Brunelleschi's Dome of Florence cathedral. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi

On this day in history: Filippo Brunelleschi dies

History of Italy News

Filippo Brunelleschi died on 15th April 1446 in Florence. One of the fathers of the Italian renaissance, he is probably best known for the dome of Florence Cathedral.

Renowned for pioneering linear perspective in art and for his monumental achievement in constructing the dome of Florence Cathedral, Filippo Brunelleschi’s legacy extends far beyond these feats. His diverse talents encompassed sculpture, mathematics, engineering, and even ship design.

Early Life

Born in 1377 in Florence to Brunellesco di Lippo, a notary, and Giuliana Spini, Brunelleschi’s upbringing initially hinted at a career following in his father’s footsteps.

Brunelleschi had a literary and mathematical education; however, his artistic inclinations led him to join the silk merchants guild, Arte della Seta. He apprenticed as a goldsmith, he became a master goldsmith in 1398, and a sculptor working in bronze.

Filippo Brunelleschi
Filippo Brunelleschi

Baptistery Doors

In 1400, Florence embarked on a project to fashion new sculpted and gilded bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery. This initiative culminated in a competition in 1401, attracting seven contenders, including Brunelleschi and the budding sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Each participant was tasked with crafting a single bronze panel portraying the Sacrifice of Isaac, set within a Gothic four-leaf frame. These panels, featuring Abraham, Isaac, an angel, and other envisioned figures, were required to seamlessly complement the style of the existing doors, crafted by Andrea Pisano in 1330.

Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who would later become a significant benefactor of Brunelleschi, presided over the jury. Initially favouring Ghiberti’s panel, the jury found themselves at an impasse when they saw Brunelleschi’s creation. Despite suggestions for collaboration, Brunelleschi staunchly refused to relinquish sole control of the project. He preferred the project to be awarded to Ghiberti.

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First modern patent and linear perspective

Brunelleschi was also granted the first modern patent for a river transport vessel. He built an enormous ship named Il Badalone, in 1427. The vessel was to transport marble along the river Arno. Unfortunately, it sank on its maiden voyage.

He is also known for developing a technique for linear perspective in art. His formulation of linear perspective governed pictorial depiction of space until the late 19th century.

Architecture and the Cathedral Dome

Venturing to Rome in the early 15th century with his friend Donatello, Brunelleschi embarked on a pioneering study of ancient ruins. It is believed the two artists were the first to study the architecture in depth.  

Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission came with the design of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. Marked by its imposing arches and elegant loggia, he went on to use similar features in designs for Florence chapels.+

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Brunelleschi’s Dome

The pinnacle of Brunelleschi’s career came with the commission to construct the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, a task which had confounded architects for decades. Brunelleschi devised groundbreaking methods, earning the dome the moniker “Brunelleschi’s Dome.”

In 1418, a contest was held to choose a master builder, and other competitors included his archenemy Ghiberti. Brunelleschi achieved his victory with the help of a scale brick model of the dome made for him by his friend the sculptor Donatello.

Flying buttresses had been prohibited by the city fathers, and it was impossible to obtain the long, strong rafters needed for the job (and in sufficient quantities). So how could a dome of this size be built without collapsing under its own weight?

Cross section of the dome
Cross section of the dome

Brunelleschi built two domes, one on the inside. The outer dome protected the inner dome from rain, allowing for a taller, more majestic shape. The frame of the dome consists of 28 horizontal and vertical marble ribs called eperoni. Eight are visible on the outside. The outer dome is supported by the structure of the inner dome, so what is visible from the outside is primarily decorative. A narrow staircase leads between the two domes to the lantern above.

Brunelleschi’s invention of wood and sandstone chains increased the strength of the dome, acting like a tension ring around the base.

Employing over four million bricks and pioneering innovative hoisting machinery, Brunelleschi’s engineering prowess was on full display. Remarkably, Brunelleschi left no plans or drawings detailing the structure of the dome. Scholars have suggested that he designed the dome as if it were a hemisphere, allowing it to support itself.

Work on the Dome (1420–1436), the Lantern (ca. 1446–1461), and the Exedra (1439–1445) occupied much of Brunelleschi’s remaining life.

Burial in the cathedral

Brunelleschi died on 15th April 1446 in Florence.

His body was interred in the crypt of the cathedral. Inside the entrance is his epitaph:

‘Both the magnificent dome of this famous church and many other devices invented by Filippo the architect, bear witness to his superb skill. Therefore, in tribute to his exceptional talents a grateful country that will always remember him buries him here in the soil below.’

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