the role of Brunelleschi in the revival of classical architecture
"The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture
of our own we have no soul of our own civilization."
--Frank Lloyd Wright
Florence is considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance, from where it spread to the rest of Italy and Europe. A combination of socio-economic and political conditions in 15th century Florence provided a fertile ground for creative fulfillment of geniuses such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Botticelli, who rediscovered the ideals of beauty of the classical antiquity. After a millennium of barbaric invasions, feudal wars, oppression by the church, famine and disease, Europe was reborn and inspired by the classical ideals of harmony, which, according to the leading humanist thinkers, ruled the entire universe. In addition to socio-economic factors, the contributions of individual artists played a big role in reintroducing the culture of classical antiquity into Western art. Filippo Brunelleschi was the first major figure to use the long-forgotten classical style in architecture, but there were many to come after him. The rediscovered classical architecture probably had the longest legacy in the history of architecture, transforming into diverse styles from Baroque and Palladianism to neo-classicism and even the Georgian townhouses that still dominate the cityscapes of major European and American cities.
To appreciate the contribution of Brunelleschi to the development of Renaissance architecture and art, we first need to know what Florence was like before it transformed into the cultural capital of Europe. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., classical architecture in Italy was gradually replaced by other styles, such as the Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic. Italy never fully embraced Gothic architecture as much as the rest of Europe did, except in the northern regions where the influence of the French Gothic is evident. Tuscany, on the contrary, remained conscious of its antique heritage throughout the Middle Ages. Here architecture developed in the traditions of Early Christian and Romanesque styles, often used in combination (Davies et al). Some of the most well-known examples of such architecture are the Pisa cathedral, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. While the form and decorative details vary significantly, there is one characteristic feature of medieval Tuscan architecture that alludes to antique Roman style: that is the use of multicolored marble skin on the exterior of churches. The same motif can be found in the interior of the Pantheon and, supposedly, used to decorate many Roman monuments before the marble tiles were stripped off over time (Davies et al). Sometimes the elements of Gothic architecture were mixed in with Romanesque and Early Christian styles, as is the case with the thirteenth-century Franciscan church of Santa Croce, which uses Gothic pointed arches alongside Romanesque wooden beams (as opposed to Gothic vaulted ceilings) to support the roof.
In contrast to religious architecture, which preserved some elements of classical antiquity, the secular architecture of Florence was typically medieval. Government buildings and private palaces were built in the tradition of medieval fortified castles, with tall towers, narrow windows, heavy battlements and rustication. The tradition to use rough stone surfaces goes back to Ancient Roman times and was meant to communicate strength and power. The earliest public palaces, such as the Bargello (1255) and Palazzo della Signoria, display the typical characteristics of Medieval civil architecture: an enclosed courtyard, heavy rustication, narrow windows and crenellation, as well as a tall tower which was designed to dominate the skyline of Medieval Florence. The main palace of Florence was Palazzo della Signoria (now called Palazzo Vecchio), which housed the city’s government and represented Florence’s political freedom and independence. It is still an iconic building in Florence which stands apart from the predominantly Renaissance-influenced architecture of the city and symbolizes its old age and rich history.
The architecture of Florence at the break of the fifteenth century was fairly eclectic when Brunelleschi came to create a new renowned face of Florence with his remarkable architectural contributions. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) was born in raised in the greatest city of his time. From the end of the fourteenth to the beginning of the fifteenth century, Florence was one of the most prosperous, intellectually progressive, and culturally liberated cities in Europe. It enjoyed great political freedom: as a city-republic, it was governed by its own citizens who were elected from the elite merchant and banking families through a complex electoral system. Brunelleschi was even elected into offices once, which tells us about the level of respect he had (Saalman). Due to the successful development of banking and trade, Florence was one of the richest states in Italy, rivaling with Pisa, Siena, and even Rome in the display of wealth and power through artistic expression. Growing up, Brunelleschi witnessed the building of Or San Michele, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Trinita, and the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore itself. The city inspired him not only as an artist but also as a patriot. At that time, humanists advocated civic responsibility, active participation in political and social life, and moral standards of Roman society. Artists also turned to classical examples in search of perfection in everything from the human body to architectural forms. The historians of Florence always tried to link their city and ancient Rome. In the Chronica de Origine Civitatis, the author claims that Florence was founded by Julius Caesar himself. Dante had called Florence “that beautiful and famous daughter of Rome”. (Davies et al). Through architecture, Brunelleschi wanted to convey the glory of his city-state and the intellectual and civic values of the time. Nothing could accomplish this better that classical architecture, and Brunelleschi took on the mission to create the new Florence in the image of Ancient Rome.
His first commission was the façade and loggia of Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419-1424) were the first since antiquity to employ the vocabulary of classical architecture. The most significant innovation, the sail vault, in which the curvature was determined by the radius of the circle circumscribing the square of the supporting arches, was used here for the first time since antiquity (Saalman). For Brunelleschi, it was the first chance to experiment with the classical vocabulary and it turned out to be a great success. Later, he reused, modified, recombined, and added certain classical elements to produce the desired effect, but Ospedale may be his most classical building. The next important commission in Bruneleschi's career as an architect was rebuilding the old Romanesque church of San Lorenzo, the oldest Christian basilica in Florence (consecrated in 393), commissioned by the Medici family. San Lorenzo church is built in the form of a traditional Latin with a cupola above the crossing. (Giovannetti). The innovation is in the use of precise geometrically interrelated measurements which give the overall structure internal harmony and balance. Brunelleschi conceived San Lorenzo as a grouping of “space blocks”, the larger ones being simple multiples of a standard unit. Interior pilasters do not bear weight and serve solely a visual purpose to create an architectural rhythm. It was this break between real structure and the appearance of structure that constituted one of the important innovations of Brunelleschi’s work. The pilasters support an entablature, the only purpose of which is to divide the space into two equal horizontal zones. The upper zone features pendentives under the dome, another relative novelty, more typical of Byzantine architecture. The dome is actually an umbrella dome, composed of twelve vaults joined together at the center” (Fangi).
The dome of San Lorenzo was not one that made Brunelleschi famous. His most ambitious and eternalizing project was the crowning of the Florence’s main cathedral, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, with a structure unmatched by its scale and technical difficulty. At the time when it was proposed, the dome of the cathedral would have been the highest and widest vault ever raised, exceeding the span of the 6th century dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople by 36 feet and even wider than the Roman Pantheon. This model proposed a rare type of structure borrowed from Persia which included two domes: the shallower inner dome which would serve for structural support and to suit the inner proportions, and the larger, lighter outer dome that would give the cathedral its height (King). It took Brunelleschi sixteen years to carry out this ambitious project that earned the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore a place among the eight fundamental architectural achievements of the Western world due to the fact that it was the first octagonal dome in history to be built without a temporary wooden supporting frame (Toker). This was an unprecedented technical accomplishment that showed Brunelleschi’s genius. However, one cannot deny the influence of the ancient Roman architecture on this work. Brunelleschi lived in Rome for thirteen years and made detailed measurements and observations of the ancient ruins, drawing inspiration from looking at the classical monuments. There he also studied the dome of the Pantheon for clues on how to solve the building challenge of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Brunelleschi was one of the first men at the dusk of the Dark Ages who sought wisdom and inspiration from the classical world. When he visited Rome in the early fifteenth century, it was a forsaken, desolate city of prostitutes and vagabonds. But soon many people would set out on a quest for ancient manuscripts, relics, and architectural monuments that stood, abandoned and unappreciated, on the land of the former capital of the Roman Empire. However, Brunelleschi did not build in a strictly classical style but developed his own unique form of expression. It is somewhat difficult to define Brunelleschi's style. His creative imagination in combination with the unique environment he grew up in, natural curiosity, intensive training, and wide-ranging experience evolved into a unique personal architectural vision. He experimented with combining tradition, innovation, and forgotten glory. He introduced classical elements into his building with such exquisite harmony and elegance that it inspired new interest in the architecture of antiquity. The distinctive qualities that describe all of Brunelleschi's works are integrity, precision, simplicity and clarity, monumentality, and attention to detail (Saalman). Compared to his contemporary, Michelozzo, who also used all'antica style, Brunelleschi's work is authentically classical, being based on precise archaeological observations he made while studying in Rome. This is why Brunelleschi, and not Michelozzo or anyone else, is the one associated with the return of classical architecture into the vocabulary of Western European art. The examples of his architectural genius still inspire artists and common people.
Davies, Penelope J.E., Denny, Walter B., Hofrichter, Frima Fox, Jacobs, Joseph F., Roberts, Ann S., and Simon, David L. Janson's History of Art: The Western Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, 2011.
Fangi, G.; Malinverni, E. S. (2005). "The Creation of the 3D Solid Model by Laser Scanning:
The “Old Sacristy” by Brunelleschi in Florence" (PDF).Università Politecnica delle Marche.
Giovannetti, Bruno, and Roberto Martucci. Architect’s Guide to Florence. Oxford : Butterworth
King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. New
York: Walker Publishing Company, 2000.
Saalman, Howard. Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State
University Press, 1993.
Toker, Franklin. On Holy Ground: Liturgy, Architecture and Urbanism in the Cathedral and the
Streets of Medieval Florence. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2009.