The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1401. Now held by the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, 


Vasari's Lives of the Artists

Part I: Early Life and Sculpture

MANY MEN ARE CREATED by nature small in person and in features, who have a mind full of such greatness and a heart of such irresistible vehemence, that if they do not begin difficult--nay, almost impossible--undertakings, and bring them to completion to the marvel of all who behold them, they have never any peace in their lives; and whatsoever work chance puts into their hands, however lowly and base it may be, they give it value and nobility. Wherefore no one should turn up his nose when he encounters people who have not, in their aspect, that primal grace or beauty which nature should give, on his coming into the world, to a man who works at any art, seeing that there is no doubt that beneath the clods of the earth are hidden veins of gold. And very often, in those who are most insignificant in form, there are born so great generosity of mind and so great sincerity of heart, that, if nobility be mingled with these, nothing short of the greatest marvels can be looked for from them, for the reason that they strive to embellish the ugliness of the body with the beauty of the intellect; as it is clearly seen in Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, who was no less insignificant in person than Messer Forese da Rabatta and Giotto, but so lofty in intellect that it can be truly said that he was sent to us by Heaven in order to give new form to architecture, which had been out of mind for hundreds of years; for the men of those times had spent much treasure to no purpose, making buildings without order, with bad method, with sorry design, with most strange inventions, with most ungraceful grace, and with even worse ornament.

And Heaven ordained, since the earth had been for so many years without any supreme mind or divine spirit, that Filippo should bequeath to the world the greatest, the most lofty, and the most beautiful building that was ever made in modern times, or even in those of the ancients, proving that the talent of the Tuscan craftsmen, although lost, was not therefore dead. Heaven adorned him, moreover, with the best virtues, among which was that of kindliness, so that no man was ever more benign or more amiable than he. In judgment he was free from passion, and when he saw worth and merit in others he would sacrifice his own advantage and the interest of his friends. He knew himself, he shared the benefit of his own talent with many, and he was ever succoring his neighbor in his necessities. He declared himself a capital enemy of vice, and a friend of those who practiced virtue. He never spent his time uselessly, but would labor to meet the needs of others, either by himself or by the agency of other men; and he would visit his friends on foot and ever succor them.

It is said that there was in Florence a man of very good repute, most praiseworthy in his way of life and active in his business, whose name was Ser Brunellesco di Lippo Lapi, who had had a grandfather called Cambio, who was a learned person and the son of a physician very famous in those times, named Maestro Ventura Bacherini. Now Ser Brunellesco, taking to wife a most excellent young woman from the noble family of the Spini, received, as part payment of her dowry, a house wherein he and his sons dwelt to the day of their death. This house stands opposite to one side of San Michele Berteldi, in a close past the Piazza degli Agli. The while that he was occupying himself thus and living happily, in the year 1398 there was born to him a son, to whom he gave the name Filippo, after his own father, now dead; and he celebrated this birth with the greatest gladness possible. Thereupon he taught him in his childhood, with the utmost attention, the first rudiments of letters, wherein the boy showed himself so ingenious and so lofty in spirit that his brain was often in doubt, as if he did not care to become very perfect in them--nay, it appeared that he directed his thoughts on matters of greater utility--wherefore Ser Brunellesco, who wished him to follow his own vocation of notary, or that of his great-great-grandfather, was very much displeased. But seeing him continually investigating ingenious problems of art and mechanics, he made him learn arithmetic and writing, and then apprenticed him to the goldsmith's art with one his friend, to the end that he might learn design. And this gave great satisfaction to Filippo, who, not many years after beginning to learn and to practice that art, could set precious stones better than any old craftsman in that vocation. He occupied himself with niello and with making larger works, such as some figures in silver, whereof two, half-length prophets, are placed at the head of the altar of San Jacopo in Pistoia; these figures, which are held very beautiful, were wrought by him for the Wardens of Works in that city; and he made works in low relief, wherein he showed that he had so great knowledge in his vocation that his intellect must needs overstep the bounds of that art. Wherefore, having made acquaint with certain studious persons, he began to penetrate with his fancy into questions of time, of motion, of weights, and of wheels, and how the latter can be made to revolve, and by what means they can be set in motion; and thus he made some very good and very beautiful clocks with his own hand.

Not content with this, there arose in his mind a very great inclination for sculpture; and this took effect, for Donatello, then a youth, being held an able sculptor and one of great promise, Filippo began to be ever in his company, and the two conceived such great love for each other, by reason of the talents of each, that one appeared unable to live without the other. Whereupon Filippo, who was most capable in various ways, gave attention to many professions--nor had he practiced these long before he was held by persons qualified to judge to be a very good architect, as he showed in many works in connection with the fitting up of houses, such as the house of Apollonio Lapi, his kinsman, in the Canto de' Cini, towards the Mercato Vecchio, wherein he occupied himself greatly while the other was having it built ; and he did the same in the tower and in the house of Petraia at Castello without Florence. In the Palace that was the habitation of the Signoria, he arranged and distributed all those rooms wherein the officials of the Monte had their office, and he made doors and windows there in the manner copied from the ancient, which was then little used, for architecture was very rude in Tuscany. In Florence, a little later, there was a statue of limewood to be made for the Friars of Santo Spirito, representing St. Mary Magdalene in Penitence, to be placed in a chapel ; and Filippo, who had wrought many little things in sculpture, desiring to show that he was able to succeed in large works as well, undertook to make the said figure, which, when put into execution and finished, was held something very beautiful ; but it was destroyed afterwards, together with many other notable works, in the year 1471, when that church was burnt down.

