The Pursuit of Perfection: the Reintroduction of Ancient Roman Principles to Architecture by Renaissance Architects Leon Battista Alberti and Fillipo Brunelleschi Dustan Byler Professor Rachel Mundie Art History II October 31, 2011 Fillipo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti were two of the most important and famous 15th century architects in Italy. The facade of the Basilica San’Andrea (Figure 1) by Alberti and the Florence Cathedral Dome (Figure 2) by Brunelleschi are their respective crowning achievements.
A sense of mathematical proportion; drawn from researching ancient Greek and Roman buildings and ruins1, contrasts their work with the current but fading Gothic style of architecture that was in mode at the turn of the century. The amount of influence on Renaissance architecture the two architects wielded is quite impressive. Brunelleschi was a pioneer in many aspects; and Alberti, his apprentice, followed in his footsteps. Both of them were well aware of the timelessness of Roman architectural principles and used them to great effect while also improving them.
Both of the architects also studied painting and it showed in their work. Brunelleschi was one of the first artists to paint in vanishing linear perspective. This style of painting makes a two dimensional image appear to be three dimensional. 2 His paintings inspired many of his contemporaries, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Alberti. None of his paintings or perspective drawings survives today. Alberti was a very well rounded individual. He wrote books on architecture and painting and studied sculpture.
De re aedificatoria, his treatise on architecture, was the eminent reference book for architects for many years. His careful study of these arts, his knowledge of the ancient Roman principles of architecture and the tutelage of Brunelleschi gave him the knowledge to put it all together and add his own touch to Basilica San’Andrea (Figure 1). The interior of Basilica San’Andrea (Figure 3), while very impressive architecturally, effects a different reaction than the dizzying heights and ornate decorations of a gothic structure.
The design is supremely balanced; using proportions identical to ancient Etruscan temples. 3 The simple proportions of the repetitious squares simplify the interior without detracting from it, allowing the arches and other shapes to shine through. When Brunelleschi was first approached to build the Florence Cathedral Dome (Figure 2), he had to compete with several other architects. His design that he proposed was inspired by the Roman use of concrete in the dome of the Pantheon (Figure 4). No one thought it could be replicated and the task of building a self-supporting dome of such a span was thought impossible.
Because the town council of Florence had expressly forbid the use of buttresses he had to come up with a solution that was completely new. He opted to use a style of bricklaying called opus spicatum (Figure 5), a pattern used by the Romans in antiquity. The design allowed forces to be distributed horizontally, a trait bad for building walls but perfect for his application. The dome had a double shell of masonry to support the enormous structural weight necessary to cover the span. The eight ribs on the exterior of the dome solved the problem of not being able to use buttresses.
The revolutionary concept had never been conceived before and was viewed with suspicion until the very last brick was laid. It is still the largest masonry dome in existence. The facade of the Basilica San’Andrea (Figure 1) is a prime example of the development of the principles pioneered by Brunelleschi. The facade uses several elements of classic roman style not seen since antiquity. “S. Andrea marks a decisive turn from the ‘vernacular’ to the ‘Latin’. This does not mean that Alberti merely imitated some classical model, but that he reinterpreted the classical past in light of contemporary needs. 4 The facade is a direct reinterpretation of either the ancient Roman Arch of Titus (Figure 6) or the Arch of Trajan (Figure 7). In addition three distinctive elements Alberti uses in his neoclassical facade: a pediment, columns of the colossal order, and an additional arch.
The pediment is a revision the pediment of the Pantheon (Figure 4). The colossal order was a blending of the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian orders of Roman columns on a grandiose scale. The additional arch is on top of the facade and recessed and neatly solves the problem of the transition from the high vaulted ceiling inside the hurch. In addition, the interior ceiling of the interior is painted to look like it is coffered like the ceiling of the main arch. There is a close relationship between the interior and exterior of the building, which results in the interior being seen as an extension of the triumphal arch motif. 5 None of this architecture would have been possible without the inspiration of the ancient Romans. The Florence Cathedral Dome (Figure 2), never would have happened if Brunelleschi had not been able to use knowledge he acquired while studying the geometry of the Pantheon. The design of the Basilica San’Andrea (Figure 1) is also inherently dependent on ancient Roman principles. The ability of these men to look to the past for inspiration and utilize it advanced their field considerably and both of them left a very distinct stamp on history.
Bibliography Millon Henry A. , Lampugnami, Vittorio Magnago, The Renaissance from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo, Milan: RCS Libri & Grandi Opere S. p. A, 1994 “Filippo Brunelleschi. “Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 2011 Hartoonian, Gevork, “The limelight of the House-Machine”, Journal of Architecture 6. , 2001 Borsi, Franco, Leon Battista Alberti, N. Y. , Harper & Row, 1977 Eck, Caroline Van,”Enduring principles of architecture in Alberti’s On the Art of Building’: how did Alberti set out to formulate them?. ” Journal of Architecture 4, no. 2 (Summer 1999 1999): 119-127 1. Leon Battista Alberti, Basilica Sant’ Andrea, 1462, Mantua, Italy 2. Fillipo Brunelleschi, Florence Cathedral Dome, 1436, Florence, Italy 3. Leon Battista Alberti, Basilica Sant’ Andrea, 1462, Mantua, Italy 4. Emperor Hadrian, Pantheon, 126, Rome, Italy 5. Herringbone Brick 6. Domitian, Arch of Titus,82, Rome, Italy 7. Apollodorus, Arch of Trajan, Ancona, Italy