How did Brunelleschi influence the Italian Renaissance?

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Portrait of Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 –1446), is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern architecture. He designed and oversaw the construction of some of the most famous and beautiful buildings in the Renaissance, which still influence architects to this day. However, there was so much more to this remarkable man than his work as an architect. He was one of the first modern engineers and planners.

Moreover, he was crucial to the so-called rediscovery of antiquity. He was a pioneer in the study of the works of ancient Rome, which inspired much of his work. Brunelleschi is considered to have been crucial in the establishment of a linear perspective, which helped to transform painting in the period. Brunelleschi is not as famous as other Renaissance figures, such as Michelangelo. However, he must be regarded as one of the fathers of the Italian Renaissance, which ultimately led to the birth of the modern world.

The historical background

Grave of Brunelleschi

Italy was politically fragmented into a number of Republics, in the north and center of the peninsula. Rome and its surrounding territory were ruled by the Pope while the south and Sicily was governed by the King of Naples. The Republics, such as Florence and Milan, were often highly industrialized and wealthy. An affluent wealthy mercantile class and elite emerged, especially in the North.

Unlike the rest of Europe, Italy was highly urbanized. This led to the development of a culture that was more rational and secular than many other societies at the time. Learning and the arts, flourished, because of the patronage of the wealthy class and inspired in part by the growing interest in Ancient Rome. Florence was one of the main powers in Italy and had grown fabulously rich because of the textile trade and was also a financial center. It was dominated by an oligarchy that was closely linked to the trade guilds, who controlled much of Florence’s, economy.

By 1400 there was a discernible cultural shift in Italy, just as Brunelleschi was reaching adulthood. The city had become the cultural center of Italy and the Tuscan dialect, thanks to writers such as Dante had become the vernacular language of Italy. Moreover, it was arguably, more than any other city, the birthplace of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi was living at a time of extraordinary intellectual and artistic achievements and was greatly influenced by them.

The Life of Brunelleschi

The Dome of the Florentine Cathedral

Brunelleschi was born in Florence, in 1377, into an affluent family. His father was a lawyer and a public servant, and his mother was a member of the wealthy Spini family, one of the city’s oldest. It seems that the young Fillipo was given a very good education for the time. He was taught the Ancient Classics and also mathematics and he proved to be very adept at the subject.

At an early age, the young Filippo showed signs that he was artistically inclined. The young man was the second son and would not inherit his father’s estate and was expected to make his own way in the world. It seems that his father decided that he should be a merchant and he was apprenticed to a silk merchant. This was the most prestigious and influential guild in Florence. However, many of the guild members were also and goldsmiths. In about 1397/1398, Fillipo became a master goldsmith. He also practiced as a sculpture and produced some fine pieces, some of which can still be seen.[1]

Famously, he abandoned sculpture, after he lost a competition for the commission for the bronze doors of Florence’s Baptistry, to Ghiberti. He then devoted himself to architecture and was largely self-taught. Why he did this is something of a mystery, but he was soon to show that he was an engineer and architect of genius. His first important commission was the Foundling Hospital (1415). It is the first building in Florence to show the influence of Roman architecture, especially in its columns. This project earned him a commission from the powerful De Medici clan.

He designed the Basilica of San Lorenzo (1421–1442), which with its clean lines and simplicity, is regarded as a fine example of the classical style. He later completed the Basilica of Santo Spirito (1434–1466) where he perfected his classical style. Brunelleschi became good friends with the sculptor Donatello, and the two men visited Rome together. Here they studied and sketched Roman ruins and sculptures.

In the 1420s, Florence was at war with Pisa and Brunelleschi, served his city as a military engineer. On this basis, he was commissioned to design military fortifications throughout Italy.

In the 1440s, Brunelleschi was commissioned to complete the dome of the Cathedral of Florence. The commission proved to very difficult. For the rest of his life, Brunelleschi worked on the dome. The construction of the dome involved a great deal of planning and the development of new engineering techniques.[2]

During the 1430s, he was detained by members of the stonemasons’ guild. They claimed that he was practicing the trade of architect illegally. However, the Florentine was later released and vindicated. Brunelleschi died in 1446. His heir was his adopted son. In death, the great Florentine was given the singular honor, of being buried in the crypt of the Cathedral of Florence, his grave can still be seen to this day. [3]

The rediscovery of Rome

Around 1400, many Florentines and other Italians had become very interested in the Roman era. Many were astonished by the literary works and philosophy of the Romans. Writers and humanists studied the works of the Latin masters and traveled widely, to collect lost manuscripts, from the Roman era. However, there was little or no interest in the architecture and sculpture of the Romans.

While Italy was filled with the ruins from the Roman Empire, there was little interest in them. Indeed, many temples and other buildings were being excavated for their stones, especially marble. Brunelleschi was among the first to study the remains and art of the Roman period. He produced sketches, along with his friend Donatello and this encouraged a great awareness of the past in Italy.

The Romans inspired Brunelleschi, and he based his style on the buildings that were built by the Emperors, such as the Capitoline. This was enormously influential and significantly contributed to the revival of interest in classical buildings and architecture.

