hemispherical dome. The structural and decorative units that delineate the architectural surface of the walls of the Old Sacristy and of the basilica proper are of particular elegance and restraint characteristic of Brunelleschi’s work at this time.

About 1429 another wealthy and influential Florentine family, the Pazzi, commissioned Brunelleschi to design a chapel adjacent to the monastic Church of Santa Croce that was intended to be a chapter house (a place of assembly for monks to conduct business). Work probably did not begin before 1442; the building still was not complete in 1457. Brunelleschi used mathematical modules and geometric formulas for the plan and elevation of the Pazzi Chapel, as he had in San Lorenzo, but he arranged the space in a more complex and sophisticated manner in the later building. A hemispherical dome covers a central square, which is extended on either side so that the square forms the centre of a rectangle. The minor spatial compartment, opening off a third side of the main square, is a corresponding square apse covered by a dome and containing the altar. The creamy wall surface of the Pazzi Chapel is marked off in geometric patterns by dark gray stone. The clarity, coolness, and elegance for which Brunelleschi’s architecture is noted are seen in this small, harmoniously proportioned chapel.

Another example of Brunelleschi’s experiments with central planning is one of his most enigmatic buildings, Santa Maria degli Angeli, built for the Camaldolese monastery in Florence. It was begun in 1434 but left incomplete in 1437 (remaining in an unfinished state until the 1930s, when it was completed in a controversial manner). The building was planned as a central octagon with a 16-sided exterior. A chapel opened on each of the eight sides of the interior octagon, terminating in a deeply recessed apse at the end. Eight niches were cut into alternate facets of the exterior walls. Santa Maria degli Angeli was Brunelleschi’s most revolutionary design. It represented a perfectly centralized structure, more formally consistent than the Old Sacristy.

Brunelleschi’s Church of Santo Spirito in Florence was designed either in 1428 or 1434. Work on the church was begun in 1436 and proceeded through the 1480s. A basilican church with a centrally planned eastern end, Santo Spirito is ringed by semicircular chapels opening off the dome-vaulted side aisles, the transept, and the apse. These chapels accounted for a unique aspect of the design, for the exterior walls of the church were meant to conform to the shape of the chapels in a sequential series of curves. After Brunelleschi died, however, the protruding round chapels were walled over with the flat conventional exterior now visible. Rather than creating its walls as flat surfaces onto which are pressed thin rectilinear members (pilasters), a style perfected in San Lorenzo and the Pazzi Chapel, Brunelleschi designed Santo Spirito with a feeling for its weight, gravity, and plasticity. The building, therefore, can be associated stylistically with Santa Maria degli Angeli, and also with the four semicircular tribunes above the sacristies of the Duomo. Brunelleschi’s model for these tribunes was approved in 1439; the first one was completed in 1445, and the remaining three were finished in the 1460s. They are composed of deeply concave semicircular niches crowned with a shell device and separated by thick walls to which have been applied Corinthian half columns with projecting entablatures. In form and in mood, the tribunes were closer to monumental antique architecture than anything constructed in Florence up to that time, and they foreshadowed the strong profiles and massive grandeur of the buildings of Leon Battista Alberti and Donato Bramante (1444–1514).

Brunelleschi’s role as architect of residential buildings is difficult to assess, although Manetti relates that he was summoned from far and wide to design palaces. No documentary evidence exists for the houses and palaces with which biographers and scholars have credited him, the most significant of which (all in Florence) are the Pitti Palace, a rejected plan for the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, and the Palazzo Bardi-Busini. Each of these palaces contains novel features that are tempting to attribute to Brunelleschi’s inventiveness, but definitive proof of his influence or authorship has not been offered.

The manifold architectural abilities of Brunelleschi also are attested to by his military architecture, some of which is partially extant. He is associated with the building and rebuilding of fortifications in Pisa, Rencine, Vicopisano, Staggia, Castellina, Rimini, and Pesaro. In 1430 he was involved in a plan to convert the city of Lucca into an island by building a dam and deflecting the Arno River.

Brunelleschi was active through the early 1440s and probably continued to be until shortly before his death. He died in Florence and was buried in the Duomo.

