BIO: Filippo Brunelleschi - First Known Architectural Engineer of the Renaissance
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BIO: Filippo Brunelleschi - First Known Architectural Engineer of the Renaissance

The Great Cathedral at Florence Italy, Santa Maria del Fiore, was begun in 1296, but was not completed until 1436. The reason for such a great delay was due to one major problem – at the time no one knew how to build a dome of such great scale as was intended to top the roof; the scale was simply too large for the dome to support itself by then-known means. The dome was meant to match the dome of the baptistery building, which was octagonal in shape, with no visible means of internal or external support. The problem was the size required of the Cathedral dome: it had to be 42 meters across and twice as high. A dome of that size had not been built since the Pantheon in 147 BC, and many considered it an impossible feat.

Officials (including the wealthy and powerful Medici family) in Florence held a contest to see if anyone could solve the problem of constructing the massive cupola. Filippo Brunelleschi, a sculptor, artist, and goldsmith by trade, whose interest in and study of the classical structures of the architecture of ancient Rome helped him understand the mathematical theory of the seemingly long-lost engineering techniques of antiquity; and it was this understanding that enabled him to approach the design with confidence. He had already built a number of Roman-style buildings for Medici family, and was awarded the “prize” of designing and constructing The Great Cupola for the Cathedral, from 1419 to 1434. He would become one the most influential Renaissance architects, and the first known architectural engineer.

Brunelleschi is also credited with the first known use of actual perspective in his architectural plans, in conveying the visual concept of the dimension of depth  in two-dimensional drawings. 

Brunelleschi’s plan for the cupola was brilliant, and much more complex and detailed than those of other architechtural works of the time. The cupola would be a “dome within a dome”, which would give it strength, fastened by ‘beams’ made of sandstone, between which Brunelleschi devised a herringbone pattern of brick masonry which allowed the dome to be built without further scaffolding or internal support. The dome simply “grew upon itself.”

 Moreover, in order to put the plan into practice, he was first obliged to design an ox-powered hoist with the ability to lift the brick and sandstone rings several hundred feet into the air. This was in itself an astonishing innovation at the time, with both a forward and backward gear, to allow materials to be both raised and lowered.                                                                                    

The Lantern atop the cupola is decorated with ancient Roman scroll work.             


This patterning of light and dark, as well as simpler but more elegant styles of décor became hallmarks of Brunelleschi’s style.  He became very prominent upon being awarded the cupola project, and was commissioned to build many more buildings in Florence. Among them are: the Piazza del Medici, the Ospedal degli Innocenti, Pazzi Chapel, and the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo. His work put a new face on the formerly medieval city of Florence.

Brunelleschi's dedication to classic architecture allowed Florence to enter into the Renaissance of human achievement, and his style became known as Italian Renaissance. He also was a great inspiration to a new generation of architects who became followers of his style and continued the tradition long after his death in 1446. The Great Cupola at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is considered his greatest work, and he rests beneath it to this day.

Even modern Florence shows the effects of enlightened Renaissance architects, as seen below:

©KatieK, April 18, 2009

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Comments (6)

I soooooo want to go back to Florence. It just brings joy to see those photos. Thanks for a really great article.

Why, thank you--I have yet to go once.

An excellent discussion of a great architect and his most iconic building.

Thank you for your kind comment

Great article; I agree the cuopola of the Duomo is a masterpiece of him.

Brunelleschi was a genius and you pay him a great tribute. I always will remember visiting Florence. That was some time ago now. Thank you Katiek.