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Palazzo Medici Riccardi

Filippo’s lesson: Michelozzo and Alberti

Religious architecture in Florence after Brunelleschi

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Apart from Brunelleschi, no other fifteenth century architect’s work is comparable to the great works from previous centuries. Nonetheless, changes in religious life at this time, such as monks having individual cells for the first time, brought about some important architectural innovations. Traditional two floor dormitories were substituted by rows of cells facing the loggias of internal courtyards and altering the development of the cloisters. The very first examples of this type of Renaissance monastery can be found right here in Florence. The Brunelleschi-influenced architectural revolution did however meet with some resistance, particularly from more conservative quarters. Brunelleschi’s rival, Ghiberti, is often quoted as being against the new styles. Even Ghiberti ‘converted’ in the end though and designed buildings using perspective and new Humanistic spacing. As a student of Ghiberti, Michelozzo went on to work with Donatello and confirmed himself as a firm follower of Brunelleschi.

In order to be more easily accepted by the public, his buildings were designed to be more synthetic and simpler and the Brunelleschi style walls took on a more sober yet consistent solidity. Despite sometimes sobering his work, some of the most interesting designs by Michelozzo are those which stick more faithfully to Brunelleschi’s style, usually typified by a square shape that opens into a smaller square (see the Sacrestia Vecchia, Cappella Pazzi). This design is adopted by Michelozzo in the church in Trebbio, the Noviziato chapel in Santa Croce and in Palazzo Medici in Via Larga (today known as Via Cavour). During the fifteenth century the Medici family set about organising the northern part of the city to their advantage. Half way down Via Larga, on the crossroads that lead to the San Lorenzo church, they built their grand Palazzo Medici. The San Lorenzo area became the hub of the Medici family’s business and political empire.

The church of San Lorenzo was completely restructured by Brunelleschi and the convent was renovated and enlarged by Michelozzo. At the end of Via Larga in Piazza San Marco stood the convent of San Marco. This was a place not only of religious activity but was also a cultural centre for the Medici family. The ‘Universal Man’, Cosimo de Medici, felt strongly not only about politics but also about the arts, in fact he founded the first modern Western libraries here in the convent. Another library was built in Santissima Annuziata around 1450 based on a design by Michelozzo. Michelozzo’s development and expansion of the convent at San Marco is quite a work of art. The modern altars, the clean open spaces inside the vaulted cells and the library itself all bare witness to his skill and expertise. His personal interpretation of the Brunelleschi style marries well with the painting of Beato Angelico.

Michelozzo’s work is found again at the Loggia dello Spedale of San Paolo in Piazza Santa Maria Novella. He designed this Brunelleschi-style Loggia degli Innocenti. The facade of San Felice in Via Romana is also in the style of Michelozzo, with its pietraforte stone and regular geometric shapes.The other important architect to study in Florence is Leon Battista Alberti. He was the first to analyse the theoretical problem of bringing together both the artistic and the architectural in a universal Humanist context. Alberti’s works in Florence can be seen as an analysis of the Brunelleschian experience. See the great cupola of Santissima Annunziata, the façade of Palazzo Rucellai, the cappella of San Pancrazio and the open loggia of Loggia Rucellia. The façade of Santa Maria Novella (designed in 1440, completed 1470) provides a clear example of Alberti’s awareness of the history of the building and its place in the urban layout of the city.

Alberti didn’t ignore elements of the medieval façade, rather he included them in the new design and gave them a sense in the modern context. He was able to bring new meaning to the large medieval square before the church. In this sense, Alberti’s façade became an example for centuries of redesigning urban spaces. We can also recognise Brunelleschian influence in the architecture of the church of the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena delle Convertite. Giulio da Sangallo was the architect responsible who designed the long nave and vaulted side chapels.Finally, the architecture of Michelangelo himself contains elements of Brunelleschian style, particularly in the Sacrestia Nuova and the Biblioteca Laurenziana in San Lorenzo.

(Article by APT di Firenze)