Isabelle Hyman

Encyclopaedia Britannica


BRUNELLESCHI. Sacrifice of Isaac
Bronze relief, 45 x 38 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Polychromed wood, 170 x 170 cm
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

BRUNELLESCHI. Pulpit (detail)
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Although Donatello was its greatest and most daring master, he did not create the Early Renaissance style in sculpture all by himself. The new architecture, on the other hand, owed its existence to one person.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Ten years older than Donatello, he, too, had begun his career as a sculptor. After failing to win the competition of 1401-2 for the first Baptistery doors, Brunelleschi reportedly went to Rome with Donatello. He studied the architectural monuments of the ancients and seems to have been the first to take exact measurements of these structures. His discovery of scientific perspective may well have grown out of his search for an accurate method of recording their appearance on paper. What else he did during this long gestation period we do not know, but between 1417 and 1419 we again find him competing with Ghiberti. this time for the job of building the Florence Cathedral dome (see figs. 478 and 479). Its design had been established half a century earlier and could be altered only in details, but its vast size posed a difficult problem of construction. Brunelleschi's proposals, although contrary to all traditional practice, so impressed the authorities that this time he won out over his rival. Thus the dome deserves to be called the first work of post-medieval architecture, as an engineering feat if not for style.

Brunelleschi's main achievement was to build the dome in two separate shells which are ingeniously linked to reinforce each other, rather than in one solid mass. As the total weight of the structure was thereby lightened, he could dispense with the massive and costly wooden trusswork required by the older method of construction. Instead of having building materials carried up on ramps to the required level, he designed hoisting machines. His entire scheme reflects a bold, analytical mind, always discarding conventional solutions if better ones could be devised. This fresh approach distinguishes Brunelleschi from the Gothic stonemason-architects, with their time-honored procedures.

In 1419, while he was working out the final plans for the Cathedral dome, Brunelleschi received his first opportunity to create buildings entirely of his own design. It came from the head of the Medici family, one of the leading merchants and bankers of Florence, who commissioned him to add a sacristy to the Romanesque church of S. Forenzo. His plans for this sacristy (which was to serve also as a burial chapel for the Medici) were so successful that he was immediately asked to develop a new design for the entire church. The construction, begun in 1421, was often interrupted, so that the interior was not completed until 1469, more than 20 years after the architect's death. The exterior itself remains unfinished to this day. Nevertheless, the building in its present form is essentially what Brunelleschi had envisioned about 1420, and thus represents the first full statement of his architectural aims (figs. 581 and 582).

Church of San Lorenzo, Florence. Façade, begun 1419. San Lorenzo, Florence

BRUNELLESCHI. S. Lorenzo. Florence. 1421-69
Plan of S. Lorenzo.
Gray area indicates Michelangelo's later addition

The nave of the church, begun 1419. San Lorenzo, Florence
View of the central nave, begun 1419. San Lorenzo, Florence

Old Sacristy. 1418-28. Church of San Lorenzo, Florence
Dome of the Old Sacristy. 1418-28. Church of San Lorenzo, Florence

The plan may not seem very novel, at first glance. Its general arrangement recalls Cistercian Gothic churches (see fig. 475), while the unvaulted nave and transept link it to Sta. Croce (see fig. 476). What distinguishes it is a new emphasis on symmetry and regularity. The entire design consists of square units. Four large squares form the choir, the crossing, and the arms of the transept. Four more are combined into the nave. Other squares, one-fourth the size of the large ones, make up the aisles and the chapels attached to the transept. (The oblong chapels outside the aisles were not part of the original design.) As we examine the plan, we realize that Brunelleschi must have first decided to make the floor area of the choir equal to four of the small square units. The nave and transept were thus to be twice as wide as the aisles or chapels. In other words, Brunelleschi conceived S. Lorenzo as a grouping of abstract "space blocks," the larger ones being simple multiples of the standard unit. Once we understand this, we realize how revolutionary he was, for his clearly defined, separate space compartments represent a radical departure from the Gothic architect's way of thinking. In fixing this system, he was not concerned with the thickness of the walls between these compartments, so that the transept arms are slightly longer than they are wide, and the length of the nave is not four but four and one-half times its width.

The interior bears out our expectations. Cool, static order has replaced the emotional warmth, the flowing spatial movement of Gothic church interiors. S. Lorenzo does not sweep us off our feet. It does not even draw us forward after we have entered it, and we are quite content to remain near the door. From that vantage point, our view seems to take in the entire structure, almost as if we were confronted with a particularly clear and convincing demonstration of scientific perspective (compare fig. 575). The total effect recalls the "old-fashioned" Tuscan Romanesque, such as Pisa Cathedral (see fig. 420), as well as Early Christian basilicas (compare fig. 302). These monuments, to Brunelleschi, exemplified the church architecture of classical antiquity. They inspired his return to the use of the round arch and of columns, rather than piers, in the nave arcade. Yet these earlier buildings lack the transparent lightness, the wonderfully precise articulation of S. Lorenzo. Unlike Brunelleschi's, their columns are larger and more closely spaced, tending to screen off the aisles from the nave. Only the arcade of the Florentine Baptistery is as gracefully proportioned as that of S. Lorenzo, but it is a blind arcade, without any supporting function (see fig. 421). The Baptistery, we will recall, was thought in Brunelleschi's day to have once been a classical temple. Hence, it was an appropriate source of inspiration for him.

