Filippo Brunelleschi, life and works of the father of the Renaissance in architecture

Filippo Brunelleschi: biography and works of one of the greatest Renaissance architects, inventor of linear perspective.

Filippo Brunelleschi (Florence, 1377 - Florence 1446) was one of the most important architects of the Renaissance, inventor of linear perspective with a single vanishing point and author of the famous dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. He was sculptor of several works and author of very important Florentine Renaissance architecture. The Renaissance was the artistic period that characterized the 15th and 16th centuries AD, marked by certain elements such as the reinterpretation of antiquity and the new centrality of the human being that represented the premises on which the Renaissance revolution was based. Florence represented and still represents to this day the so-called “cradle of the Renaissance”: indeed, it was the Tuscan city from which Renaissance art began.

Endowed with a particularly surly and sanguine character, Filippo Brunelleschi, in addition to his great talent and for being the father of the Renaissance in architecture, is also known for being at the center of several anecdotes: one among many is the one that sees him as the protagonist together with his antagonist Lorenzo Ghiberti (Pelago, 1378 - Florence, 1455). The two artists were in fact among the most important and influential figures in the entire Florentine scene of those years, and their rivalry led them to compete for numerous contracts and commissions.

Brunelleschi’s idiosyncrasy toward his adversary was so strong that he even refused to collaborate with Ghiberti on the commission for the North Door of the Baptistery of Florence , thus missing the opportunity to get his hands on the work. In fact, both of them were declared ex aequo winners of the famous 1401 competition that was to determine the artist who would execute the work but thanks to Brunelleschi’s refusal it was Ghiberti himself who won the creation of the door. Years later, when the competition for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was announced, the two finalists were again the two of them, this time, however, Brunelleschi did not refuse the collaboration but equally tried to win the management of the building site alone, succeeding after some time to oust Ghiberti from the site. According to the account, Brunelleschi succeeded in ousting him by demonstrating his inability, pretending to be ill he left all the responsibility to Ghiberti who had to supervise and manage the entire building site, failing to do so and making many mistakes, Ghiberti was dismissed from the most important duties thus leaving ample room for Brunelleschi’s management. Later, in 1436, the competition for the lantern of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was announced, and once again both participated, but the final winner was only one: Filippo Brunelleschi.

The most famous anecdote concerning Brunelleschi, however, is perhaps that of theegg mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives. According to what Vasari reports, Brunelleschi in order to secure the construction of the church’s dome confronted all the competing architects by challenging them to make an egg maintain its balance on a marble table. None of the architects present succeeded in the feat except Brunelleschi, who with extreme cunning and intelligence broke the lower part of the shell causing the egg to remain standing. The other contenders criticized the incident stating that anyone would have succeeded in doing the same trick. Brunelleschi reportedly replied to his comrades thus, “Arebbono still knew how to turn the dome, seeing the model or design.”

Probabile ritratto di Filippo Brunelleschi eseguito da Masaccio nella cappella Brancacci a Firenze
Probable portrait of Filippo Brunelleschi by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence (1423-1428)

Biography of Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi was born in Florence in 1377, the son of Brunellesco di Lippo, a famous Florentine notary, and Giuliana Spini. From an early age he was fortunate to receive an excellent education that led him to learn notions useful for the future, such as the study of optics. During his formative years an interest in sculpture and painting was born in him, which led him to work as an apprentice in the workshop of a goldsmith friend of the family. There he learned the main techniques related to the world of goldsmithing such as metal casting and the use of the various tools of the trade. After finishing his apprenticeship, in 1398 he enrolled in theArte della Seta, one of the seven Arti Maggiori, or major arts and crafts guilds in Florence, where he registered as a goldsmith in 1404. Between 1400 and 1401 he had the opportunity to work on his first major commission, participating in the completion of the altar of San Jacopo in Pistoia. In the same year the Consoli dell’Arte di Calimala (the merchants’ guild) announced a competition for the remaking of the second bronze door of the Florence Baptistery. The theme the sculptors had to draw on in creating the tile was the sacrifice of Isaac. Brunelleschi won first place along with Lorenzo Ghiberti, a Florentine architect and sculptor. Because of the animosity between the two and work incompatibility Brunelleschi would refuse the collaboration, leaving the win to Ghiberti alone.

