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Filippo Brunellesco

Architect and sculptor, b. at Florence, 1377; d. there April 16, 1446

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Brunellesco (or BRUNELLESCHI), FILIPPO, architect and sculptor, b. at Florence, 1377; d. there April 16, 1446. As an architect Brunellesco was one of the chief leaders in the early period of the Renaissance movement. Though rather unprepossessing in appearance, he was of a cheerful and congenial disposition, of an active and inventive mind, and withal somewhat quick-tempered. Even in his childish games he evinced a decided inclination towards the mechanical. Beginning as a goldsmith, and later turning to sculpture, he finally applied himself exclusively to architecture without, however, neglecting his general culture. He read the Bible and Dante to feed his fancy, but devoted himself with decided preference to the study of perspective which he was the first to apply to art in accordance with definitely formulated rules. The correlated studies of mathematics and geometry also received his attention. He was considerably influenced by the lifelong friendship of the mathematician, Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, by his joint studies with his younger friend Donatello, by the artists and artworks of his native Florence, particularly by the monuments of Rome, to the study of which he devoted many years. Classical antiquity was already, at this period, well known and highly appreciated.

SCULPTURE.—The Duomo of Pistoia contains several examples of niello-work and two silver statues of prophets said to be the earliest works of Brunellesco. A wooden Magdalen in the church of Santo Spirito at Florence was destroyed by fire in 1471. His wooden crucifix in Santa Maria Novella is true to nature and beautiful, while that by his friend Donatello, in Santa Croce, deserved the criticism ascribed to Brunellesco: “This is a rustic hanging on the cross”. Two of his perspectives created a great sensation in Florence. Seventy years later they are described at length by his first anonymous biographer. Masaccio learned perspective from Brunellesco and according to Vasari, the architect’s second biographer, it was also applied to intarsia. Brunellesco entered into competition with Ghiberti and other masters in 1401, when models for the reliefs of the second bronze door of the Baptistery at Florence were called for. The designs of both are exhibited side by side in the National Museum at Florence. We may agree with the verdict of the commission which awarded the first prize to Ghiberti and the second to Brunellesco. Ghiberti’s relief is noteworthy for its agreeable dignity, while that of Brunellesco looks restless and labored. Soon after Brunellesco went to Rome and for many years explored its ancient ruins, alone and with Donatello. The remains of the classic buildings so enraptured him that he decided to make architecture his lifework, instead of, as heretofore, an occasional occupation. In the meantime the much discussed problem of the completion of the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) of Florence seems to have awakened in him the ambition to attain in this way undisputed supremacy in one of the plastic arts.

ARCHITECTURE.—At the end of the thirteenth century Arnolfo di Cambio had begun the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore, substantially a Gothic cathedral, and carried it as far as the dome whose span of forty metres (one hundred and thirty-eight and one-half feet), nearly equal to that of the Pantheon, had deterred from its completion all contemporary architects. In 1417 a conference of experts failed to arrive at a solution. Brunellesco, who was present, did not fully declare himself, but instead visited Rome again, manifestly for the purpose of coming forward with greater assurance. The following year (March, 1419) a meeting of the most noted architects took place, and in the discussion relative to the cathedral dome Brunellesco with full confidence proposed to complete it without centring, since it was impossible to construct scaffolding for such a height. At first he was regarded as a fool, but later was actually commissioned to execute the work, with two other artists as associates. Whether to harmonize it with the pointed arches of the rest of the design or to relieve the substructure of the greater thrust, Brunellesco built the dome not on spherical, but on pointed octagonal, clustered-arches. He then braced it not only by means of the octagonal drum, previously agreed on, but also borrowed from the Baptistery, besides its lantern, the idea of a protective roof, not an ordinary roof, but a second and lighter dome. This novel concept of a dome made of two shells greatly relieved the weight of the structure, gave to the exterior an agreeable rounded finish, and in the space between the shells furnished room for ribbing, passageways, and stairs. In technical or constructive skill the dome of St. Peter’s marked no advance on the work of Brunellesco; it is superior only in formal beauty. The crowning lantern, a statically important weight, adds sixteen metres to the height of the dome which is ninety-one metres; it is inadequate, however, to the lighting of the edifice. Brunellesco’s work remained, in its essential features, a model for succeeding ages. The lantern was not completed until five years after the death of the master.

Inspired by classical art, he executed other domical structures and basilicas, in all of which the essential characteristics of the new style appear. For the sacristy of San Lorenzo at Florence he built its polygonal dome, without a drum, on a square plan, by means of pendentives (projecting spherical triangles). As a central feature for Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, he designed a dome resting on a substructure, octagonal on the interior and sixteen-sided on the exterior. On a free-standing centralized plan he built a still more charming structure, the Pazzi Chapel. Over the middle portion of the rectangular hall a dome with radial ribbings is carried on arches and flanked on two sides by barrel vaults. The square sanctuary rises on the long side of this rectangular hall and is covered with a dome. The corresponding square on the entrance side is also domed; he added to it an antique colonnade covered in by a barrel vault, thus forming a loggia that extends the entire width of the building. The interior wall surfaces are decorated with Corinthian pilasters. The straight entablature, the rounded windows, the coffered ceiling, the medallions, complete on a small scale an ideal Renaissance edifice. It is probable that the cruciform and domical church of Badia di Fiesole was built from Brunellesco’s design. In all these works he treated antique classical principles rather freely. In larger churches his practical mind induced him to return to the basilica plan. In San Lorenzo, it is true, he found the cruciform plan already fixed; he added, however, a wooden coffered ceiling for the nave, spherical vaults for the side aisles, and rectangular chapels with barrel vaults along the outer walls; lateral aisles also surround the transept. The external cornice is carried out in a straight line; the height of the nave is double its width; the Corinthian columns bear the classical triple entablature but with arches springing therefrom; to increase the height these arches bear another broad triple entablature. We are frequently reminded in this edifice of the ancient Christian and the Romanesque basilicas. Its dome was completed by Manetti, who allowed himself here, and to a greater degree in Santo Spirito, a certain liberty in dealing with the designs of Brunellesco. The plan of the latter church is in the main the same as that of San Lorenzo; the interior niches are rounded, though their exterior walls are rectangular. These niches follow the lateral aisles around the transepts and the apse. Over the meeting of the great nave and apse rises a low drum supporting a ribbed dome; it is finished with round windows and a lantern. Brunellesco executed also no little domestic architecture. He supervised the construction of the Foundling Hospital (Spedale degli Innocenti) and drew the model of a magnificent palace for Cosimo de’Medici which the latter failed to carry out through fear of envy. Finally he built a part of the Pitti Palace, and in this work left to posterity a model method of the use of quarry-faced stone blocks for the first story. In recognition of his merits this epoch-making architect, no less distinguished in the decorative than in the constructive arts, was buried within the sacred precincts of the cathedral.


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