Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Few give credit to the architects of the Renaissance, but it is truly by their hands that the world took on a rebirth…a rebirth of its cities and towns, of the complete methodology of how building and engineering was approached—the perfect blending of the classical with the technological advances of the age.

Like the other men discussed in this series—his fellow founding fathers of the Renaissance—little is known about the childhood of Filippo Brunelleschi. Like the others, he was born in Florence. (What was in the water there and then, to make such geniuses, create such men; one can only wonder, at such innovative thunder.) Brunellesco di Lippo (a lawyer, though we may forgive him for that for conceiving such a genius) and Guiliana Spini gave birth to their second son in 1377. Eventually the middle child of three sons, his father wished for Filippo to follow him into the law, but Brunelleschi was drawn to artistic endeavors and there he would remain.

At fifteen, the young Filippo began his goldsmith apprenticeship in 1392 in the studio of Benincasa Lotti, as did Donatello. Together they found themselves in the slums of the Santa Croce quarter. His studies included mounting, embossing, and engraving as well as the science of motion, using wheels, gears, cogs, and weights. During those years, Brunelleschi met a man who would have a major influence on his education and thought processes. Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli was both merchant and medical doctor who’s predilections for science and mathematics found expression in the tutelage of the young artist—a sculptor from a young age—in the principles of geometry.

Though he earned the status of master in goldsmith in 1398, Brunelleschi lost a competition for the design of the new bronze doors for the city’s baptistery. Not only did he lose (pictured right, his defeated entry), he lost to a man he considered a lesser technician, Ghiberti. A legend contends Brunelleschi was so affronted, he stormed out of the city’s Palazzo della Signori—where the winner was announced—and abandoned Florence—and sculpture—altogether. With Donatello, Filippo spent the next ten years in Rome, learning of life and art and more.

According to the International Dictionary of Architects, Brunelleschi immersed himself in the study of antiquity, paying greatest attention to the triumphs of Roman engineering. The construction of the Pantheon, most particularly the dome, mesmerized him. His goal was not to learn to reproduce Roman architecture, but to enrich the architecture of his own time with the influence of classicism and to perfect his engineering skills.

Brunelleschi returned to Florence a changed man, a man who had been forever altered by his immersion in ancient architecture, a man who had rediscovered the principles of linear perspective using mirrors, a man who had found confidence in his own abilities. Coinciding with his return, Florence launched another competition: their magnificent cathedral required a new dome, a self-supporting dome, a structure no one had successful created to date. While Brunelleschi felt confident he could do it, the rulers of Florence were not so sure and required the former goldsmith to prove his architectural acumen, which he did with great aplomb.

Via a commission from one of the richest organizations in the city, the Silk Guild, Brunelleschi designed the Spedale deglia Innocenti, the Hospital of the Innocents. With his magic, the already beautiful city found itself decorated with a modern take on the ancients’ majesty. Nine columns of the Composite order are bound together by semi-circular arches. Glazed blue terra-cotta roundels with reliefs of babies—suggesting the building’s function—decorate each arches’ spandrel. While touted as a wonder of architecture, Brunelleschi coveted the grandest prize of all.

Filippo’s proposal, of using a double self-supporting shell and rib structure to support the monumental weight of the free standing dome, won him the cathedral competition. It was to become the greatest work of his life, one that would envelope the remainder of it, a life untethered, unglorified by wife or children and yet one revered for centuries. It was to become one of the greatest man-made creations of the world, visited by millions every year. By implementing techniques reminiscent of Archimedes, using counterweights and wheels for lifting, only a single ox was required to raise a load so heavy it would take at least six pair of the animals to accomplish the same task.

Construction on the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore…the dome of the church of Saint Mary of the Flowers…began in 1420. By the time of Brunelleschi’s death in 1446, it was, for the most, part complete. The finishing touch, the huge lantern that Filippo designed himself to hang from the center of the dome, was put in place after his death. It is in this church, amidst his grandest creation, that the remains of Filippo Brunelleschi—a man considered the main initiator of stylistic changes in Renaissance architecture—were laid to rest.

It is in this dome, the Duomo de Santa Maria di Fiora, that a one of the most horrendous of human acts of violence took place but a half century after its creation; it is in the midst of this horrific act that my trilogy—my current work in progress—will begin.

All artists of all mediums—literature, architecture, painting, and sculpture—have much to thank these men—these founding fathers of the Renaissance—for. It has been a great pleasure to dedicate these last few posts to their astounding contributions. As one who can trace my lineage back to Florence, most importantly, I thank them for their eternal inspiration.

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