Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – April 15, 1446) was one of the foremost architects and engineers of the Italian Renaissance. All of his principal works are in Florence, Italy. As explained by Antonio Manetti, who knew Brunelleschi and who wrote his biography, Brunelleschi "was granted such honors as to be buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, and with a marble bust, which they say was carved from life, and placed there in perpetual memory with such a splendid epitaph." [Antonio Manetti. "The Life of Brunelleschi". English translation of the Italian text by Catherine Enggass. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970).]

Early life

Very little is known about the early life of Brunelleschi; the only sources are Antonio Manetti and Giorgio Vasari. [For an English version of Vasari's description of the life and work of Brunelleschi, see:] According to these sources, Filippo's father was Brunellesco di Lippo, an Italian lawyer, and his mother was Giuliana Spini. Filippo was the middle of three children. The young Filippo was given a literary and mathematical education intended to enable him to follow in the footsteps of his father, a civil servant. Being artistically inclined, however, Filippo enrolled in the Arte della Seta, the Silkmakers' Guild, which included goldsmiths, metalworkers, and bronze workers. He became a master goldsmith in 1398. It was thus not a coincidence that his first important commission, the Foundling Hospital, came from the same guild to which he belonged. [Eugenio Battisti. "Filippo Brunelleschi". (New York: Rizzoli, 1981)]

In 1401,Brunelleschi entered a competition to design a new set of bronze doors for the baptistery in Florence. Along with another young goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti, he produced a gilded bronze panel, depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac. His entry made reference to a classical statue, known as the 'thorn puller', whilst Ghiberti used a naked torso for his figure of Isaac. In 1403, Ghiberti was announced the victor, largely because of his superior technical skill: his panel showed a more sophisticated knowledge of bronze-casting; it was completed in one single piece. Brunelleschi's piece, by contrast, was comprised of numerous pieces bolted to the back plate. Ghiberti went on to complete a second set of bronze doors for the baptistery, whose beauty Michelangelo extolled a hundred years later, saying "surely these must be the "Gates of Paradise." [Paul Robert Walker. "The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World". (New York: William Morrow, 2002).]

Brunelleschi as an architect

There is little biographical information about Brunelleschi's life to explain his transition from goldsmith to builder and, no less importantly, from his training in the gothic or medieval manner to the new classicism in architecture and urbanism that we now loosely call the Renaissance and of which Brunelleschi is considered the seminal figure. By 1400 there emerged an interest in ‘humanitas’ which contrasted with the formalism of the medieval period. But initially this new interest in Roman antiquity was restricted to a few scholars, writers and philosophers; at first it did not influence the visual arts. Apparently it was in this period (1402-4) that Brunelleschi and his friend Donatello visited Rome to study the ancient Roman ruins. Donatello, like Brunelleschi, had received his training in a goldsmith's workshop, and had then worked in Ghiberti's studio. Although in previous decades the writers and philosophers had discussed the glories of ancient Rome, it seems that until Brunelleschi and Donatello made their journey, no-one had studied the physical fabric of these ruins in any great detail. They gained inspiration too from ancient Roman authors, especially Vitruvius whose De Architectura provided an intellectual framework for the standing structures still visible.


Brunelleschi's first architectural commission was the Ospedale degli Innocenti‎ (1419-ca.1445), or Foundling Hospital. Its long loggia would have been a rare sight in the tight and curving streets of Florence, not to mention its impressive arches, each about 8 m high. The building was dignified yet sober. There were no displays of fine marble and decorative inlays. [Klotz, Heinrich Klotz. "Filippo Brunelleschi: the Early Works and the Medieval Tradition". (translated by Hugh Keith) (London: Academy Editions, 1990). ] It was also the first building in Florence to make clear reference - in its columns and capitals - to classical antiquity.

Soon other commissions came, the most important of which were the designs for the dome of the Cathedral of Florence (1419-1436) and the Sagrestia Vecchia, or Old Sacristy of S. Lorenzo (1421-1440). The complex history of Santa Maria del Fiore need not be recounted except to state that by 1418 all that was left to finish was the dome. The problem was that when the building was designed in the previous century, no one had any idea about how such a dome was to be built, given that it was to be even larger than the Pantheon's dome in Rome and that no dome of that size had been built since antiquity. Because buttresses were forbidden by the city fathers, and clearly was impossible to obtain rafters for scaffolding long and strong enough (and in sufficient quantity) for the task, it was unclear how a dome of that size could be built, or just avoid collapse. It must be considered also that the stresses of compression were not clearly understood at the time, and the mortars used in the periods would only set after several days, keeping the strain on the scaffolding for a very long time [Ross King,"Brunelleschi's Dome, The Story of the great Cathedral of Florence", Penguin, 2001] . In 1419, the Arte della Lana, the wool merchant’s guild, held a competition to solve the problem. The two main competitors were Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, with Brunelleschi winning and receiving the commission. Brunelleschi was granted the 1st modern patent for his invention of a river transport vessel.

