Tag Archive: Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi is probably not among the names most people associate with the Renaissance, but he should be. He was a true genius and one of the greatest minds around Florence in a time when there were many geniuses. Without his contributions, the Renaissance would have been very different. Brunelleschi (pronounced Bru-nel-less-ski) lived from 1387-1446. He was trained as a goldsmith and entered the famous competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti to create the doors on the Florence baptistry (read that story here). Ghiberti won the commission, possibly because Brunelleschi refused to share the commission. Either way, Brunelleschi went on to change the course of the artistic renaissance in Florence in not one but two enormous ways. Later, he would successfully design and oversee the completion of the enormous red dome on the Florence Cathedral, a structural achievement that was way ahead of it’s time and changed the course of architecture. It could be argued that his greatest achievement was his discovery, or re-discovery, of linear perspective.

Among the cultures of the ancient world, only the Greeks and the Romans had spacial depth in art figured out. That is to say, they understood how to create an image with convincing depth and a painted or sculpted illusion of 3 dimensional space. We know this because we can see it today in works like the Column of Trajan, or the painted villas of Pompeii. During the middle ages, these artistic sensibilities were lost. More accurately, the entire world point of view changed in the middle ages to reflect the church. No longer were artists interested in pursuing perfect depictions of the human body or of the world around them. After 1000 years, artists in Florence were aware that they didn’t know how to create convincing depth in a painting, and they were working hard to develop a system of perspective. You can clearly see this in the work of late medieval and early Renaissance painters. Their pictures have a flat look to them. Just look at this image of Christ being led to his crucifixion. The city in the background appears very small because the figures far off in the distance are the same size as those in the foreground. Also, the parallel lines of the walls do not recede into the distance. It’s an image and a perfect example of the problem facing painters around 1400. How do you make a picture realistic? It seems so simple to us now, but it was a huge problem that took centuries to solve until Filippo Brunelleschi figured it out.

Brunelleschi observed that with a fixed single point of view, parallel lines appear to converge at a single point in the distance. Brunelleschi applied a single vanishing point to a canvas, and discovered a method for calculating depth. In a famous noted experiment, Brunelleschi used mirrors to sketch the Florence baptistry in perfect perspective. He was able to mathematically calculate the scale of objects within a painting in order to make them appear realistic. It was a monumental discovery, and soon artists were using Brunelleschi’s method of perspective to astonishing affects in their paintings. Brunelleschi’s original perspective studies are long gone, but he directly influenced many others. The first known painting to show true linear perspective is Masaccio’sThe Holy Trinity”. In the fresco, a false room has been created on the flat wall of the church using perspective to simulate the architecture.


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The Baptistry in Florence, more officially called the Baptistery of St. John, stands in the plaza directly in front of the Florence Duomo and is much older. Workers began building it around the year 1050, and until the late 1800s every Catholic in Florence was baptized here. For Florentines in the Renaissance it had been around so long and was such an important structure that many believed it to be a converted temple originally built by ancient Romans. It’s a special building because it holds so much history and was the site of a major commission in the early Renaissance. The result of this commission forever changed the art world.

The years in between 1329 and 1400 were rough. A little thing called the Black Death swept across Europe. The bubonic plague is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population, as many as 75 million people. Florence went from 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. It left Europe in political and economic chaos and took a century to recover from. By 1400, the city was finally ready for a new commission, and the call went out for entries. The doors on the south end of the baptistery had been completed by Andrea Pisano in 1329 (before the plague), and are still seen today. The powers that be wanted to install a new set of impressive gilded bronze doors on the north end of the baptistery. Artists had to submit a bronze panel of “Abraham Sacrificing Isaac” to win the cities biggest prize. 2 artists submitted panels that clearly stood out among all the rest. Both sculptors were in their early 20s at the time: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Here’s Brunelleschi’s panel, and here’s an explaination  of it:

“Brunelleschi’s work is by far the more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion., like nothing that had ever been created before. His Abraham is a tall, powerful figure, grasping a frail Isaac along the jawline with his left hand, the father’s thumb under the boy’s chin to better expose the neck, or perhaps to cut off the flow of oxygen so that his son won’t feel the fatal blow. In his right hand, Abraham holds the knife, driving the blade forward with such forceful commitment that the angel sweeping down from the sky must grab his wrist to stop the sacrifice. The story literally bursts out from the panel, breaking the boundaries of the Gothic quatrefoil within which it is supposed to be contained, just as Brunelleschi burst through the boundaries of the Gothic art with his creation.”  -(Robert Paul Walker from his book “The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance”)

Here’s Ghiberti’s panel:

“Ghiberti’s panel is more elegant and more beautiful. His Isaac is a perfectly modeled classical nude while his Abraham is a smaller, more graceful man, his left arm wrapped around the boy’s shoulders while his right hand holds the knife hovering in the air, as if he has not yet made the decision to strike. The angel floats above them, open palm over Abraham’s well-coifed, curly hair, no need to grab the father’s arm but able instead to stop him with a word. The whole scene plays out against an exquisitely cascading mountainside, all neatly contained within its quatrefoil boundary. Whereas Brunelleschi’s piece demonstrates an artist aching to forge a new and more powerful image of reality, Ghiberti’s demonstrates masterful perfection of the art,a s remarkable in its own way for the time and place and age of the artist as is the work of his rival.” -Paul Robert Walker