Between 1402 and 1404 the artist left for Rome with his partner Donatello. The two, thanks to their trip to the capital, had the opportunity to study ancient remains by surveying them. Through surveying historic buildings, a love for architecture and ancient building methods was born in Brunelleschi. In 1404 he returned to Florence, where he was consulted on several nascent building sites including that of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Until 1440 he was involved in sculpture: among his youthful works he produced the sculpture of Mary Magdalene for the church of Santo Spirito (a work that has not come down to us), and in 1412 he was instead called upon, along with his friend Donatello, to complete the niches in Orsanmichele. The most important invention attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi is the single-point perspective. The discovery was revolutionary for the artists of the century, and it influenced the way they made art.

In 1418, fourteen years after he consulted on adding a buttress to the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, a public competition was announced for the construction of the dome of the same church. There were two main requirements that the works had to have: exterior appearance and the use of innovative engineering. As with the competition for the Baptistery tile, the two finalists were Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti(read a detailed discussion of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore here). The following year, in 1419, he was commissioned by the Arte della Seta to design the Spedale degli Innocenti.

In 1420 Brunelleschi designed the Barbadori Chapel, located inside the church of Santa Felicita. In the same year he received a commission from Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici to design the Sacristy of the church of San Lorenzo. A century later, around 1520, Michelangelo was commissioned to design the New Sacristy, where he took over some elements of Brunelleschi’s Sacristy (called, from this time, the “Old Sacristy”) such as the square-shaped plan or the use of pietra serena. From the design of the Sagrestia Brunelleschi soon moved on to the design of the entire church: in fact, he was commissioned to rebuild the basilica of San Lorenzo.

Although not officially verified, Masaccio’s famous fresco of the Trinity from around 1424 in Santa Maria Novella may be the result of his collaboration with Brunelleschi. In 1429 he was commissioned to build the Pazzi Chapel, to this day one of the most important Renaissance works. For the construction Brunelleschi was inspired by the chapter house in Santa Maria Novella, reinterpreting its plan. After several trips to cities such as Mantua, Milan, and Ferrara, he returned to Florence in 1434, where he was arrested for nonpayment of a tax. As the years passed, in 1436, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was inaugurated. Right from the start it represented one of the most important and successful engineering and architectural works. Total completion of the dome came later in 1461 with the building of the summit lantern, also designed by Brunelleschi. In 1446, the first work began on the church of Santo Spirito, also based on Brunelleschi’s 1428 design. The church symbolizes one of the master’s final works, from which all his monumentality and classicism emerges. On April 15, 1446, Filippo Brunelleschi died in Florence: after an initial placement in Giotto’s Campanile, his tomb was moved inside the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

La cupola di Santa Maria del Fiore
The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

Lo Spedale degli Innocenti. Foto di Francesco Bini
The Spedale degli Innocenti. Photo by Francesco Bini

The works, the masterpieces, the invention of perspective

Filippo Brunelleschi is remembered for several merits, chief among them the invention of linear perspective, which proved to be of fundamental importance for the course of art history. Indeed, many artists began to apply it to their works, increasing the degree of resemblance to reality. Brunelleschi used only two tools to fine-tune it: a painted tablet depicting the Baptistery and a mirror that he used to reflect the painted image. By holding the decorated tablet with his left hand, which was pierced at the height of the viewpoint (roughly corresponding to the portal of the baptistery), and with his right hand the mirror set at an appropriate distance, the artist was able to make out the image reflected in the mirror by comparing it with the real one. Although the tablets have been lost, to this day we know how they worked thanks to the important testimony of Leon Battista Alberti.

Passionate about architecture since he was a boy, Brunelleschi approached the world of construction by making surveys of old Roman buildings. His works are considered the first of the Italian Renaissance in architecture. As such they manifest their debts to the world of classicism (the term “Renaissance” was coined in the 19th century precisely to highlight the rediscovery and revival of Roman architecture). Each of his buildings presents harmonious and refined proportions, also emphasized by the symmetry and rigor of the floor plans.

