Topic Essay

“Brunelleschi is Magic”.  I came across those words painted on an inner wall of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore as I was climbing to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome.  It was such an incongruous image to see among the more mindless graffiti splattered across many of the stairwells leading up to the dome.  It literally stopped me in my tracks.  I tended to agree with that assessment, and was inspired to delve further into his legacy to see if it was actually an astute observation, or just the musings of an over-awed tourist on his way down from seeing the remarkable view.  The more I have discovered about Brunelleschi and his revolutionary achievements in art, architecture, optics and engineering, the more I’m inclined to agree with that assertion.  He was a seminal figure of the Italian Renaissance, perhaps not as well known or revered as Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, but no less of a towering genius.

Filippo di Ser Brunellesco di Lippo Lapi as he is formally known, was born in Florence in 1377, the son of a notary.  Filippo had shown a talent for mechanical abilities and became a master goldsmith in 1398.  After entering, and losing, a competition in 1401 to design a new set of bronze doors for the Baptistery, one of Florence’s most important buildings, Brunelleschi left for Rome.  While there, he began to study the ruins of antiquity- temples, arches, aqueducts, columns and other remnants of the ancient world. (King, 27) In particular, he spent a great deal of time pondering the Pantheon, whose dome, built in 27 BC was still intact and structurally sound.

Brunelleschi was paving the way for the Humanist study of classical Greece and Rome to influence the fields of architecture, painting and sculpture.  From these influences, Brunelleschi is credited with discovering  (or re-discovering) the laws of vanishing point perspective, which revolutionized the way in which artists could depict space within a painting, sculpture or drawing.  In this way, Brunelleschi brought the medieval form of painting into the modern, or Renaissance, world. That is, the flat, two dimensional paintings and other artworks of the middle ages became more lifelike, three dimensional and realistic.   It was interesting to see how this new, revolutionary way to depict perspective was exemplified in much of the contemporary art of his time.  I have chosen to include some salient images in this exhibition of this profound influence upon painting and art.

Perhaps as great a contribution was made to architecture when Brunelleschi was chosen to complete the dome on the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  In 1417, the cathedral was still without a dome, as its construction had posed a serious engineering challenge. (Macadam, p.52)  Brunelleschi was undaunted by the serious technical problems which would need to be resolved and took on the monumental work of constructing the dome.  From 1420 until 1436, Brunelleschi used his vast knowledge of mathematics and science, as well as his ingenuity and innovative skill- his “magic”-  in constructing what was the largest masonry dome built since antiquity.  To this day, architects still study the techniques that were developed and used by Brunelleschi, who built his remarkable dome with only the Pantheon as his guide.  Several of these designs and innovations are pictured in this exhibition.

Brunelleschi also created many other great works of art and  architecture in Florence, among them the Pazzi Chapel in Santa Croce, the Sacristy in San Lorenzo, the Foundling Hospital and Santo Sprito.  His work has influenced scores of artists, engineers and architects ever since.  His two biographers, Vasari and Manetti left written testaments to Brunelleschi’s genius, but his greatest legacy can be seen and appreciated every day in Florence.  The great dome of Santa Maria del Fiore is still structurally sound, despite six centuries of storms, lightning strikes, earthquakes and the ravages of time and tourists.  It still makes one stand in its shadow, mouth agape, and peer up in awe at its immense beauty. One cannot fail to appreciate the wonder and magic of its construction and the legacy of its architect, Filippo Brunelleschi.

Leon Battista Alberti, a contemporary of Brunelleschi, and also a Renaissance polymath, wrote the first general treatise on painting, De Pictura, in 1435 to codify the laws of perspective.  He dedicated the Latin version to Filippo Brunelleschi, and remarked:

“Who could be hard or envious enough to fail to praise Pippo (Filippo), the architect, on seeing there such a large structure, rising above the skies, ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people, built without the aid of centering or wooden scaffolding: an achievement, if I judge rightly, such as in these times it was unbelievable that it could be accomplished, and was perhaps never known or even thought of among the ancients”. (Alberti, 1435)

Works Cited:

King, R.  Brunelleschi’s Dome. Penguin.  2000
Macadam, A. Blue Guide Florence. Somerset Books. 2011
Alberti quote retrieved from:

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