Both artists had turned in extraordinary panels, and the committee couldn’t decide which was best. The story is that they called both artists together and asked if they might be willing to work in tandem on the doors. Brunelleschi was the one to refuse, saying that he would gladly concede the project to Ghiberti rather than work with anything less than full creative control. The project went to Lorenzo Ghiberti. It was a huge victory for him and a humiliating defeat for Brunelleschi, who was left with nothing after so much work and anticipation. It was the aftermath of this competition that got the creative snowball rolling in Florence. Ghiberti would spend decades completing not just the north doors (seen here to the left), but a second set of east baptistry doors, a work so impressive that Michelangelo studied them and dubbed them, “the gates of paradise”. It was Brunelleschi however, who would make the bigger leap forward, inventing a system for perspective and revolutionizing painting while completing one of the most daunting and difficult architectural projects in the world: the building of the giant red dome on top of the Duomo across from the baptistry.  I will have more on these two amazing artists in later posts.  Enjoy.

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The Italian Renaissance didn’t come about by accident, and it’s also no coincidence that Florence was at the center. Today, the city of Florence remains a monument to the Renaissance and all the great artists and thinkers that city produced. If you look closely, you can see the crest of the Medici Family sculpted into the sides of buildings all over Florence, it’s telltale mark a shield with circles on it. The story goes that it represents the military might and resolve of the family with a dented shield, but really it shows coins. The Medici were a family of wealthy bankers who became politicians and ruled Florence from the late 1300’s to the 1730’s, with more than a few hiccups in there. It’s a complicated piece of history that proves essential in understanding all the great things that came out of Florence.

Back then there was no unified Italy as there is today, only a series of city states. The Medici became the ruling family of Tuscany with Florence as the capitol, and set out to make their kingdom great. The cultural grasp of the middle ages was still very much intact. It was the Medici who relaxed the strict rules of the church and turned Florence into a place where humanistic and artistic ideas could flourish. They were great patrons of the arts, so it’s not surprising that Florence became a place where art and culture exploded after a thousand year hiatus. Over their reign, they changed the face of Europe, produced the greatest artist and thinkers, and became so rich and powerful that there were 4 Medici popes. Their story is a complex tale of power, greed, wars and conflicts.

I highly recommend that you watch this series on the Medici. It’s from 2004 and is by far the best film on the Medici, plus it does a fantastic job incorporating the work of significant artists, architects and thinkers. It’s long (4 parts at 1 hour each) but it should be considered essential viewing before going to Florence. This first segment follows the rise of Cosimo De’Medici and the beginning of the Renaissance, including the building of the giant red dome on the Church of Santa Maria Del Fiore by Brunelleschi, the biggest Dome since the Pantheon in ancient Rome . (We’ll get to climb it, so learning about it’s construction is key.) The film also discusses the sculptor Donatello and his shocking sculpture of “David”, which we’ll talk about in a later post.

Please take the time to watch it- Enjoy.

The Pantheon

In the center of old Rome, only a few blocks from the convent where we’ll be staying, stands the world’s greatest ancient building. The Pantheon, or “temple to all the gods”, has been here since the year 126 when an original structure was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian after a fire. It still looks nearly exactly as it did in all it’s glory, one of the only buildings in Rome to have that distinction. Today you can just wander in, and instantly you are back in time. Most people don’t even realize the very marble beneath their feet is original. Much of ancient Rome would also look so grand had it been designated a Catholic church as the Pantheon was in the  7th century. That saved the Pantheon from becoming a quarry, as much of Rome’s marble (especially in places like the Circus Maximus and Coliseum) was removed from what was then seen as a ruin and used in the building of churches such as St. Peters.

Aside from being nearly perfectly preserved, the Pantheon is one of Rome’s greatest architectural achievements and a tremendously influential building in throughout history. It’s shape has been studied and copied for centuries, the most important being Brunelleschi’s Dome (the big red one) in Florence. You enter the Pantheon through a series of enormous columns made from solid pieces of Egyptian granite, carved and transported across the sea to be installed here. Inside the enormous bronze doors is the vast interior. The space is exactly as tall as it is wide (142 feet), with niches carved out on all sides for statues of the gods. Today, mass is held in the Pantheon and the statues of the gods are gone, replaced by the graves of famous Italians, including Italian king Victor Emmanuel and the artist Raphael. The first thing you notice inside this amazing building is the oculus, a circular opening at the top that allows light (as well as rain and pigeons) an entrance point. Abeam of sunlight moves throughout the day, illuminating the inside. Around the oculus are a series of sunken panels called coffers. Originally, these were painted and held bronze elements. They create a harmonious decoration on the ceiling, but more importantly, allowed the architects to remove excess weight without compromising structural integrity. The Pantheon is a great example of Rome’s greatest invention concrete. Earlier structures, like the Egyptian pyramids and the temples of Ancient Greece were made with solid stone. Poured concrete allowed the Romans to open up their structures and build lavish designs that would have been impossible otherwise. Their use of concrete was so sophisticated by the time the Pantheon was built, that they were able to vary its mixture, using a sturdy mixture at the base and an increasingly lighter concrete at the top. Historians still are trying to figure out how exactly the Pantheon was built. The outside offers clues about the process of pouring the concrete and possibly an abandoned earlier design.

Here’s a great clip from National Geographic about the Pantheon- check it out.