Most people associate Brunelleschi with his dome for Florence’s cathedral, perhaps the most iconic structure of the Renaissance. Not many realize that, with just a handful of other projects, he changed the course of Western architecture forever.
Brunelleschi’s buildings are all fairly small and devoid of flourishes or tricks – and therein lies their appeal. Simple and serene, they achieve harmony with a minimum of material and almost no color. Every element seems inevitable and exactly as it should be. This purity keeps them fresh, even after 600 years.
Hospital of the Innocents
Commissioned in 1419, Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) is generally considered the first building of the Renaissance. The façade may not strike contemporary visitors as remarkable on first glance, but that’s because everyone else copied it. When Brunelleschi designed this building, it was revolutionary – and not just because of its classical columns and rounded arches. Simple proportions gave a sense of order and rationality, as did the lack of ornamentation. Brunelleschi mixed classical elements in a new way, for instance adding a small dome in each bay of the loggia.
Brunelleschi pioneered the use of dark grey stone to articulate architectural elements. He used the dark local pietra serena (“serene stone”) to contrast with expanses of pure white space. Beyond visual interest, the dark lines also guide the eye to focus on simple shapes and proportions. Stripping away any excess ornamentation, Brunelleschi revealed and celebrated the membratura, or frame of the building.
Brunelleschi’s design made such an impact that future buildings in the piazza deliberately echoed the hospital. Both Sangallo’s loggia across the way and the Basilica di Santissima Annunziata’s portico are homages to Brunelleschi; together they make the Piazza di Santissima Annunziata one of the preeminent outdoor spaces of the early Renaissance.
The Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo
While working on the Ospedale, Brunelleschi also began an extensive renovation of the Church of San Lorenzo. The formidable Medicis sponsored a transformation of the sacristy into a family mausoleum. The Old Sacristy is just one room – and a fairly austere one at that – but its impact on Western architecture was monumental.
Brunelleschi’s design epitomizes “sacred geometry,” the Renaissance idea that geometric principles could reveal the mysteries of creation. Harmony comes from the interplay between circles and squares, divine and human, infinite and structured.
Every bit of the minimal ornamentation enhances this relationship. Such simplicity is harder than it looks: each element must be absolutely perfect, because every flaw stands out. For the all-important transition between the celestial dome and the cube underneath, Brunelleschi used pendentive curves (evoking the ancient Christian Hagia Sophia) and accented them with round sculptural reliefs by Donatello. The rim of the dome never quite touches the rest of the frame, so it appears to float. Brunelleschi’s complete mastery of form, down to every detail, is one of his hallmarks. Architects and historians can recognize his touch in seemingly minor elements such as the pilasters (square columns embedded in the wall).
As an aside, the Pazzi Chapel at Santa Croce is clearly modeled on the Old Sacristy, and for most visitors the two spaces might be nearly interchangeable. Brunelleschi is credited with the chapel’s design, although modern scholars have questioned his role. Regardless of provenance, it remains one of the more sublime spaces of the Renaissance, particularly the combination of somber pietra serena with the vivid blue of Luca della Robbia’s ceramic accents.
Church of San Lorenzo
Work on the main body of the San Lorenzo church was hampered by inadequate funding and complications adapting Brunelleschi’s vision to a pre-existing structure. Eventually the Medicis stepped in, and their deep pockets revived construction. At San Lorenzo, Brunelleschi expanded his innovations from the Old Sacristy to the more complex cross-shaped floor plan of a basilica. Instead of a single cube topped by a hemisphere, he used a square base unit to govern both horizontal and vertical dimensions. For example, the nave’s height is twice its width, which is the same as the height of the arches, and so on. The consistent proportions create a sense of harmony.
Unfortunately, only the transept chapels were completed before Brunelleschi’s death in 1446, and the next half-century would see his designs modified in the rest of the building. The façade was never finished, even after Michelangelo designed a new version. Today it remains a wall of rough bricks.
Brunelleschi’s work dominated architecture for the next century. His apprentices designed the severely elegant palazzi throughout Florence, and his influence began to stretch across the continent.
For more on Florence, including Brunelleschi’s work, see our post on the Stendhal Syndrome.