For those who have been to Florence will agree the work of these men are a must see.
Only by looking at the engineering of Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria della Fiore for ourselves can we appreciate the genius of this man. We see the practical application of his experiments in perspective in Donatello’s statues of St George and St Mark on the exterior of the Orsanmichele. Masaccio’s three dimension illusionist rendering of the Trinity painted on the wall in Santa Maria Novella and the murals in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine mark a momentous change in religious art.
Even a little knowledge of the work of these masters will help anyone to understand the leap of understanding of mathematics, perspective and portrayal of the human condition that happened in Florence in the early fifteenth century.
Brunelleschi was a mathematician who applied his skills to produce exquisitely engineered buildings. Influenced by the writings of the Roman architect/engineer Vitruvius his designs echo those of classical Rome. The Ospidagle degli Innocenti, the church of Santo Spirito (the interior is shown left), the Pazzi chapel are three of his buildings.
Brunelleschi experimented theoretically with single point perspective that could be used to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. Masacchio’s work of the early 1420s is reminiscent of earlier artists and lacks depth, whereas in his 1427 altarpiece of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, painted on a flat wall, the illusion of depth is created by his use of single point perspective.
Donatello’s bronze David (below) is the first bronze statue of the Italian Renaissance to be cast in a single pour.
His Mary Magdalen, carved in lime wood, has an emotional tension that is arresting when you first see it in the wood. These two pieces are intended to be viewed from the ground unlike his St Mark and St George, which are set above the crowd. Again, this requires an understanding of illusion that requires the use of single point perspective in order to create a figure that does not appear distorted and to the onlooker everything appears perfect.
The predella under the statue of St George shows his battle with the dragon. We call this technique rilievo schiacciatoand Donatello has ‘painted’ the scene with his chisel producing a surface of differing depths in a similar way to the three dimensional qualities of Masaccio’s paintings after he had mastered single point perspective.
Brunelleschi had entered the competition to be the one create new bronze doors for the Baptistry, but lost out to the younger Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ironically, it is Ghiberti’s use of drama and single point perspective to create a dramatic relievo scene that wins him the commission. Michelangelo referred to these doors as The Gates of Paradise.
The influence of these three masters cannot be understated. Michelangelo used the technique of rilievo schiacciato when he carved the Madonna of the Stairs. Like Brunelleschi he had the problem of creating a dome to span the crossing for the new building of St Peter’s basilica in Rome. He used perspective when he carved his David in the same way Donatello did for his St Mark, St George (& others) and, like Masaccio, he had to overcome the problems of painting a realistic scene on a flat surface that had depth, but for Michelangelo the perspectival problems were greater because the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is high above the congregation and is curved.
To give you a comparison and some idea of the burgeoning of ideas and techniques being developed across Europe at the beginning of the 15h century, these three Florentine masters were working at the same time that Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin (probably The Master of Flemalle) were painting their detailed realistic altarpieces and portraits in the Netherlands. Writing in the sixteenth century, Michelangelo said of the work of the Flemish artists ” . . . Italian painting was devout, but would not cause the worshipper shed a tear, whereas the work of the Flemish painters could move them to shed many.”