Brunelleschi’s great masterpiece was, as already anticipated, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. The work was completed and finished in 1436, but the addition of the lantern instead was not completed until 1461, several years after the architect’s death. The dome rests on an octagonal drum and consists of eight segments, called “sails,” in two separate caps that house a cavity inside on which the stairs to the lantern are placed. The cavity was made so as not to burden the dome with too much weight, and the presence of the ribs instead helps to retain loads by keeping it upright. Today, the dome is among the largest in size in all of Italy, second only to that of the Pantheon in Rome. In fact, the dome in Florence has a diameter of about forty-two meters in comparison to the approximately forty-three meters of that in Rome. Inside the dome, visible in the church, is painted a pictorial cycle (over an area of 3,600 square meters) begun by Giorgia Vasari and completed in 1579 by Federico Zuccari.

In 1419, Brunelleschi was called upon to design the Spedale degli Innocenti, a work commissioned by the Arte della Seta, one of Florence’s largest corporations of arts and crafts to which merchants and artisans belonged. The Spedale degli Innocenti was the first institution in Europe to take in infants abandoned by their parents, and it still has the same use today by housing foster children. From an architectural point of view, it is one of the first Renaissance buildings in the world. Of particular importance is the portico, undoubtedly the work of Brunelleschi, which presents all the characteristics of his architecture. Indeed, the portico consists of nine ribbed vaults resting on as many columns of composite order and made of pietra serena, recurring in its architecture such as the use of oculus decorations between arch and arch. In the architectural composition of the work it is possible to notice a certain modularity, traceable especially in the geometric figure of the square.

Again, in 1419 Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici commissioned the Florentine architect to build the Old Sacristy at the basilica of San Lorenzo: the architecture was to house the burial place of the Medici family. The chapel takes, as is often the case in the master’s architecture, the form of a cube on which rests an umbrella dome. Inside, the structural parts of the building such as columns, vaults and portals are decorated and covered with pietra serena. Brunelleschi was not only involved in the design of the Sacristy, but also continued the design of the church, which consists of three naves, one central and two side naves facing a circle of chapels with a rectangular plan. The interior is extremely bright and is supported by composite columns characterized by the use of cubic pulvinus, a typical element of Byzantine architecture used as a connection between capital and arch, its function being to ensure greater slenderness to the column.

Finally, another masterpiece by Brunelleschi is the Pazzi Chapel. However, it is difficult to attribute the entire construction to Brunelleschi alone. The facade of the new chapel juts out over the cloister of the church, presenting elements such as the portico, according to some the work of Giuliano da Maiano. This work is one of the finest examples of elegance and purity in Renaissance art. The interior is similar to that of the Old Sacristy and also features parts decorated in pietra serena and a large umbrella vault. The only difference is that the Old Sacristy has a square base plan, while here it has a rectangular base. As with the Old Sacristy, just opposite the entrance is the scarsella, a small apse where the memorial altar is placed.

La Sagrestia Vecchia. Foto di Francesco Bini
The Old Sacristy. Photo by Francesco Bini

L'interno della chiesa di San Lorenzo. Foto di Stefan Bauer
The interior of the church of San Lorenzo. Photo by Stefan Bauer

La Cappella Pazzi
The Pazzi Chapel

Where to find the works of Filippo Brunelleschi

All of Filippo Brunelleschi’s major works are located in Florence, the artist’s hometown, which is certainly the ideal place to view and experience the master’s architecture. Among the main tourist stops, the dome of the cathedral is one of the most popular, but one cannot say one has made Brunelleschi’s acquaintance without admiring the Spedale degli Innocenti, the Old Sacristy, and the Pazzi Chapel. Through a system of connections placed in the cavity of the caps, it is possible to reach the lantern at the top where one can admire the panorama from the highest point of the city. The tile made by Brunelleschi for the 1401 competition, on the other hand, is kept at the Bargello Museum, while the Gondi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella houses the famous Crucifix, one of the masterpieces of his work as a sculptor.

Outside Florence, it is possible to admire some architectural works in which Brunelleschi was involved: the rebuilding of the Rocca di Vicopisano fortress (between 1435 and 1440) was commissioned from the Florentine architect, then again the walls of the village of Malmantile, built in 1424, were probably built under his supervision, and an advisory role of his is cited for the castle of Staggia Senese.

Filippo Brunelleschi, life and works of the father of the Renaissance in architecture
Filippo Brunelleschi, life and works of the father of the Renaissance in architecture

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