“Filippo Brunelleschi and the Spirit of Classicism”

Brunelleschi ~ Presumed depiction in “Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus,” Masaccio. Uploaded by Aislesalvotimeingh Created: June 24, 2015

By Jill Foster

With the rise of the Renaissance came the renewal of values with fresh inspiration sought for in classical antiquity, and the architecture of this time was no exception to this trend. By digging into the characteristics of classicism and its role in the Renaissance, this paper will argue that Filippo Brunelleschi’s architecture most clearly captures the Renaissance spirit of classicism through his marriage between ancient influenced proportions and 15th century Florentine values while using classical characteristics to create new spaces.

Before expanding on the ways that Brunelleschi best illustrates classicism, we must first outline the meaning of the term. According to William Fleming, classicism should be understood not only as the revival of antiquity but also as “a search for past examples to justify new practices” (211). For Fleming, it is not so much about reviving ancient ways as it is about surpassing them. By this definition classicism can be understood as drawing influence from ancient architecture, literature, and art and applying these elements to modern practices and values. This both redefines them and creates a new, and superior culture. That being said, in order to demonstrate how Brunelleschi best illustrates these features, there must first be an analysis of his revival of ancient architectural elements followed by how he repurposes and surpasses their features to marry antiquity with pre-existing values through innovation.

The Pantheon, Rome

In regards to classicism as the revival of antiquity, Brunelleschi had direct access to ancient buildings, having fled to Rome after losing the Baptistery door competition in 1402 (Turner 41). He diligently studied the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (Fleming 212), and once he returned to Florence he then used his knowledge of the Pantheon, the Parthenon, and other ancient monuments to work on projects such as the dome of the Duomo, the Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, all the while creating structures that had never been seen before (Fleming 192). The Roman Pantheon consists of a large dome, a porch, Corinthian grey granite columns with white marble capitals, a square patterned floor and a rotunda which has the exact same diameter as the height of its dome—it is believed to be the first building in which the interior was made to outshine the exterior (Cartwright “Pantheon”). The Greek Parthenon was created using a 4:9 ratio in which everything from the diameter of the columns in relation to the space between columns, the height of the building in relation to its width and the width of the inner cella in relation to its length are all consistent with this ratio—outlining a focus on perfectly straight symmetrical harmony (Cartwright “Parthenon”).

Parthenon, Athens (image by Steve Swayne)

It is fitting that Spiro Kostof categorizes classical ancient architecture quite simply as an initial measurement which is then used to determine all other proportions of the building (381) (a technique which from here on out will be referred to as rational proportions), and it is clear that Brunelleschi adopted these techniques in his buildings.

Brunelleschi’s churches, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, like the Parthenon, were built on this ancient technique of rational proportions in which the square formed beneath his domes in the intersection of the centre naves and transepts were repeatedly used throughout the spaces to determine the proportions of the buildings. This initial unit of measurement is repeated and can be clearly seen on the floors of the churches as he outlined each measurement with grey stone, whether for full units in the center nave or half units in the side aisles similar to the flooring seen in the Pantheon. Aside from rational proportions, Brunelleschi breaks away from the previous chaos and embellishment of the gothic style and revives the clarity and coherence of the ancient characteristics previously described.

San Lorenzo, Nave (showing proportional design)

These direct revivals of classical elements have been demonstrated in the Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito through the use of smooth, clean lines, perfectly symmetrical and parallel arches, evenly and consistently spaced columns, classical entablatures, Corinthian capitals and a peaceful two-toned colour pallet, in which grey represents the structural elements and white the non-structural features. In addition to what can be seen, while it was never actualized, Brunelleschi’s initial plan for Santo Spirito was to have each side chapel be seen from the outside in semicircles around the entire building as this was reminiscent of the ancient Roman temples Minerva Medica and San Vitale (Kostof 383). However, they were plastered over after Brunelleschi’s death, perhaps for differing too much from the other buildings already present in Florence. The exterior of both Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo being unfinished and plain is also reminiscent of the Pantheon’s focus on the perfection and rationality of its interior. Through these classical characteristics Brunelleschi replaced the mystery and ornamentation of the gothic style with direct reference to ancient simplicity, rationality and cohesion.

Santo Spirito, interior.

