Filippo di ser Brunellesco di Lippo Lapi, better known now as Filippo Brunelleschi, was born in 1377 in Florence, Italy. He is best remembered as a major figure of the Renaissance for his work in engineering and architecture.
His early life is not well documented; however it is thought that Brunelleschi’s father, Brunellesco di Lippo, was a notary and his mother, Giuliana Spini, cared for the family. As a child Brunelleschi received math and literacy tuition in order for him to become a notary like his father. However, Brunelleschi was artistically minded from a young age, and when he was old enough he enrolled into the silk merchants guild and soon became a master goldsmith.
Brunelleschi transitioned from being a goldsmith to being an architect at some point in the early 1400s. There is little information that explains how Brunelleschi made the transition or where he received training. However, it is thought that his interest in architecture was grounded following his trip to Rome with the famous Renaissance artists and sculptor Donatello. While in Rome the pair studied the ancient ruins of the city and likely became inspired in their own art and work projects. This is important because it was a central component of Renaissance Humanism at the time.
In general, Renaissance Humanism was the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts with the goal of promoting new norms and values in society. These norms and views varied from those at the time because they focused less heavily on a religious worldview. Instead, Renaissance humanists used ancient texts to promote a worldview based on logic and reason. As such, by viewing and being inspired by ancient Roman ruins, Brunelleschi was participating in the humanist movement that was spreading throughout Renaissance Europe at the time.
Upon returning to Florence, Brunelleschi was commissioned to design the Founding Hospital. The building work took place between 1419 and 1445. When the Hospital was completed it was the first to make reference to classical antiquity - probably influenced from Brunelleschi’s visit to Rome, with impressive arches and a loggia, or covered external gallery. The loggia would have been unusual at the time and intriguing to the Florentine people. Other architectural commissions followed, including the Barbadori Chapel and the Ridolfi Chapel.
A new cathedral was being built in Florence at the same time as the Founding Hospital. Today it is known as the Florence Cathedral or ‘Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore’ which translates in English as ‘Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower’. The cathedral took a very long time to build due to its size. Work on the Florence Cathedral began in 1296 and finally completed in 1436. When the cathedral was first conceived it was designed to have a dome, however no one actually knew how to build a dome that would be large or strong enough to prevent collapse. To solve the problem, a competition was run to identify an able architect. Brunelleschi won the competition and therefore was commissioned to design the distinctive dome of the Florence Cathedral.
Brunelleschi successfully designed and created the dome thanks to his technical and mathematical genius. The final construction of the dome had eight sides and required over 4 million bricks. Although no designs or technical drawings of the dome survive it is thought that the dome was designed as a hemisphere so that it was able to support its own weight. During the design and building process, Brunelleschi developed a new method of hoisting masonry, which enabled the builders to build such a large dome. The hoist is likely to have been similar to things used during the Roman era in order to build the Pantheon in Rome. This is because historians believe that Brunelleschi was inspired by the ancient dome at the Pantheon in Rome.
In addition to being an accomplished architect, Brunelleschi was also a mathematical genius and discovered linear perspective which enabled Renaissance artists across Europe to more easily create realistic perspectives in their paintings. Perspective refers to the artistic technique of showing depth and dimension in a painting. Linear perspective was the technique of providing realistic depth to an image. It involved creating the illusion of depth by using angled lines and shadowing. Brunelleschi died in 1446, but many of his architectural works, including the dome of the Florence Cathedral, which is Brunelleschi’s most notable work and also took up most of his working life, still survive. Today he is remembered as an influential figure in the Renaissance for his contributions to art, architecture and engineering.