Filippo Brunelleschi is best known for building the impressive Florentine Duomo Cathedral, which has become a local landmark and another pride of Italy. Unfortunately, not so much is known about how this cathedral was built, which cannot be said about the life of the most important architect, who left behind an invaluable contribution to the history of art.
He was born in Florence in 1377 and grew up in an environment that flourished both financially and culturally. The houses of Albizzi and Medici made the city an important banking center, and Dante's Divine Comedy showed what great things the Florentines are capable of. Such changes will ultimately lead to the birth of the Renaissance, where Brunelleschi will take pride of place, becoming the main founder of this style in architecture.
As a boy born into a noble family, Filippo received one of the best and most extensive educations covering literature and mathematics, which will play one of the main and important roles in his career as an architect and engineer, equipping him with the skills necessary to design seemingly impossible structures. …
However, instead of following in his father's footsteps, Filippo continued to be interested in art. In his youth, he was admitted to the Arte della Seta, Florence's most prestigious guild, representing silk merchants, goldsmiths and metalworkers. At twenty-two, he became a master of sculpture, working with gold and bronze.
In Florence, it was customary for large public projects to be advertised as competitions, and the person submitting the best project won the commission. So it was with the Baptistery in the very center of the city, opposite the cathedral. Its bronze panels depicted the relief of the sacrifice of Isaac, and numerous artists and artisans created their works for this grandiose project. Among them was Brunelleschi, as well as another young Florentine named Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Ghiberti was clearly an underdog in this competition, but when both men revealed their plans, the judges considered Lorenzo's proposal the best. Outraged by this insult, the proud Brunelleschi vowed never to create bronze sculptures again and left Florence.
Filippo remained in self-imposed exile for thirteen years, many of which he spent in Rome. Although the great center of an ancient civilization had fallen into decay by this time, Rome was still home to many of the classical ruins that Brunelleschi studied systematically. The influence of this period is evident in his later works.
It is believed that his friend and other prominent Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, may have been with Brunelleschi during his stay in Rome, helping and supporting Filippo in every possible way.
By visually dissecting buildings and outlining their structural design in his drawings, Brunelleschi was able to thoroughly study the classical style. Observing the correct geometric shapes used in ancient buildings, Filippo explored how two-dimensional shapes and structures can be used to create different perspectives, playing with depth and angle.
The system also allowed future artists to create works that accurately reflected reality, with figures appearing proportionally to each other depending on where they were placed.This is what created the impression of three-dimensionality, fluidity and reality in the Renaissance paintings, marking the transition from the art of the Middle Ages.
His exploration of perspective and proportion also inspired later Renaissance figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, whose scientific and artistic projects demonstrate the importance of Brunelleschi's early work.
Around 1517, Filippo returned to his hometown, where he was soon assigned to work on some of the most striking buildings in Florence, and almost all of them still survive in all their Renaissance grandeur.
The first of these major projects was the construction of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, an orphanage in the heart of the city. It marks an important change in architectural history as the first public building in Florence to directly reflect the structure and style of classical buildings. Its columns, arches and external loggia reflect the design that Brunelleschi studied in Rome.
In the decades that followed, he was involved in a number of projects, working alongside other craftsmen and engineers. Under the artistic gaze and skillful hand of Brunelleschi, the churches and chapels of Florence became much brighter and more interesting both visually and architecturally.
The art of erecting huge domes, which was perfected during the classical period, was lost over the following centuries, and therefore the Florentine builders were at a loss as to how they could decorate their magnificent cathedral. As a result, the city once again held a competition to select an architect for the construction of a large dome, and Brunelleschi and Ghiberti again took part in it.
Filippo worked on his project in absolute secrecy and refused to provide the judges with any details on how his dome would be built. He simply promised them, with complete confidence, a grand dome to surpass the modest plan proposed by his rival. The city decided to put its trust in Brunelleschi, and their trust has certainly paid off.
For the next fifteen years, he oversaw the construction of the dome of the cathedral, which marked the beginning of a new era in architecture. It was the first hemispherical dome built on this scale since Hagia Sophia was built under the Roman emperor Justinian I. Brunelleschi, thus, gave true meaning to the term "renaissance" or "revival".
Faced with engineering challenges and obstacles during construction, Filippo often resorted to inventing new tools or equipment. As a result, he was responsible for the development of a new type of boat that could more easily carry heavy marble slabs, a crane that also came to be used in drama performances with actors harnessed to simulate flight, as well as complex clocks, but unfortunately, all this has not survived. He also played an important role in military engineering, rebuilding the fortifications used by Florence during its constant conflict with neighboring states.
Filippo strictly guarded his privacy, usually working in secret and refusing to cooperate, so little is known about him and his intimate life. His interactions with the city and its rivals, however, indicate that the architect was a proud, hot-tempered and self-confident person who did not tolerate the mistakes or opinions of others. There is no evidence that Brunelleschi had a wife or children, although he adopted a young sculptor and architect as his sole heir. He was completely devoted to his work, and that dedication paid off in the legacy he left behind.
Brunelleschi is widely regarded as the father of Renaissance architecture, and the Cathedral in Florence still stands today as a monument to his creativity, hard work and technical prowess.
Read also about what it was like "Divine art of piety and asceticism" in Byzantium and why it is still considered an invaluable contribution to world culture and history.
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