The Grandest Italian Master

“If you build it, they will come.”  Yes, but first you’ve got to figure out how to build it.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi figured it out, all right. His unsurpassed work in the field of architecture not only led to the construction of the Duomo of Florence, Italy.  His mathematical and artistic genius also made possible much of the Italian Renaissance, which led the people of the world out of the Dark Ages and into a new era of learning and culture.

I’m no art history expert, but I will venture a guess that no one – not even Leonardo or Michelangelo – had more impact, or unleashed more creative genius resident in others, than Filippo Brunelleschi.

A buddy of fellow sculptor Donatello, Filippo lost a contest to design the bronze panels adorning the west doors of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.  Embittered by the loss, he fled to Rome with Donatello and studied the architecture of the grand old buildings, especially the Pantheon.

But construction of that Florentine cathedral, which had been going on for a hundred years, drew him back. It was time to build the dome, and nobody had the faintest idea of how it was to be accomplished. The dome was to be the widest and highest ever built.  But the plans forbade use of flying buttresses, such as those in the Gothic cathedrals of France, for support. The designer, Neridi Fioravanti, had died without telling anyone how to accomplish the task of vaulting the dome, 70 million pounds of Carrara marble standing 375 feet high.

Brunelleschi was named capomaestro of the project and swore on the Bible that he would adhere to Fioravanti’s vision.  His ideas and innovations included:

  • Building not one dome but two, with the inner and outer domes supporting each other;
  • Herringbone brick pattern on the dome surface, which made the bricks self-supporting until the mortar dried
  • The world’s first reverse gear, built into the hoist that lifted 1,700-pound stones hundreds of feet high. The reverse gear allowed the bucket to be lowered without turning the oxen around and re-hitching them,
  • The castello, the world’s  first sky-crane, built on the lower rim of the dome and used for positioning of the stones once they were lifted to that height;
  • A solid system of parapetti: platforms, scaffolds, lighted stairways and eating rooms for the workmen. Only three men died in the 16 years of construction work, an unheard-of safety record. He also had wine rather than water for the workmen; wine was safer than water back in those days.

Yet for all those innovations in architecture and construction, Brunelleschi’s greatest impact came in the world of art. He discovered the secret to linear perspective.  He did this by having people peer through a hole in the back of a painting he had made of the baptistery of San Giovanni, across the street from the cathedral. In front of the painting, they held a mirror that reflected the painting of the building; the real-life building itself was behind the mirror.

The people who participated in this experiment could not tell the painting apart from the real scene.

Brunelleschi thereby discovered, and quantified, that all lines receded toward a common point relative to the viewer of a painting. In Raphael’s “Betrothal of the Virgin,” for instance, all parallel lines of the painting intersect at a point on the horizon, which in the painting is the one that is farthest away.

What did all this mean?  Artists who learned this lesson could now accurately represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional painting canvas. Brunelleschi’s disciple Masaccio was the first to do so successfully. He launched a movement that eventually included Raphael, da Vinci, and Michelangelo.

The Duomo was finished in 1636. Years later, Michelangelo was commissioned to vault the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. He said he’d make it bigger and more beautiful than Brunelleschi’s.  Didn’t happen.  The diameter of the dome of St. Peter’s is 7.9 feet smaller than the Duomo’s diameter.

Ben fatto,Filippo Brunelleschi!

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