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.
Further Reading on Filippo Brunelleschi
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).
Additional Biography Sources
Battisti, Eugenio, Filippo Brunelleschi: the complete works, New York: Rizzoli, 1981.
Brunelleschi, Filippo, Brunelleschi: the complete works, London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.