Clearly, then, Brunelleschi did not revive the architectural vocabulary of the ancients out of mere antiquarian enthusiasm. The very quality that attracted him to the component parts of classical architecture must have seemed, from the medieval point of view, their chief drawback: inflexibility. A classical column, unlike a medieval column or pier, is strictly defined and self-sufficient, and its details and proportions can be varied only within narrow limits. (The ancients thought of it as an organic structure comparable to the human body.) The classical round arch, unlike any other arch (horseshoe, pointed, and so forth), has only one possible shape, a semicircle. The classical architrave and the classical repertory of profiles and ornaments are all subject to similarly strict rules. Not that the classical vocabulary is completely rigid. If it were, it could not have persisted from the seventh century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. in the ancient world. But the disciplined spirit of the Greek orders, which can be felt even in the most original Roman buildings, demands regularity and consistency and discourages sudden, arbitrary departures from the norm.

Without the aid of such a "standardized" vocabulary, Brunelleschi would have found it impossible to define the shape of his "space blocks" so convincingly. With remarkable logic, he emphasizes the edges or "seams" of the units without disrupting their rhythmic sequence. To single out a particularly noteworthy example, consider the vaulting of the aisles. The transverse arches rest on pilasters attached to the outer wall (corresponding to the columns of the nave arcade), but a continuous architrave intervenes between arch and pilaster, linking all the bays. We would expect these bays to be covered by groined vaults of the classical, unribbed type (see fig. 249). Instead, we find a novel kind of vault, whose curved surface is formed from the upper part of a hemispherical dome. (Its radius equals half the diagonal of the square compartment.) Avoiding the ribs and even the groins, Brunelleschi has created a "one-piece" vault, strikingly simple and geometrically regular, that makes of each bay a distinct unit.

At this point we may well ask: if the new architecture consists essentially of separate elements added together, be they spaces, columns, or vaults, how did Brunelleschi relate these elements to each other? What makes the interior of S. Lorenzo seem so beautifully integrated? There is indeed a controlling principle that accounts for the harmonious, balanced character of his design. The secret of good architecture, Brunelleschi was convinced, lay in giving the "right" proportionsthat is, proportional ratios expressed in simple whole numbersto all the significant measurements of a building. The ancients had possessed this secret, he believed, and he tried to rediscover it by painstakingly surveying the remains of their monuments. What he found, and how he applied his theory to his own designs, we do not know for sure. He may have been the first to think out what would be explicitly stated a few decades later in Leone Battista Alberti's Treatise on Architecture: that the mathematical ratios determining musical harmony must also govern architecture, for they recur throughout the universe and are thus divine in origin.

Similar ideas, ultimately derived from the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, had been current during the Middle Ages, but they had not before been expressed so radically, directly, and simply. When Gothic architects "borrowed" the ratios of musical theory, they did so with the aid of the theologians and far less consistently than their Renaissance successors. But even Brunelleschi's faith in the universal validity of harmonious proportions did not tell him how to allot these ratios to the parts of any given building. It left him many alternatives, and his choice among them was necessarily subjective. We may say, in fact, that the main reason S. Lorenzo strikes us as the product of a single great mind is the very individual sense of proportion permeating every detail.

In the revival of classical forms, Renaissance architecture found a standard vocabulary. The theory of harmonious proportions provided it with the kind of syntax that had been mostly absent in medieval architecture. Lest this comparatively inflexible order be misinterpreted as an architectural impoverishment, we might carry our linguistic analogy a bit further. It is tempting to see a parallel between the "unclassical" flexibility of medieval architecture, proliferating in regional styles, and the equally "unclassical" attitude at that time toward language, as evidenced by its barbarized Latin and the rapid growth of regional vernaculars, the ancestors of our modern Western tongues. The revival of Latin and Greek in the Renaissance did not stunt these languages. On the contrary, the classical influence made them so much more stable, precise, and articulate that Latin before long lost the dominant position it had maintained throughout the Middle Ages as the language of intellectual discourse. It is not by chance that today we can still read Renaissance literature in Italian, French, English, or German without much trouble, while texts of a century or two before can often be understood only by scholars. Similarly, the revival of classical forms and proportions enabled Brunelleschi to transform the architectural "vernacular" of his region into a stable, precise, and articulate system. The new rationale underlying his buildings soon spread to the rest of Italy and later to all of Northern Europe.

