One of the first great modern architects – perhaps most famous for the dome of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore – Brunelleschi’s fresh understanding of the laws of perspective revolutionised painting too
Filippo Brunelleschi had a wicked sense of humour and was one of the first great modern architects. He was also the only one to sit firmly in Florence in the early 15th century.
His first biographer, Antonio Manetti, who actually knew him, describes him as amiable, never known to boast, and never angry except when provoked by the ‘most insulting or disrespectful acts’. However, over a century after his death Vasari jazzed him up, and by 1568 Brunelleschi had developed a heart of irresistible vehemence alongside his beauty of intellect. Today adjectives cascade; he was beaky, balding, blunt, little, spiteful, cantankerous, volatile, competitive, suspicious and unkempt. Sporting this original artist’s temperament, he was prone to playing practical jokes, the most complex of which illustrate perfectly the dawn of humanism. I like to think Brunelleschi put at least one enemy in the madhouse because of his fresh understanding of the laws of perspective. He certainly convinced a fat carpenter he was somebody else. I imagine it like this: Brunelleschi got the man drunk, proceeded to slink off to the man’s house and rest in his bed; when the carpenter arrived home, Brunelleschi greeted him, pretending to be the carpenter, who went promptly mad with confusion.
The principles of perspective assured that the eye was an apparatus receiving information and that light performed in accordance with strict laws, it assured us there were natural laws, and by implication that figments of the imagination were just so, figments we would today consign to the subconscious. The common medieval view was that the eye projected, like a ray gun, as an extension of the body and mind. This is why Brunelleschi’s victim went mad; his head was full of goblins that were real, and Brunelleschi knew they didn’t exist. This allowed man to dominate the landscape and not have it populated any more by goblins, and spelt the end of the medieval.
Perspective revolutionised painting and upended architecture, but Brunelleschi’s consequent mature work is instantly recognisable as satisfyingly proportioned, oozing harmony in its rhythmic grey and white, and featuring mere dabs of iconography suddenly extraneous to the purpose at hand. The Chiesa di Santo Spirito (1434) and the Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419-27) exemplify calmness and rigour, even if, from the perspective of the newly discovered perspective, harmony is technically as elusive as it might be universal, simply because this harmony of nature, music, mathematics and man was of course easiest illustrated in just plan, section and elevation.
The Ospedale (foundling hospital) plan is especially elegant on a difficult site, the parallel composition united to the piazza by the perpendicular full-length loggia, while the section seems clearly predicated on healthy cross-ventilation. That quality of knitting order into context is also evident in the modest Palazzo di Parte Guelfa (1420), and even seems naggingly universal; the Pazzi Chapel (1429) could have been done last week and probably has been, in the dreams of architects the ilk of Eric Parry, Ed Jones or Demetri Porphyrios.
‘Brunelleschi put at least one enemy in the madhouse because of his fresh understanding of the laws of perspective’
Brunelleschi was a notary’s son but showed a talent for the ingenious rather than the bureaucratic. In early life he took to goldsmithing. His familiarity with clocks − and the principles of balance, jointing, connection and (by extension) bonding − would take him into a world beyond aesthetic harmony, and into architecture as engineering. He first tried sculpture but in an early outburst renounced it after losing a contest for the Florentine baptistery doors to Lorenzo Ghiberti. It was reasonable he was aggrieved, the commission set Ghiberti up for life.
Brunelleschi sold a farm and with his equally volatile friend Donatello ventured to Rome, where, on and off, he spent a decade. He measured the proportions of ancient columns and studied the ruined aqueducts. He researched the Pantheon, and contemplated techniques of Roman vaulting now lying in ruins, especially the question of centring, for timber of size was scarce and expensive. Accused of being a literal treasure hunter, the more lyrical truth seems ‘in clods of earth he saw veins of gold’, and in around 1416 he returned to Florence ready to put the ‘re’ in Renaissance.
Filippo di Ser Brunellesco
Trained as a sculptor and goldsmith
Developed the laws aZnd principles of perspective Designed the largest spanning brick dome in history for Florence Cathedral (from 1436)
Cupola, Santa Maria del Fiore (1417)
Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419-44)
Pazzi Chapel (1429-61)
Cupola, Florence Cathedral (from 1436)
At a meeting to award the construction of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, Brunelleschi challenged other architects to make an egg stand on end on a flat piece of marble. The artists duly tried, but with no success. Brunelleschi took the egg and cracked its bottom on the marble to make it stand upright, thus winning the commission
The problem for the Opera del Duomo was how to raise the cupola over the huge Santa Maria del Fiore and remain true to the grandiosity of its planning and the works already completed. Brunelleschi was now over 40; he died in 1446, almost as its lantern was finally consecrated. It is the largest spanning brick dome ever, with two skins and an ovoid section, constructed entirely without timber centring. Not only were there obvious physical challenges, but also political ones. Not trusting Brunelleschi, the Opera forced him to share the responsibility and fees with his old enemy Ghiberti. Brunelleschi took to his sick bed in pique, hoping to expose Ghiberti’s inadequacies. After each of many squabbles the Opera relented and he got his way.
In The Life of Brunelleschi, Manetti respectfully describes him thus: ‘During his life not a small stone or brick was placed which he did not wish to examine to see whether it was correct and if it was well-fired and cleaned: something which no care was expended upon afterward, since today attention is paid only to what appears to be economical, and stones from the river and rough bricks and all sorts of crudity are employed. The care he gave to the mortar was wonderful. He personally went to the brickyards regarding the stones and the baking, the sand and lime mixture, and whatever was required. He seemed to be the master of everything …’
So Brunelleschi’s clockmaking bore fruit. His creation of the cranes and scaffolding for the cupola inspired even Leonardo da Vinci. He invented a clutch on an ox lift so that the animal could always walk in the same rotation whether lifting or lowering material, he invented clasps and fixings and proved especially able designing the iron reinforced stone rings necessary to confine the outward forces of the cupola’s masonry without flying buttresses (which Brunelleschi found ugly, and politically Milanese) and presumably without complex modelling either.
So there we have it, the birth of the modern, that quest for harmony with science. Even if we can’t yet see the industrial revolution and the Faustian spirit bloom, Brunelleschi seems to anticipate it by three centuries. His story refutes any Spenglerian notion that our civilisation finds its source in the Gothic, and reasserts it with the Ancients. He becomes a pathfinder for the Enlightenment project. No wonder Brunelleschi was secretive; securing his fees and fearing copyists was one thing, but such thoughts were actually dangerous.
However, while dwelling on wider harmony, his death mask shows him unattractive, and in personality he was hardly diplomatic. Given his wealth and status this should hardly have precluded marriage, but women are conspicuously absent from his story, even though he adopted a son and heir. Perhaps he was simply not interested and women were an unwarranted intrusion to intellectual tidiness. However, Vasari is insistent that Brunelleschi and Donatello were inseparable, and in the Florentine Renaissance homosexuality was so rife and deemed sapping of the strength of the army that the authorities bade female Florentine prostitutes to wear bells on their heads, as if to wake men up.