Filippo Brunelleschi, Pazzi Chapel

Filippo Brunelleschi, Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, begun 1440s, completed 1460s

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Santa Croce official website

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Pazzi Chapel in Santa Croce in Florence, one of the most celebrated buildings of the early Renaissance in Italy, and it is almost universally credited to the architect Brunelleschi.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:17] Some art historians believe that while Brunelleschi did the plan, much of the building was changed by a later architect, and that the loggia that’s outside was not Brunelleschi’s design.

Dr. Zucker: [0:29] Architectural historians care about these details because this building is so universally loved.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] You walk out of the Church of Santa Croce, this Franciscan church that dates to the 13th century, into a cloister where the monks would meditate. You walk into this space that was intended as a chapter house, as a place for the monks to gather and talk and pray, and there are benches around the edges for that purpose, but it is so different than the space of Santa Croce.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] That is a Gothic building, and this building is inspired instead by humanist ideas that developed during the period that we call the Renaissance, that is, ideas that were looking back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] In Santa Croce, we see stained glass windows, we see frescoed chapels, pointed arches, a trussed wooden ceiling; and as we sit here in the Pazzi Chapel your eye is drawn upward to this beautiful hemispherical dome, it has an oculus in the center letting in light and then 12 windows in between the 12 ribs of the dome.

[1:37] It’s important to recognize that this kind of semicircular dome looks back to ancient Roman architecture as do so many of the other elements that we see in the chapel.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] Most notably the many rounded arches, the arches as they extend in space and become shallow barrel vaults, [and] the Corinthian pilasters that surround the entire space, creating a rhythm between the darker greenish-gray stone known as Pietra Serena against this lighter empty white surface.

[2:08] So it’s almost as if the Pietra Serena on the surface of this wall is so planar and so flattening it makes this entire space almost seem as if it is an architectural drawing.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] There is a sense that Brunelleschi is using these elements to remind us of the geometries of this space.

[2:29] Now, we know that Renaissance architects are drawn to the central plan, that is, spaces that are based on the circle, on the square, on these basic geometric shapes. Now, this building is not a perfect square.

[2:43] Nevertheless, we are consistently reminded of rectangles, squares, circles, semi-circles, this fundamental geometry that I think in the Renaissance is associated with the mathematical rules that God created the universe with.

[3:03] And it’s not as though medieval architects didn’t use geometry, or think about proportions, but there is a way in which Brunelleschi is using the vocabulary of ancient architecture to draw our attention to those geometric forms.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] We’re watching people walk through this space. They enter, they immediately look up. They look around. Some people then just simply walk away, seeming disappointed that there’s not something to look at, not recognizing that the space itself is the star.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] If you’ve come from Santa Croce, as most people have when they enter the Pazzi Chapel, there’s so much to see on the walls. There are frescoes, there are sculpted tombs, and none of that is here.

[3:48] Now, we should say that this is called the Pazzi Chapel because it was commissioned by the Pazzi family, a noble family who had made their fortune in banking and were political rivals with the famous Medici family here in Florence. This was a space that was intended as both a chapter house but also a funerary space for the Pazzi family so that prayers could be said here on their behalf.

Dr. Zucker: [4:14] We see the Pazzi coat of arms in each of the four pendentives, but that’s not the only decoration in this building.

Dr. Harris: [4:21] No. In fact, there’s quite a lot to see. It’s just not paintings. What we have are roundels that contain terracotta images.

[4:29] In the pendentives, we have the Four Evangelists, the four authors of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — each with a book and their symbol. It’s interesting to me that those are closest to the dome, which in its circular design, in its light, reminds us of the heavenly.

Dr. Zucker: [4:51] Each of those four roundels of the evangelists are constructed with colored glazes, which is different from the 12 roundels on the walls of the chapel. Because here we have the Twelve Apostles in white, set against a blue ground. Each apostle seated but in a unique pose, obviously a love of the fall of this classicizing drapery.

[5:13] All of these roundels were produced not by Brunelleschi, but by Lucca della Robbia and Andrea della Robia and their workshop.

Dr. Harris: [5:21] We move from the Twelve Apostles in their heavenly blue background, up to the Four Evangelists and then the dome at the top. But we also notice additional decoration in the frieze. We see pairs of angels, and in between that, we see a lamb with seven seals.

[5:41] This iconography is taken from the Book of Revelation that foretells the Second Coming of Christ and the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth. The building has almost a sense of weightlessness because of these forms that lift our eye up.

[5:57] We have a sense of the gravity, of the earth, of the monks who would sit here at meetings, who might be dealing with earthly issues but seeking to reach heavenward. That’s exactly the opportunity that this building affords us.

[6:13] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Filippo Brunelleschi, Pazzi Chapel," in Smarthistory, January 4, 2023, accessed July 15, 2024,