Among the surviving structures by Brunelleschi, not one exterior shows his original design unaltered by later hands, not even the facade of the Pazzi Chapel (fig. 583). The chapel was begun about 1430, but Brunelleschi (who died in 1446) could not have planned the front in its present form. It dates from about 1460, and the top story remains incomplete. Nevertheless, it is a most original creation, totally unlike any medieval facade. A porch, reminiscent of the narthex of Early Christian churches (see fig. 301), precedes the chapel, making the facade seem to screen the main body of the structure. The central arch linking two sections of a classical colonnade is a prime innovation. It frames the portal behind and draws attention to the dome. The plan (fig. 585) shows us that the interrupted architrave supports two barrel vaults, which in turn help to support a small dome above the central opening.

Inside the chapel, we find the same motif on a larger scaletwo barrel vaults flanking the domeand a third dome, like that over the entrance but twice its diameter, above the square compartment housing the altar (figs. 584 and 586). Interior surfaces are articulated much as in S. Lorenzo but their effect is richer and more festive. Here we also find some sculpture. On the four pendentives of the central dome are large roundels with reliefs of the evangelists, and on the walls 12 smaller ones of the apostles. These reliefs, however, are not essential to the design of the chapel. Brunelleschi provided the frames, but he need not have intended them to be filled with sculpture. Indeed, the medaUions may very well have been planned "blind," like the recessed panels below them. In any case, the medieval interdependence of architecture and sculpture (never as strong in Italy as in Northern Europe) had ceased to exist. Donatello had liberated the statue from its setting, and Brunelleschi's conception of architecture as the visual counterpart of musical harmonies did not permit sculpture to play a more prominent role than the roundels in the Pazzi Chapel.

In the early 1430s, when the Cathedral dome was nearing completion, Brunelleschi's development as an architect entered a decisive new phase. His design for the church of Sto. Spirito (fig. 587) might be described as a perfected version of S. Lorenzo. All four arms of the cross are alike, with the nave being distinguished from the others only by its greater length, and the entire structure is now enveloped by an unbroken sequence of aisles and chapels. These chapels are the most surprising feature of Sto. Spirito. Brunelleschi had always shunned the apsidal shape before, but now he used it to express more dynamically the relation between interior space and its boundaries, for the wall seems to bulge under the outward pressure of the space. Unhappily, this novel feature was later walled over. In the church of Sta. Maria degli Angeli, which Brunelleschi began about the same time as Sto. Spirito, this new direction reaches its ultimate conclusion (fig. 588): a domed, central-plan churchthe first of the Renaissanceinspired by the round and polygonal structures of Roman and Early Christian times (compare figs. 250-53, 306-8, and 319-21). Financial difficulties interfered with completing the project above the ground floor, so that we cannot be sure of the design of the upper part, or even of some details in the plan. It is nevertheless clear that Brunelleschi has recaptured here the ancient Roman principle of the "sculptured" wall. The dome was to rest on eight heavy piers of complex shape, which belong to the same mass of masonry from which the eight chapels have been ''excavated." Wall and space are both charged with energy, and the plan records the precarious balance of their pressures and counterprcssurcs. As a conception, Sta. Maria degli Angeli was so far in advance of Brunelleschi's previous work that it must have utterly bewildered his contemporaries. It had, in fact, no echoes until the end of the century.

583. FILIPPO BRUNELLESCHI and others. Pazzi Chapel, Sta. Croce, Florence. Begun 1430-33

View of the dome, begun 1441. Cappella dei Pazzi, Santa Croce, Florence

584. Interior. Pazzi Chapel, begun 1441. Cappella dei Pazzi, Santa Croce, Florence
Cupola (detail), begun 1441. Cappella dei Pazzi, Santa Croce, Florence

585. Plan of the Pazzi Chapel
586. Longitudinal section of the Pazzi Chapel
BRUNELLESCHI. Plan of Sto. Spirito, Florence. Begun 1434-35
FILIPPO BRUNELLESCHI. Plan of Sta. Maria degli Angeli, Florence. 1434-37


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy