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Brunelleschi’s Early Years in Vasari 28/02/2011

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There lived in Florence, as we are told, a man of good renown, very praiseworthy habits, and much activity in his affairs, whose name was Ser Brunellesco di Lippo Lapi, and whose grandfather, called Cambio, was a very learned person, the son of a physician famous in those times, and named Maestro Ventura Bacherini. Ser Brunellesco chose for his wife a young woman of excellent conduct, from the noble family of the Spini, with whom, as part payment of her dowry, he received a house, wherein he and his children dwelt to the day of their death. This house stands in a corner on the side opposite to San Michele Bertelli, after passing the Piazza degli Agli, and while Brunellesco there exercised his calling and lived happily with his wife, there was born to him in the year 1377 a son, to whom he gave the name of Filippo, after his own father, who was then dead. This birth he solemnized with all possible gladness.

As the infant advanced in childhood, his father taught him the first rudiments of learning with the utmost care, and herein Filippo displayed so much intelligence, and so clear an understanding, as to frequently cause surprise that he did not take pains to attain perfection in letters, but rather seemed to direct his thoughts to matters of more obvious utility, a circumstance which caused Ser Brunellesco, who wished his son to follow his own calling of a notary, or that of his great-great-grandfather very great displeasure.

Perceiving, nevertheless, that the mind of the boy was constantly intent on various ingenious questions of art and mechanics, he made him learn writing and arithmetic, and then placed him in the Guild of the Goldsmiths, that he might acquire the art of design from a friend of his. This was a great satisfaction to Filippo, who no long time after he had begun to study and practise in that art, understood the setting of precious stones much better than any old artist in the vocation. He also executed works in niello; among others, figures in silver, two prophets, namely, halflengths, which were placed over the altar of San Jacopo di Pistoia, and were considered very beautiful; these figures were made by Filippo, for the superintendents of the cathedral in that city. He also executed works in basso-rilievo, wherein he showed so complete a mastery of that art, as to make it manifest that his genius must quickly overstep the limits of the goldsmith’s calling. Subsequently, having made acquaintance with several learned persons, he began to turn his attention to the computation of the divisions of time, the adjustment of weights, and the movement of wheels; he considered the method by which they might best be made to revolve, and how they might most effectually be set in motion, making several very good and beautiful watches with his own hand.

Not content with this, Filippo was seized with an earnest desire to attempt the art of sculpture, and this wish took effect in such sort that Donatollo, then a youth, being considered of great distinction and high promise therein, Filippo contracted a close intimacy with him; and each attracted by the talents of the other, they became so strongly attached that one seemed unable to live without the other. But Filippo, who was capable of attaining excellence in various departments, gave his attention to many professions, nor had any long time elapsed before he was considered by good judges to be an excellent architect. This he proved in various works which served for the decoration of houses, as, for example, for that of the house of Apollonio Lapi, his kinsman, at the corner of the Ciai, towards the Mercato Vecchio, where he laboured industriously all the time that the edifice was in course of erection; and he did the same thing at the tower and house of Petraia at Castello, outside of Florence. In the palace of the Signoria also, Filippo distributed and arranged all the rooms occupied for the affairs of their office by the officials of the Monte. He therein constructed the windows and doors after the manner of the ancients, a thing not then very frequently done, architecture being in a very rude state in Tuscany.

There was at that time a statue of Santa Maria Maddalena to be executed in linden-wood, for the monks of Santo Spirito in Florence, and which was to be placed in one of their chapels; Filippo therefore, who had executed various small works in sculpture, being desirous of proving that he could succeed in the greater also, undertook to execute this statue, which, being completed and fixed in its place, was considered exceedingly beautiful; but in the subsequent conflagration of the church in 1471 it was burnt, with many other remarkable things.

Filippo Brunelleschi gave considerable attention to the study of perspective, the rules of which were then very imperfectly understood, and often falsely interpreted; and in this he expended much time, until at length he discovered a perfectly correct method, that of taking the ground plan and sections by means of intersecting lines, a truly ingenious thing, and of great utility to the arts of design. In these inquiries Filippo found so much pleasure that he executed a drawing of the Piazza San Giovanni, wherein he portrayed all the compartments of the incrustation in black and white marble, the foreshortening being managed with singular felicity and grace. He represented the house of the Misericordia in like manner, with the shops of the wafermakers and the arch of the Pecori, giving the column of San Zanobi on the other side. This work having been highly commended by artists, and all who were capable of judging in matters of the kind, gave Filippo so much encouragement, that no long time elapsed before he commenced another, and made a view of the Palace, the Piazza, the Loggia de’ Signori, with the roof of the Pisani, and all the buildings erected around that Square, works by which the attention of artists was so effectively aroused, that they afterwards devoted themselves to the study of perspective with great zeal.

To Masaccio in particular, who was his friend, Filippo taught this art, the painter being then very young; but that he did much credit to his teacher is sufficiently manifest from the edifices depicted in his works. Nor did he fail to instruct those who worked in tarsia, which is a sort of inlaid work, executed in woods of various colours; the efforts of these artists he stimulated so powerfully, that from this time a better method prevailed, and many useful improvements were made in that branch of art, wherein, both then and at a later period, various excellent works were produced, from which Florence derived both fame and profit during many years. Messer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli returning to Florence about this time, and being at supper with some of his friends in a garden, invited Filippo also; who, hearing them discourse of the mathematical sciences, formed an intimate acquaintance with the philosopher, from whom he acquired the knowledge of geometry; and although Filippo possessed no learning, he yet reasoned so well, by the aid of his practical experience, that he frequently astonished Toscanelli.