The dome, the lantern (built: 1436-ca.1450) and the exedrae (built: 1439-1445) would occupy most of Brunelleschi’s life. [ Howard Saalman. "Filippo Brunelleschi: The Cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore". (London: A. Zwemmer, 1980). ] Brunelleschi's success can be attributed to no small degree to his technical and mathematical genius. [Frank Prager. "Brunelleschi: Studies of his Technology and Inventions". (Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1970)] Thus he invented a new hoisting machine for raising the masonry needed for the dome, a task no doubt inspired by republication of the seminal work De Architectura by Vitruvius, which describes Roman machines used in the first century AD to build large structures such as the Pantheon and the Baths of Diocletian, structures still standing which he would have seen for himself. He also issued one of the first patents for the hoist in an attempt to prevent theft of his ideas.

Of the two churches that Brunelleschi designed, the Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze, (1419-1480s) and Santo Spirito di Firenze, (1441-1481), both of which are considered landmarks in Renaissance architecture, the latter is seen as conforming most closely to his ideas. Brunelleschi used more than 4 million bricks in the construction of the dome.

Other aspects of Brunelleschi's life

Brunelleschi's interests extended to mathematics and engineering and the study of ancient invented hydraulic machinery and elaborate clockwork, none of which survives. Brunelleschi also designed fortifications for Florence in its military struggles against Pisa and Siena. In 1424, Brunelleschi did work in Lastra a Signa, a village protecting the route to Pisa, and in 1431 he did work to the south, on the walls of the village of Staggia. The latter walls are still preserved, but whether these are specifically by Brunelleschi is uncertain.He also had a brief and disastrous cameo in the world of shipmaking, when, in 1427, he built a monstrous ship called "Il Badalone" to transport marble to Florence from Pisa up the Arno River. The ship sank on its first voyage, along with a sizable chunk of Brunelleschi's personal fortune.

Besides accomplishments in architecture, Brunelleschi is also credited with inventing one-point linear perspective which revolutionized painting and allowed for naturalistic styles to develop as the Renaissance digressed from the stylized figures of medieval art. In addition, he was somewhat involved in urban planning: he strategically positioned several of his buildings in relation to the nearby squares and streets for "maximum visibility". For example, demolitions in front of San Lorenzo were approved in 1433 in order to create a piazza facing the church. At Santo Spirito, he suggested that the façade be turned either towards the Arno so travelers would see it, or to the north, to face a large, prospective piazza.

Invention of linear perspective

The first known perspective picture was made by Brunelleschi in about 1415. His biographer, Antonio Manetti, described this famous experiment, in which Brunelleschi painted the Baptistery in Florence from the front gate of the unfinished cathedral.The painted panel was constructed with a hole at the vanishing point. It was observed from the unpainted side and the reflection of the image was viewed in a mirror through the hole, giving the illusion of depth. Unfortunately, the painted panel has since been lost. [ For reconstruction of Brunelleschi's demonstration by István Orosz see: [
] Soon after, many Italian artists used linear perspective in their paintings.

Theatrical machinery

Another of Brunelleschi’s activities was the designing of the machinery in churches for theatrical, religious performances that re-enacted Biblical miracle stories. Contrivances were created by which characters and angels were made to fly through the air in the midst of spectacular explosions of lights and fireworks. These events took place during state and ecclesiastical visits. Though it is not known for certain how many of these Brunelleschi designed, but it seems that at least one, for the church of S. Felice, is confirmed in the records. [Eugenio Battisti. Filippo Brunelleschi.(New York: Rizzoli, 1981)]

Principal works

The principal buildings and works designed by Brunelleschi or which included his involvement:
*Dome of the Cathedral of Florence, (1419-1436)
*Ospedale degli Innocenti,‎ (1419-ca.1445)
*Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze, (1419-1480s)
*Palazzo di Parte Guelfa, (1420s-1445)
*Sagrestia Vecchia, or Old Sacristy of S. Lorenzo, (1421-1440)
*Santa Maria degli Angeli: unfinished, (begun 1434)
*The lantern of the Florence Cathedral, (1436-ca.1450)
*The exedrae of the Florence Cathedral, (1439-1445)
*Santo Spirito di Firenze, (1441-1481)
*Pazzi Chapel, (1441-1460s)


Brunelleschi's body lies in the crypt of the Florence Cathedral.

ee also




*Argan, Giulio Carlo. "The Architecture of Brunelleschi and the Origins of Perspective Theory in the Fifteenth Century", J. Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 9 (1946), 96-121.
*Fanelli, Giovanni. "Brunelleschi’s Cupola: Past and Present of an Architectural Masterpiece". (Florence: Mandragora, 2004).
*Kemp, Martin. 'Science, Non-science and Nonsense: The Interpretation of Brunelleschi's Perspective,' "Art History" 1 (2) (1978), 134-161.
*Prager, F.D. Brunelleschi's Inventions and the 'Renewal of Roman Masonry Work', "Osiris" 9 (1950), 457-554.
*"The Renaissance from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo: the Representation of Architecture". Edited by Henry A. Millon and Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994)
*"What Brunelleschi Saw: Monument and Site at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence "by Marvin Trachtenberg.
*King, Ross. "Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture".

External links

* [ Free audio guide of Brunelleschi's Dome]

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