Brunelleschi and architecture

Brunelleschi adopted a simpler style and was more concerned with straight lines and proportions. He was more interested in balance and was not concerned with ornate decorations. Brunelleschi had developed a new style based on Roman models and one that decisively broke with Romanesque and Gothic designs that had been so prevalent in the Middle Ages. His classical designs inspired a whole new style of architecture that was to prove very influential on other architects such as Bramante and Michelangelo. Brunelleschi not only developed a new style in architecture he also developed many new forms. His work on churches was revolutionary and he was the first to move away from the old style of building a church in the form of a cross.

He was the first to consider building churches in the form of rotundas, these are circular buildings with domes.[4] This change proved to be very influential in the Renaissance and influenced architects, including Palladio. In 1434 Brunelleschi designed the Santa Maria Degli Angeli of Florence. This was a revolutionary design and it was octagonal in shape, which was revolutionary. This was to change the design of churches all over Italy, and beyond. Perhaps Brunelleschi’s masterpiece is the dome of the Florence Cathedral. It was the largest dome that was built eight centuries, since Justinian the Great, built the Hagia Sophia. The creation of the dome was unbelievable challenging, given the resources and the technology of the times.[5]

Many believed that it could not be done. It is remarkable how Brunelleschi was able to build the dome, as he had to build it without scaffolding and buttresses. He solved the problem by building a dome with the cupola and used herringbone brickwork to make it all self-supporting.[6] Brunelleschi’s masterpiece revived the dome as a feature of architecture in the west. In particular, it influenced Michelangelo when he created the Dome of St Peter’s in Rome. Because of his profound influence, Brunelleschi can truly be considered to be the founder of Renaissance architecture.

A true Renaissance Man

Traditionally a man had one vocation and was expected to work at that for the rest of his life, this was emphasized in the guild-system. Brunelleschi was a true Renaissance Man and he was polymath and master of several disciplines. It is generally recognized that the Florentine was a master engineer and an accomplished mathematician. He designed several new types of hoist and construction methods, without which he could never have left such a remarkable legacy of buildings. The Florentine designed lifts and cranes that were centuries ahead of their time.[7].

Brunelleschi was also a military engineer and was an early advocate of town planning. He even designed and patented a new type of riverboat. Brunelleschi’s many accomplishments meant that he was in many ways, an early embodiment of the humanist ideal. He demonstrated that an individual could have accomplished many things. His example inspired many others to master several arts and disciplines, including Michelangelo and Leonardo.

The discovery of Linear Perspective

The Dome of the Florentine Cathedral

Perspective in art is the technique of an illusion of three-dimensions in a picture. It gives a painting depth and a sense of space, even though it is on a two-dimensional surface. The Romans and Greeks had a rudimentary grasp of rudimentary. The Arabs had greatly advanced the science of optics, and their work became available in Latin translations in Italy in the 13th century.

At some point, Brunelleschi working on his own, rediscovered the techniques that allowed him to create a linear perspective. He developed a way of painting or sketching using a single vanishing point. This creates an illusion of three-dimension and space and death because all the lines converge. As a result, objects appear smaller if they seem to withdraw into the distance. This was revolutionary and it means that paintings were more realistic[8]. It allowed, especially painters or illustrators to create more naturalistic renderings of objects and people.

There is some controversy as to the extent of Brunelleschi’s contribution to the rediscovery of linear perspective. It cannot be denied that this artistic technique spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Linear perspective caused a revolution in art and the masterpieces of Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio would be unthinkable. Moreover, a linear perspective was also a way of representing the natural world and even persons. It was a technique that was also used by anatomists, scientists, and naturalists [9].

Conclusion

Brunelleschi is now as famous as Michelangelo or Raphael. However, he was as significant in the Renaissance architecture as Michelangelo was in sculpture or Leonardo in painting. He made the transition from being a sculpture to that of an architect. Remarkably, Brunelleschi was self-taught and yet he transformed architecture. The Florentine was a decisive influence on Renaissance architecture.

He developed a classical style that was to inspire architects throughout Europe to abandon the medieval styles. Brunelleschi domes a rotunda encouraged many architects to radically re-think their designs. He was also one of those responsible for the revival of interest in Ancient Rome and especially its architecture. The Florentine was also one of the first ‘Renaissance Man’ and was a true polymath. Then his rediscovery or perfection of the technique of linear perspective allowed for more realistic art, which was so crucial in Renaissance Art.

Further Reading

White, John. Art and architecture in Italy 1250-1400. Vol. 47. Yale University Press, 1993.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The architecture of the Italian Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

References

  1. Saalman, Howard. Filippo Brunelleschi: The Cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore (London: Zwemmer, 1980), p 113
  2. Saalman, p. 167
  3. Hyman, Isabelle. Brunelleschi in perspective (London, Prentice-Hall, 1984), p 19
  4. Millon, Henry A., and Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, eds. The Renaissance from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo: the representation of architecture. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), p. 113
  5. Saalman, Howard. Filippo Brunelleschi: The Cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore(London: Zwemmer, 1980), p 15
  6. Saalman, p 18
  7. Millon, p. 119
  8. Puttfarken, Thomas. The discovery of pictorial composition: Theories of visual order in painting 1400-1800 (Yale University Press, 2000), p. 119
  9. Puttfarken, p. 111
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