History makers: Filippo Brunelleschi

This week, we celebrate the risk-taking, determination and vision of a great Renaissance architect.

Today (25 March) marks the anniversary of the consecration of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence by Pope Eugene IV in 1436. Il Duomo, as the Basilica is better known, is as much a symbol of the Florentine Renaissance as Michelangelo’s David, but the church could never have been completed without the vision and genius of one man, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi.

Born in Florence in 1377, little is known about Brunelleschi’s early life. We do know he was the son of a lawyer and that by trade he was a goldsmith. Having failed to win a commission in his early 20s to design the gilded bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry to Lorenzo Ghiberti, Brunelleschi turned his attentions to architecture.

The movement against gothic medieval architectural styles was already well underway in Florence, with the city fathers having gone so far as to ban architects from using that signifier of the medieval building, the flying buttress, when building new churches in the city. There was a great thirst for something new. Enter Brunelleschi.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Lacking formal training in architecture, Brunelleschi was an outsider, and perhaps it was his ignorance of the architectural orthodoxies that allowed him to be such an innovative force. He was to turn to the distant past for inspiration. Between 1402 and 1404, he travelled to Rome with his friend, sculptor Donatello. Together, they studied the ruins of the once great city. They were among the first of their era to seek to learn about architecture from the physical remains of the ancient world, a practice that was to become central to all later Renaissance architects. Brunelleschi’s experiences in Rome were to have a profound effect on his work, especially on Il Duomo.

Building work on Il Duomo began in 1296 and it was meant to showcase the magnificence of Florence. Florence was to be the city of the future, and Santa Maria del Fiore would represent its breaking away from the darkness of the Middle Ages. The dome was to be the largest built since antiquity, and would come close to matching the span of the great concrete cupola of the Pantheon in Rome. The problem was that knowledge of how to build large free-standing domes had been lost, and no one could agree on how the project was to be completed. As a result, the cathedral stood unfinished for 120 years. What was once meant to display the greatness of Florence had become a major embarrassment.

In 1418, it was decided that Florence’s shame must end. A competition was announced by the powerful wool merchant’s guild, calling on architects to submit their designs. The winner would receive 200 gold florins. The designs submitted ranged from the underwhelming to the insane, but almost all were impractical. There were many problems to overcome: the dome was to be about 45 metres wide and to stand about 115 metres tall at its highest point, but there were fears that there would not be enough timber in the whole of Tuscany to build the scaffolding required. Besides, how would they hoist heavy building materials to such a height?

Brunelleschi claimed to have solutions to these problems, but, being notoriously stubborn and paranoid, he refused to reveal details of his plans to the city fathers lest one of his rivals stole his designs. To make such an enormous investment in an unknown quantity like Brunelleschi, a man known more at the time for his temperamental and idiosyncratic nature than his architecture, seemed to be madness. On several occasions, the guild had to remove him forcibly from their chambers because he became so infuriated with their desire to know every detail of his design. Eventually, however, the wool merchants’ guild was sufficiently impressed by a scale model of his plan he had constructed with Donatello that they awarded Brunelleschi both the commission and the prize money. He was to spend the next 18 years working on the project.

Lightness was key to his design – most of the other proposals relied on sheer bulk to guarantee sturdiness. Brunelleschi realised that such bulk would put the rest of the building under so much pressure that it would probably collapse. His solution was a dome within a dome, consisting of an inner and outer shell with a hollow space in between, which lessened the stress placed on the rest of the building. The outer shell would be made of bricks laid in a herringbone pattern, which would be strong yet light. Such a dome could be constructed without the need of free-standing forms and scaffolds, which meant that he would not have to source so much timber. To the problem that a dome of this size could splay under its own weight, and eventually burst like a balloon, Brunelleschi proposed a series of huge chains in the hollow to reinforce the structure like iron hoops do on a barrel.

Brunelleschi’s genius and daring was demonstrated as much by the things he invented to facilitate the building of the dome as by the design itself. He invented an extraordinary hoist system that used pulleys and counterweight. And the world’s first reverse gear allowed just two oxen to lift huge loads of bricks and stone beams to the roof of the church.

He also designed a huge barge called Il Badalone (The Monster) to transport the materials he required. In a career in which he took many risks, Il Badalone was a rare but noble failure, sinking on its maiden voyage.

One of Brunelleschi’s most enduring inventions was that of linear perspective. This gave him the ability to render incredibly realistic three-dimensional pictures in two-dimensional drawings. Linear perspective was to revolutionise the fields of art and architecture and is still a foundational skill for artists today. To protect his many inventions, he was granted the first-ever patents by claiming that he ‘should be granted some prerogative’ regarding his creations.

Brunelleschi’s ability to excel in art, engineering, mathematics, architecture and even poetry made him the first great polymath of the Renaissance. His work would form one of the major inspirations for the next generation of Renaissance masters, including Da Vinci and Michelangelo. His genius combined a belief that he could achieve the seemingly impossible with a willingness to take risks. And it made him one of the most enduring embodiments of the spirit of the Renaissance. It is a spirit we can still draw inspiration from today. 


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