About Filippo Brunelleschi

Born in a wealthy family, Philippo Brunelleschi was trained as a goldsmith, clock-maker, and sculptor. He joined the silk merchants’ guild, which also included jewelers and metal craftsmen, where he was designated master goldsmith around the turn of the century.

In 1401 he participated in the sculpture contest for the commission to make the bronze reliefs of Florence Baptistery’s doors, depicting the theme “The sacrifice of Isaac”. He got the second place right after Lorenzo Ghiberti. This defeat supposedly meant the end of his ambition to become a sculptor, and he started focusing instead on architecture. Brunelleschi then traveled to Rome (possibly with his friend Donatello) to study Classical Architecture remains, being one of the first artists to do so and becoming a pioneer of the Renaissance.

Back in Florence, Brunelleschi was commissioned in 1404 with his first architectural job: making the Ospedale Degli Innocenti  (Hospital of the Innocents), where he first rejected the mainstream Gothic style in favor of a simpler, less ornate style inspired by Tuscan Romanesque and classical architecture. Soon after he began the Hospital, he joined a public contest to built a dome for Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, which by that moment had been roofless for almost a century. The problem was that the already built base required a dome bigger than any other in the world, and the city couldn’t afford any project that would require a big and long-lasting scaffolding system. Brunelleschi, along with many others (including Ghiberti), submitted a model. This time he was the chosen one thanks to a design that could be constructed without the traditional armature: a double dome system where bricks are placed in patterns that allow it to be self-supported. However, his bitter character and hard manners made the city authorities reluctant to put him in charge, and so they only agreed after naming Ghiberti, who was at the peak of his career, as co-responsible for the works, something that really infuriated him. Brunelleschi actively conspired against Ghiberti until he managed to become the sole head of the project. The construction of the dome (initiated in 1420) was full of eventualities, like strikes, mismanagement of the working labor and even the brief imprisonment of Brunelleschi himself under charges of not been part of the guild of masters of stone, practicing his trade illegally. Nonetheless, the job was completed in 1434, whereupon he won another contest against Ghiberti to build the cathedral’s lantern (a structure set on top of the dome to help illuminate the interior). Sadly, he passed away on April 15, 1446, been buried in the very own Santa Maria del Fiore. The works began just a couple of months after his death.

The machines that Brunelleschi invented for the construction of the dome, its lantern and his scheme for the construction itself represent his greatest feats of technological ingenuity. It was Brunelleschi who worked out a successful method to build the dome and developed the revolutionary machinery necessary to carry it out. Some of the crane models he made to solve the engineering challenges the dome’s construction brought were still in use until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

Brunelleschi made other important Florentian buildings like Barbadori’s Chapell, the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the Old Sacristy, Pazzi’s Chapell, Bardi Palace, the rotunda of Santa Maria Degli Angeli, and the Basilica of Santo Spirito. He also worked in a lot of other Tuscan towns.

During the time of the dome’s construction, Brunelleschi also developed linear perspective, a revolutionary way to depict tridimensional objects in 2D, been probably his most relevant contribution to the arts. He also invented fluvial boats to transport marble across the river Arno and even portable clockworks.