‘Architecture must be conducted according to the principles of solidity, utility and beauty [firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis]…’, wrote the Roman architect Vitruvius, ‘Beauty will be assured when the character of the work is pleasing and elegant and its members are in just proportion according to the principles of symmetry’ [De Architectura, 1.3.2].
Between 1393–1408 the Florentine Arte del Cambio, or Bankers’ guild, began building a charitable hospital dedicated to St Matthew, their patron saint. A distinctive feature of the structure is the street-level loggia, where we can imagine visitors seeking reports on the health of relatives, delivering food parcels, and perhaps meeting with convalescent patients (fig. 1). Their example was followed eleven years later by the guild of silkweavers, the Seta, which bought a garden adjacent to the nearby church of the Ssa Annunziata, with a view to building a similar foundation for the care of foundlings (fig. 2).
The Arte della Seta included other luxury trades, so this was the guild in which the young Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) matriculated as a master goldsmith in 1404. In the previous year Brunelleschi had lost out on the competition to make new bronze doors for the Florentine Baptistery, and in the years that followed his many interests embraced architecture. So when the Seta were planning their ospedale, they naturally sought a design from Brunelleschi. His drawing has not survived, but it clearly aspired to a purer antique style than is visible in the nearby San Matteo. In those years humanists were seeking to restore the degraded Latin used by churchmen and lawyers to the elegant language of Cicero, so sculptors and architects were eager to restore their own arts to similar classical standards. Brunelleschi’s success in this regard is apparent in the ‘pleasing and elegant’ harmonies of the Foundling Hospital (fig. 2).
We can be confident that Brunelleschi had studied the architecture of the Florentine Baptistery, for the new, pointed and octagonal dome he had begun for the adjacent cathedral was based on the dome of the Baptistery. There he would have noted the sharp distinction made by classical architecture between supporting elements, the upright columns and pilasters, and the horizontal elements that rest on them, the entablature of architrave, frieze and cornice (fig. 3). The bankers’ loggia had raised an undifferentiated wall mass on its arcade of columns and the irregular corner pier (fig. 1). Brunelleschi’s treatment of the wall in the Innocenti is entirely different. He framed his arcade with the fluted Corinthian pilasters he had seen in the Baptistery, on which he rested an architrave and frieze that runs across the entire facade. His columns have the rounded shafts, moulded bases, and foliated capitals of the columns purloined from ancient buildings and re-erected in the Baptistery. Brunelleschi also distinguished the profile of his arches (picked out in green on the upper storey of the Baptistery) from the wall above them by curving an architrave over each one, making archivolts that repeat the lines of their arcs and display crisply in the evening sunlight.
According to his first biographer, Brunelleschi travelled to Rome to study its ancient monuments. He may have done so, but his widely spaced columns directly supporting arches find no precedent in the architecture of imperial Rome. There arches rest on piers, with an added veneer of half-columns supporting a horizontal entablature in the Greek manner (fig. 4). Instead of adopting those massive supports, Brunelleschi followed the medieval tradition of resting arches directly on columns. He accepted the practical requirement for a street-level loggia in a Florentine hospital, but simplified its elements and rearranged them into a ‘just proportion’ as advocated by Vitruvius. The polygonal columns of San Matteo, for instance, look somewhat stumpy without the podium on which they stand, and the thick leaves of their capitals are plain. Nor do they anticipate in any way the deep space between the arcade and the inner wall, which is covered by shallow groined vaults (fig.5).
The Innocenti columns, by contrast, extend down to the pavement, and their slender proportions roughly fit a diameter to height ratio of 1:10, which Vitruvius had specified for Corinthian columns (fig. 6). The acanthus leaves and volutes of their capitals are richly carved, and the precision with which their monolithic shafts have been turned reveals a technical accomplishment absent from San Matteo. The interval between Brunelleschi’s columns, and between the columns and the interior wall, corresponds to their height, so his loggia may be viewed as a sequence of nine spatial cubes. Above them the groined vaults of San Matteo have been replaced by the billowing sail domes Brunelleschi had seen depicted in mosaic inside the Baptistery dome. They form sliced sections of a sphere, with the same diagonal as the bays below.
Undoubtedly the loggia of the Foundling hospital adopts a more classical design than the equivalent structure in the Ospedale di San Matteo, but Brunelleschi has followed ancient prototypes and Vitruvian rules only when they suited his purpose. Even his external arches, though less depressed than those of San Matteo, are not fully semicircular. The harmony and serenity of his building, and the clarity of its details, result from the architect adapting an existing Florentine tradition to his purpose according to his own well informed judgement. He also sited his new building along an open piazza, and raised it on a flight of steps, so that we can admire it to better advantage than is possible for San Matteo (fig. 7).
The Foundling hospital is celebrated for being the first example of Renaissance architecture, but history is littered with firsts that are of little consequence. ‘Those who really wish to savour his quality [ghustare la virtù sua]’, wrote Brunellschi’s biographer, ‘should go to see [his buildings]’ (Manetti, p. 100). We should indeed, but we would be well advised to prepare for that pleasure by first examining the Ospedale di San Matteo, which represents the vernacular architectural tradition that Brunelleschi sought to transcend.
Antonio Manetti, The Life of Brunelleschi, ed. H. Saalman (ca 1480; University Park: Penn State University Press, 1970)
Howard Saalman, Filippo Brunelleschi, vol. 2 (London: Zwemmer, 1980)
THIS CASE STUDY DOES NOT FEATURE IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ART