Thus labouring perpetually, Brunelleschi next turned his attention to the Scriptures, and never failed to be present at the disputations and preaching of learned men. From this practice he derived so much advantage, by help of his excellent memory, that the above-named Messer Paolo, alluding to him, was accustomed to say that, to hear Filippo in argument, one might fancy oneself listening to a second Paul. At the same time he gave earnest study to the works of Dante, with whose description of localities, and their respective distances, he made himself very familiar, and frequently availed himself of them in his conversations, when he would cite them by way of comparison. Nor, indeed, were his thoughts ever occupied otherwise than in the consideration of ingenious and difficult enquiries; but he could never find any one who gave him so much satisfaction as did Donato with whom he had often held confidential discourse; these two artists found perpetual pleasure in the society of each other, and frequently conferred together on the difficulties of their art.

Now it happened in those days that Donato had completed a crucifix in wood, which was placed in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, beneath the story of the girl restored to life by St. Francis, a picture painted by Taddeo Gaddi, and he desired to have the opinion of Filippo respecting his work; but he repented of having asked it, since Filippo replied that he had placed a clown on the cross. And from this time there arose, as is related at length in the life of Donato, the saying of ‘Take wood then, and make one thyself’. Thereupon Filippo who never suffered himself to be irritated by anything said to him, however well calculated to provoke him to anger, kept silence for several months, meanwhile preparing a crucifix, also in wood, and of similar size with that of Donato, but of such excellence, so well designed and so carefully executed, that when Donato, having been sent forward to his house by Filippo, who intended him a surprise, beheld the work (the undertaking of which by Filippo was entirely unknown to him) he was utterly confounded, and having in his hand an apron full of eggs, and other things on which his friend and himself were to dine together, he suffered the whole to fall to the ground, while he regarded the work before him, in the very extremity of amazement. The artistic and ingenious manner in which Filippo had disposed and united the legs, trunk, and arms of the figure was alike obvious and surprising to Donato, who not only confessed himself conquered but declared the work a miracle. This crucifix is now placed in the church of Santa Maria Novella, between the chapel of the Strozzi family and that of the Bardi da Vernio, and is still greatly praised by the judges of modern times.

The talents of these truly excellent masters being thereupon appreciated, they received a commission from the Guild of the Butchers, and that of the Joiners, to prepare the two figures, in marble, required for the niches appropriated to those guilds among the number surrounding Or San Michele. These figures, Filippo, being occupied by other affairs, suffered Donato to execute alone, which he did to great perfection. After these things and in the year 1401, it was determined, seeing that sculpture had reached so elevated a condition, to reconstruct the two doors of the church and baptistery of San Giovanni, a work which, from the death of Andrea Pisano to that time, there had been no masters capable of conducting. Wherefore, this intention being made known to those sculptors who were in Tuscany, they were sent for, their appointments were given to them, and the space of a year was allowed for the preparation of a story by each master. Among these artists Filippo and Donato were also invited, and each of them was required to prepare a story, in concurrence with Lorenzo Ghiberti Jacopo della Fonte, Simone da Colle, Francesco di Valdambrina, and Niccolo d’Arezzo.

All these stories being completed within the year, and placed together to be compared, were all found to be beautiful, but with certain differences. One was well designed, but imperfectly executed, as was that of Donato; another was admirably drawn, and carefully finished, but the composition of the story was not good, the gradual diminution of the figures being neglected, as in the case of Jacopo della Querela; a third artist had betrayed poverty of invention, and his figures were insignificant, which was the defect of Francesco di Valdambrina’s specimen; but the worst of all were those of Niccolo d’Arezzo and Simone da Colle; while the best was that of Lorenzo di Cione Ghiberti, in whose work perfection of design, delicacy of execution, rich invention, knowledge of art, and well-finished figures, were all combined. Nor was the story of Filippo greatly inferior to that of Lorenzo: the subject was Abraham proceeding to sacrifice Isaac, and among the figures was that of a servant, who, whilst he is awaiting his master, with the ass feeding beside him, is drawing a thorn from his foot. This figure merits considerable praise. All these stories having been exhibited together, and Filippo and Donato not being satisfied with any, except that of Lorenzo, they judged him to be better adapted to execute the work than themselves or the masters who had produced the other stories. They consequently persuaded the syndics, by the good reasons which they assigned, to adjudge the work to Lorenzo, showing that the public and private benefit would be thus most effectually secured. Now this was, in truth, the sincere rectitude of friendship; it was talent without envy, and uprightness of judgment in a decision respecting themselves, by which these artists were more highly honoured than they could have been by conducting the work to the utmost summit of perfection. Happy spirits! who, while aiding each other, took pleasure in commending the labours of their competitors. How unhappy, on the contrary, are the artists of our day, labouring to injure each other, yet still unsatisfied, they burst with envy while seeking to wound others.

Filippo was requested by the superintendents to undertake the work, in concert with Lorenzo, but he would not consent to this, desiring rather to be the first in some other art, than merely an equal, and perhaps secondary, in that undertaking. Wherefore he gave the story in bronze, which he had prepared, to Cosimo de’ Medici, who caused it at a subsequent period to be placed in the old sacristy of San Lorenzo, and at the back of the altar, where it still remains. That of Donato was given to the Guild of the Money-changers.

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