In addition to the blatant revival of antiquity and influence of classical styles, Brunelleschi also creates a marriage with the deeply embedded Christian values existing in Florence at this time; achieving Fleming’s definition of using past examples to justify new practices thus surpassing what came previously. Brunelleschi’s rational proportions pay honour to a rational God by illustrating perhaps the kind of perfect and simple spaces the divine ruler Himself would create. The ceilings also show this marriage through the Roman styled square tiling and Christian rosette imagery as seen in San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito. While the gothic style has also been viewed as marrying Christian themes with architecture, there is something altogether separate achieved by Brunelleschi’s classical approach through use of lavish and luxurious materials and highly ornamented detailing. The gothic style encourages the impression that by understanding beauty at its most extreme and expensive, one may perhaps better understand the perfect spiritual beauty and splendor of the divine realm. Though the structure is abstract and arbitrary, fitting whatever one can into a single space, this can be understood as architecture creating an emotional response to Christianity and paying honour to the regal king that is the Lord. Brunelleschi on the other hand, through his classical inspiration, plays with the intellectual experience of spirituality by having the perfectly executed rationality and simplicity of his building’s structure invoke an inherent feeling of calmness and cohesion that puts the mind at ease to better accommodate worship with this new understanding of a rational and intelligent God. While San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito also have additions of lavish gothic altarpieces, highly ornamented chapels, and 17th century paintings, these elements were not in Brunelleschi’s original plan and distract from the simplicity originally intended to showcase the precision and unity of classicism.

Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence)

Brunelleschi’s innovation did not end at the experience of rational Christianity through architecture. He also used classical influence to create something never seen or achieved before: the dome of the Duomo. While the dome illustrates and fits in best with the category of gothic architecture, it would not have been completed without Brunelleschi’s new found knowledge of ancient architecture and inspiration of the Pantheon’s dome. Fleming suggests that while the dome may be gothic in style it is Brunelleschi’s innovation of hiding the functional elements and his creation of a smooth silhouette that characterizes the new Renaissance style (192). The dome surpassed anything that had come before it, becoming iconic and essential to Florence’s civic identification. Brunelleschi, thus, with his classical influence established a symbol for a new Florence that valued innovation through rebirth.

Filippo Brunelleschi, cutaway of the Dome of Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore)

Following this trend of innovation and surpassing the old, not only did Brunelleschi’s work inspire the use of carefully pre-determined architectural plans and a break from viewing an architect as a craftsman rather than an artist, but he also deliberately used his ancient styled proportions and symmetry to invent a new type of one-point perspective in a three dimensional space (Kostof 405). Kostof, referring to Brunelleschi, states that “he wanted his buildings experienced as if they were projected on a perspective grid, as if the user were walking into a painted picture” (382). It was this innovation, according to Kostof, that set Brunelleschi’s work apart from classical architecture, which never had this concept of fixed perspectives in mind (382). Additionally, according to Alberti, when an architect understands linear perspective and mathematics and has knowledge of ancient sources he becomes the master of universal law and comes closer to the divine (Kostof 408). It becomes clear that Alberti himself believed Brunelleschi was such an architect because his dedication to him in On Painting suggests that the innovation of ancient times will not be lost when men such as Brunelleschi continue to reignite the spirit of classicism (35). While many classical spaces were inspired by Brunelleschi, such as Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library and Medici Sacristy, and while these are innovative, these spaces add to what Brunelleschi had already accomplished in his new Renaissance style, which paved the way for new innovations sparked by his resurgence of classicism.

Furthermore, Brunelleschi’s architecture best exhibits the spirit of classicism through not only his direct reference and use of classical techniques such as Corinthian capitals, ancient entablatures, two-toned colour pallet and rational proportions but also his breakthrough to meld the old with the new through innovation. Brunelleschi’s use of ancient architecture to create a new meaning of a rational and intelligent God, his creation of the dome and his invention of one-point perspective in three dimensional spaces are just a few ways that Brunelleschi not only revived the classical elements of the past but also surpassed already present works. In this way he helped pioneer the new Renaissance style and a new identity for Florence.


Work Cited

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. Trans. Cecil Grayson. London: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Cartwright, Mark. “Pantheon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., 12 Jun. 2013. Web. 01 July 2016. < http://www.ancient.eu/Pantheon/>.

Cartwright, Mark. “Parthenon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., 28 Oct. 2012. Web. 01 July 2016. < http://www.ancient.eu/Parthenon/>.

Fleming, William. “The Florentine Renaissance Style.” Arts and Ideas: 6th Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 191-215. Print.

Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

Turner, A. Richard. Renaissance Florence: The Invention of New Art. London: Lawrence King Publishing Limited, 1997. Print.