Artist and architect Filippo Brunelleschi was a man ahead of his time, but he could not possibly have predicted the recent series of events concerning one of his most famous works, the Pazzi Chapel. The same Opera del Duomo who employed Brunelleschi at Florence Cathedral over five hundred years ago has set up an online campaign on the website Kickstarter to raise money for a renovation of the chapel. Many of the decorative elements, they say, especially in the chapel’s loggia, need urgent restorative care. The opera intends to fund half of the work itself and crowdfund the rest through contributions from donors worldwide.
The Pazzi Chapel is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance Architecture. It is part of Florence’s Church of Santa Croce, a Romanesque edifice more than the century older than Florence’s other major churches- the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella, and San Lorenzo. The largest Franciscan church in the world, Santa Croce is perhaps most famous for its many tombs of famous Tuscans, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Gioachino Rossini, and Niccolo Machiavelli. It is also famous for its many chapels- the Pazzi Chapel is one of sixteen.
The Pazzi Chapel was one of Brunelleschi’s last projects, and he drew inspiration from earlier in his long career when designing it. Along with Andrea Palladio, Brunelleschi is considered one of the fathers of classical revivalist architecture. As a young man, he spent time in Rome excavating areas like the Forum Romanum and Colosseum. When he returned to Florence he started introducing Roman details and composition to his projects, in contrast to the distinctly medieval Gothic and Romanesque styles which were popular at the time. Classical elements are easily found in the Pazzi Chapel. The most obvious are those at the front of the loggia- a sort of triumphal arch supported by Corinthian columns. However, there are more subtle nods to ancient architecture in the general structure of the building. Various visual blocks in the facade conform to the golden ratio, and throughout the building Brunelleschi uses boldly simple geometric forms, not just in the facade but in the interior space, a basic but beautiful combination of cubes and hemispheres. This interior would have perhaps been grander, but it lost funding after its patron, a leading member of the Pazzi family, was executed for conspiring against the ruling Medicis.
I was fortunate enough to visit the chapel last summer, and I was struck by its appearance and modernity compared to the very medieval surroundings. The best place to view the chapel is from the far end of the cloister. Here, where the long arcades of the courtyard cascade towards the facade, which is composed of layers of simple forms, it seems as if Brunelleschi is forcing the viewer to notice perspective, which was his own artistic “invention”. It’s worth taking a look inside too; though the space is much smaller than that of the duomo, it has a pure, clean architectural beauty that le Corbusier of Walter Gropius would have approved of.
The chapel is built mainly of a type of sandstone called pietra serena. Unfortunately, it is neither as luxurious nor as durable as the Carrara marble of the duomo, and its decay- crumbling both on the surface and at the heart of the actual structure- is the reason why the Opera seeks donations for a renovation project. It would be an awful tragedy to lose an architectural masterpiece like the chapel because the funds to renovate it cannot be gathered. The Opera will require $95000 by December 19- so far, just over a quarter of this cost has been pledged. You can donate here– and I strongly urge you to do so.
The chapel’s symmetrical facade
The chapel and the cloister arcade. On the left is the 13th century church and the 19th century bell tower.
Beneath the loggia of the chapel
Inside the chapel
All photos by author
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