It has frequently been said that the architectural innovations of the Renaissance are attributable to one man. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), with his keenly analytical mind, revolutionized architecture to such a degree that his rationale was eagerly adopted and rapidly spread throughout Italy and Northern Europe. These ideas were born of a mind acutely interested in man’s place in the universe; he studied the scriptures as well as mathematical rules. His interest lay in the discovery of mathematical relationships between different architectural forms. By studying the monuments of the ancients, and reading Vitruvius, Brunelleschi gleaned the secret of correct proportional ratios. He applied the arithmetical ratios that determine musical harmony to govern his architectural designs. As these ratios recur throughout the universe, they have always been thought to be divine in origin; and human harmony to echo divine harmony.
Brunelleschi’s concern with the application of cosmic laws to architecture, and his acceptance of the theory of Vitruvius that ‘man was the measure’, (all dimensions being directly related to the human form), shows a concurrence with Plato’s belief that man was a microcosm of the cosmos as a whole, and proportionally governed by the same laws. Nicholas Cusanus (1401-1461) enhanced and advanced this theory in suggesting that man was the bond that joined the world, unifying within himself all the elements of the cosmos. In seeking to penetrate the mathematical rules of the cosmos and the symbols of nature on earth (‘the book of God’), the artists had begun to turn art into an empirical science concerned with expressing the ways of and seeking the ways to the divine creator of the cosmos.
The superior results of this form of study are evident in Brunelleschi’s work, which became the archetype of future architects and artists. For example: in the Sacristy of the Romanesque church of San Lorenzo, the proportional interrelation of the vertical elements of the spherically curved part of the spatial shell produced an interior of calm, static order with clearly articulated scientific perspective. The great dome of Florence Cathedral, though not based on ideas of ideal proportion, gives the impression that space is as important (if not more so) than its containing shell. This idea of capturing space within space suggests man’s aspirations to recreate the acknowledged perfection of the cosmos.
In the Pazzi Chapel, the geometric forms used to emphasize the linear quality, compel the attention to the contemplation of the dome. In 1502, Bramante built the striking, round church, the small Tempietto, in Rome, the crowning dome of which was a perfect hemisphere. The connotations of all this are clear; the Renaissance artists aspired to encapsulate divine order in tangible, earthly language. Only with the correct mathematical relationship (i.e. proportion and ratio) of the integral parts could this perfect microcosm succeed; mathematics, according to Pythagoras, being the essential key to the interpretation of natural laws.
The sculptor, Donatello, is credited with liberating the statue from its niche, so that sculpture became a separate art form, but it is interesting that the architects of the Renaissance no longer had much use for sculpture as an integral part of architectural design, because their new understanding of proportion and cosmic law made it evident to them that to complicate their work by the unnecessary addition of sculpture would be to upset the balance of the musical harmonies, which were acknowledged to be vital to the perfect execution of their designs.
The free-standing statue, the portrait bust and the Renaissance tomb were artistic milestones of the Renaissance, depicting man’s new sensibility of his value in the universe. In this era of monumentality, there was a yearning for eternal memory, attributable largely to the Humanists’ ‘secularization of wisdom’. Man ceased to consider himself as an anonymous dot on the face of the cosmos and began to probe the boundaries of his command. This new confidence led artists and architects to reach out and explore their surroundings, to discover their own depths and limitations, before reaching out to the cosmos for new information.
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Wundrum, M. The Renaissance (Herbert History of Art and Architecture), Herbert Press, (1988)
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