He gave much attention to perspective, which was then in a very evil plight by reason of many errors that were made therein; and in this he spent much time, until he found by himself a method whereby it might become true and perfect--namely, that of tracing it with the groundplan and profile and by means of intersecting lines, which was something truly most ingenious and useful to the art of design. In this he took so great delight that he drew with his own hand the Piazza di San Giovanni, with all the compartments of black and white marble wherewith that church was incrusted, which he foreshortened with singular grace; and he drew, likewise, the building of the Misericordia, with the shops of the Wafer-Makers and the Volta de' Pecori, and the column of San Zanobi on the other side. This work, bringing him praise from craftsmen and from all who had judgment in that art, encouraged him so greatly that it was not long before he put his hand to another and drew the Palace, the Piazza, and the Loggia of the Signori, together with the roof of the Pisani and all the buildings that are seen round that Piazza; and these works were the means of arousing the minds of the other craftsmen, who afterwards devoted themselves to this with great zeal. He taught it, in particular, to the painter Masaccio, then a youth and much his friend, who did him credit in this art that Filippo showed him, as it is apparent from the buildings in his works. Nor did he refrain from teaching it even to those who worked in intarsia, which is the art of inlaying colored woods ; and he stimulated them so greatly that he was the source of a good style and of many useful changes that were made in that craft, and of many excellent works wrought both then and afterwards, which have brought fame and profit to Florence for many years.

Now Messer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, returning from his studies, and chancing one evening to be at supper in a garden with some of his friends, invited Filippo, who, hearing him discourse on the mathematical arts, formed such an intimacy with him that he learnt geometry from Messer Paolo ; and although Filippo had no learning, he reasoned so well in every matter with his instinct, sharpened by practice and experience, that he would many times confound him. And so he went on to give attention to the study of the Christian Scriptures, never failing to be present at the disputations and preachings of learned persons, from which he gained so much advantage, by reason of his admirable memory, that the aforesaid Messer Paolo was wont to extol him and to say that in hearing Filippo argue he appeared to be hearing a new St. Paul. He also gave much attention at this time to the works of Dante, which he under stood very well with regard to the places described and their proportions, and he would avail himself of them in his conversations, quoting them often in making comparisons. He did naught else with his thoughts but invent and imagine ingenious and difficult things; nor could he ever find an intellect more to his satisfaction than that of Donato [Donatello], with whom he was ever holding familiar discourse, and they took pleasure in one another and would confer together over the difficulties of their vocation.

Now in those days Donato had finished a Crucifix of wood, which was placed in Santa Croce in Florence, below the scene of the child being restored to life by St. Francis, painted by Taddeo Gaddi, and he wished to have the opinion of Filippo about this work; but he repented, for Filippo answered that he had placed a ploughman on the Cross; whence there arose the saying, "Take wood and make one thyself," as it is related at length in the Life of Donato. Whereupon Filippo, who would never get angry, whatever might be said to him, although he might have reason for anger, stayed in seclusion for many months until he had finished a Crucifix of wood of the same size, so excellent, and wrought with so much art, design, and diligence, that Donato--whom he had sent to his house ahead of himself, as it were to surprise him, for he did not know that Filippo had made such a work--having an apron full of eggs and other things for their common dinner, let it fall as he gazed at the work, beside himself with marvel at the ingenious and masterly manner that Filippo had shown in the legs, the trunk, and the arms of the said figure, which was so well composed and united together that Donato, besides admitting himself beaten, proclaimed it a miracle. This work is placed today in Santa Maria Novella, between the Chapel of the Strozzi and that of the Bardi da Vernia, and it is still very greatly extolled by the moderns. Wherefore, the talent of these truly excellent masters being recognized, they received a commission from the Guild of Butchers and from the Guild of Linen-Manufacturers for two figures in marble, to be made for their niches, which are on the outside of Orsanmichele. Having undertaken other work, Filippo left these figures to Donato to make by himself, and Donato executed them to perfection.

