Filippo Brunelleschi and the City

The city of Florence from the Duomo. From
Filippo Brunelleschi was born in Florence in 1377. We know nothing of his life before 1398, when, at the age of 21, he was admitted as a goldsmith to the Silk Guild. Little is known again until about 1418, the date of the competition for the model of the dome for the Cathedral. The recorded information, together with evidence derived from his works, has led to the recognition of Brunelleschi as a man of ¨universal¨genius. According to Manetti, his biographer, he was än architect, mathematician and excellent geometer, as well as a sculptor and painter.¨ He has invented various machines for constructing buildings (he utilized his goldsmith´s knowledge of clocks and bells which functioned with multiple gears moved by counterweights); he was a military, naval and hydraulic engineer; he made projects for theatrical performances and musical instruments; he studied Dante´s Divine Comedy, and achieved a deep understanding of its structure and significance.

Philippo Brunelleschi. Image from

The earliest works by Brunelleschi known to us are goldsmith work and sculpture: parts of the silver altar in the Cathedral of Pistoia; the group representing thea angel Gabriel and the Virgin of the Annunciation for the Porta della Mandorla on the Cathedral of Florence; and the relief panel of 1401. These works already reveal his personal break away from the elegant, rhythmic and self-contained equilibrium of Gothic sculpture in favor of a more dynamic conception in which forms creates its own space. Despite Brunelleschi´s evident mastery of sculpture, sculpture was either excluded entirely from his architecture of strictly subordinated to it. At the same time, his sculptural sense is clearly manifested in the strength and importance of his ribs, cornices, capitals, etc.
In the years 1420 to 1446, Brunelleschi single-handedly created a new architecture, proceeding from his experience of Classical, Romanesque and Gothic architecture and utilizing his own personal solution of the problem of perspective, conceived as knowledge ¨per comparatione¨ (Alberti). His achievement appears all the greater if we consider that very few of the buildings which he planned and began were actually brought to an advanced state of construction of completed before his death. His work marked a decisive moment in the history of architecture and urban design in general, and in the relationship between the artist and the community.
Brunelleschi´s works were conceived for an urban context. Indeed, the outer perimeters of the city had been defined, and a dome for the Cathedral has been foreseen by Arnolfo. Brunelleschi´s reconstructions of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito could be interpreted as ¨modern¨ versions of medieval ecclesiastical buildings and Piazza Santissima Annunziata as a cloister transformed into a piazza. But his structures, considered both as units and in their reciprocal relationships, created a new articulation of medieval Florence based on rational, geometric order. Moreover, this order organized not only specific areas within the city, but also the city as a while with respect to its surrounding territory.
Brunelleschi conceived the city as a new rational entity in which everything, even the past, took a new meaning. A new kind of city-planning became possible: articulated, yet unified and ordered according to a rationally planned hierarchy, and logical in every part. Far from ignoring the medieval city, in fact, taking it as his starting point, Brunelleschi re-cast the entire preceding tradition in terms of a new vision which inverted and profoundly changed its significance. In this sense, Brunelleschi´s project for a piazza facing the river for Santo Spirito was an example; the church was no longer seen as the central point in the surrounding urban disorder, but as the focus of a radical reorganization of the quarter within the total urban context. In the medieval town the river, for example, had only a functional role, which concerned separate and independent stretches of it. Instead, Brunelleschi thought of the river as a major structural axis. It is really due to the work of Brunelleschi that Florence, although it is still basically medieval, has been considered a Renaissance city ever since the 15th century, when the humanists looked on it as an example of the ideal city.

Text slightly adapted from the book Brunelleschi, by Giovanni Fanelli. Special edition for Becocci Editore. 1988. Florence.


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