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Brunelleschi: life, facts, curiosities and art

The Florentine father of the Renaissance

Architect, engineer, sculptor, mathematician and designer: Filippo Brunelleschi is today remembered as the father of linear perspective and the genius engineer behind the Florence Cathedral’s incredible dome. The Renaissance man was born in 1377 in Florence, though few records of his youth survive. Educated in both literature and mathematics, young Brunelleschi joined the artisan class to become a goldsmith. Along with his friend Donatello, Brunelleschi remains one of the most important figures in Florentine history and is considered one of the founding fathers of the Italian Renaissance.

Statue of Brunelleschi looking at the Dome
Statue of Brunelleschi looking at the Dome
Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac
Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac

Part of Brunelleschi's artistic inspiration stemmed from the study of ancient Roman ruins; however, a recent analysis of the architect’s work shows that he may have not known the original source of the pieces he observed, but was more inspired by local Romanesque architecture.

In 1401, Brunelleschi was one of seven participants in the very prestigious competition to choose the artist for the new set of bronze doors for Florence’s Baptistery (now located on the building’s north side). Seven gilded bronze panels depicting the assigned topic, the Sacrifice of Isaac, were produced. As is known, the ultimate winner was Lorenzo Ghiberti, who also went on to create a second set of doors known as the Gates of Paradise. Meanwhile, Brunelleschi decided to dedicate himself to architecture rather than sculpture.

In 1410, another competition brought Brunelleschi and Donatello head to head: the famed Crucifix. The Crucifix made by Donatello for the Church of Santa Croce was nicknamed by Brunelleschi “the farmer Crucifìx” for its apparent peasant-like depiction of Christ. Challenged to better Donatello’s rendering, Brunelleschi set out to create the same subject for the Church of Santa Maria Novella.

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Other works by Brunelleschi include the renowned loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in piazza Santissima Annunziata, the Old Sacristy in the Church of San Lorenzo, the Church of San Lorenzo itself (mostly his design) and the Church of Santo Spirito (his initial design was heavily altered after his death). The Pazzi Chapel in Santa Croce was completed later in Brunelleschi’s life. But of course, his most famous masterpiece is the Dome of the Florence Cathedral. The city’s cathedral had been under construction for over 100 years, yet architects had yet to understand how to build a dome over its very wide apse. For this, they held yet another competition in 1418: again, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were two main participants, but Brunelleschi won this time around. The project spanned most of Brunelleschi’s life (1420–1436) and remains the largest masonry dome in the world (its construction techniques are still disputed today). Throughout his lifetime, Brunelleschi invented hoisting machines, designed fortifications for Florence and other towns, created rigs for stage sets and designed a ship to transport marble to Florence from Pisa via the Arno River - and saw it sink on its first trip! 

Brunelleschi's Dome
Brunelleschi's Dome - Credit: mr.donb

Besides these many achievements, Brunelleschi is also considered the inventor of one-point linear perspective in drawing and painting, which revolutionized the representation of space and our perception of the world. Brunelleschi died on April 15, 1446. His tomb is found in the crypt of Florence’s Cathedral, where the epitaph reads, "How much Filippo was eminent in Daedalus’s art is visible in the magnificent dome of this very famous temple, and by the many machines invented by him with divine intellect. And for the excellent qualities of his soul and his singular virtue, his well deserving body was buried in this earth on May 15, 1446, by order of his grateful motherland.”  

What you'll find in Florence
Pazzi Chapel
Pazzi Chapel

Inside the Bargello Museum, you'll find Brunelleschi's bronze tile depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac, his competition panel for the Florence Baptistery doors. He's also the man behind the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo and the San Lorenzo Basilica. Inside the Palazzo di Parte Guelfa, you'll find his beautiful 'Meeting Hall.' Florence is also home to one of his unfinished works, a church called the Rotonda of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The Santo Spirito Basilica is also based off of Brunelleschi's design, as is the Pazzi Chapel in Santa Croce. Last but not least, Brunelleschi's most famed monument is found in the heart of Florence: the beautiful lantern, tribunes and dome of the Florence Cathedral.  

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