After these things, in the year 1401, now that sculpture had risen to so great a height, it was determined to reconstruct the two bronze doors of the Church and Baptistery of San Giovanni, since, from the death of Andrea Pisano to that day, they had not had any masters capable of executing them. This intention being, therefore, communicated to those sculptors who were then in Tuscany, they were sent for, and each man was given a provision and the space of a year to make one scene; and among those called upon were Filippo and Donato, each of them being required to make one scene by himself, in competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti, Jacopo della Fonte [Jacopo della Quercia], Simone da Colle, Francesco di Valdambrina, and Niccolo d' Arezzo. These scenes, being finished in the same year and being brought together for comparison, were all most beautiful and different one from the other; one was well designed and badly wrought, as was that of Donato; another was very well designed and diligently wrought, but the composition of the scene, with the gradual diminution of the figures, was not good, as was the case with that of Jacopo della Quercia; a third was poor in invention and in the figures, which was the manner wherein Francesco di Valdambrina had executed his; and the worst of all were those of Niccolo d' Arezzo and Simone da Colle. The best was that of Lorenzo di Cione Ghiberti, which had design, diligence , invention, art, and the figures very well wrought. Nor was that of Filippo much inferior, wherein he had represented Abraham sacrificing Isaac; and in that scene a slave who is drawing a thorn from his foot, while he is awaiting Abraham and the ass is browsing, deserves no little praise.

The scenes, then, being exhibited, Filippo and Donato were not satisfied with any save with that of Lorenzo, and they judged him to be better qualified for that work than themselves and the others who had made the other scenes. And so with good reasons they persuaded the Consuls to allot the work to Lorenzo, showing that thus both the public and the private interest would be best served; and this was indeed the true goodness of friendship, excellence without envy, and a sound judgment in the knowledge of their own selves, whereby they deserved more praise than if they had executed the work to perfection. Happy spirits! who, while they were assisting one another, took delight in praising the labors of others. How unhappy are those of our own day, who, not sated with injuring each other, burst with envy while rending others. The Consuls besought Filippo to undertake the work in company with Lorenzo, but he refused, being minded rather to be first in an art of his own than an equal or a second in that work. Wherefore he presented the scene that he had wrought in bronze to Cosimo de' Medici, who after a time had it placed on the dossal of the altar in the old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, where it is to be found at present; and that of Donato was placed in the Guild of the Exchange.

The commission being given to Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo and Donato, who were together, resolved to depart from Florence in company and to live for some years in Rome, to the end that Filippo might study architecture and Donato sculpture; and this Filippo did from his desire to be superior both to Lorenzo and to Donato, in proportion as architecture is held to be more necessary for the practical needs of men than sculpture and painting. After he had sold a little farm that he had at Settignano, they departed from Florence and went to Rome, where, seeing the grandeur of the buildings and the perfection of the fabrics of the temples, Filippo would stand in a maze like a man out of his mind. And so, having made arrangements for measuring the cornices and taking the groundplans of those buildings, he and Donato kept laboring continually, sparing neither time nor expense. There was no place, either in Rome or in the Campagna without, that they left unvisited, and nothing of the good that they did not measure, if only they could find it. And since Filippo was free from domestic cares, he gave himself over body and soul to his studies, and took no thought for eating or sleeping, being intent on one thing only--namely, architecture, which was now dead (I mean the good ancient Orders, and not the barbarous German, which was much in use in his time).

And he had in his mind two vast conceptions, one being to restore to light the good manner of architecture, since he believed that if he could recover it he would leave behind no less a name for himself than Cimabue and Giotto had done; and the other was to find a method, if he could, of raising the Cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence,the difficulties of which were such that after the death of Arnolfo Lapi there had been no one courageous enough to think of raising it without vast expenditure for a wooden framework. Yet he did not impart this his invention to Donato or to any living soul, nor did he rest in Rome till he had considered all the difficulties connected with the Ritonda, wondering how the vaulting was raised. He had noted and drawn all the ancient vaults, and was for ever studying them; and if peradventure they had found pieces of capitals, columns, cornices, and bases of buildings buried underground, they would set to work and have them dug out, in order to examine them thoroughly.

Wherefore a rumor spread through Rome, as they passed through the streets, going about carelessly dressed, so that they were called the "treasure-seekers," people believing that they were persons who studied geomancy in order to discover treasure; and this was because they had one day found an ancient earthenware vase full of medals. Filippo ran short of money and contrived to make this good by setting jewels of price for certain goldsmiths who were his friends; and thus he was left alone in Rome, for Donato returned to Florence, while he, with greater industry and labor than before, was for ever investigating the ruins of those buildings. Nor did he rest until he had drawn every sort of building--round, square, and octagonal temples, basilicas, aqueducts, baths, arches, colossea, amphitheaters, and every temple built of bricks, from which he copied the methods of binding and of clamping with ties, and also of encircling vaults with them; and he noted the ways of making buildings secure by binding the stones together by iron bars, and by dovetailing; and, discovering a hole hollowed out under the middle of each great stone, he found that this was meant to hold the iron instrument, which is called by us the ulivella, wherewith the stones are drawn up; and this he reintroduced and brought into use afterwards. He then distinguished the different Orders one from another--Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian; and so zealous was his study that his intellect became very well able to see Rome, in imagination, as she was when she was not in ruins. In the year 1407 the air of that city gave Filippo a slight indisposition, wherefore, being advised by his friends to try a change of air, he returned to Florence. There many buildings had suffered by reason of his absence; and for these, on his arrival, he gave many designs and much advice.

Continue on to Part 2 of the Life of Brunelleschi :
The Building of the Dome

The Drum of the Dome

Return to Quattrocento Architecture

Return to Vasari's Lives of the Artists

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