Arnolfo, Giotto, Brunelleschi – Florence, Italy

Sometimes called di Cambio and sometimes di Lapi, was the first of the group of Cathedral builders in Florence. Who Arnolfo was seems to be scarcely known, tho few architects after him have left greater works or more evidence of power. His first authentic appearance in history is among the band of workmen engaged upon the pulpit in the Duomo at Siena, as pupil or journeyman of Niccolo Pisano, the great reviver of the art of sculpture—when he becomes visible in company with a certain Lapo, who is sometimes called his father (as by Vasari) and sometimes his instructor, but who appears actually to have been nothing more than his fellow-workman and associate.

The Cathedral, the Palazzo Pubblico, the two great churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, all leaped into being within a few years, almost simultaneously. The Duomo was founded, as some say, in 1294, the same year in which Santa Croce was begun, or, according to others, in 1298; and between these two dates, in 1296, the Palace of the Signoria, the seat of the Commonwealth, the center of all public life, had its commencement. All these great buildings, Arnolfo designed and began, and his genius requires no other evidence. The stern strength of the Palazzo, upright and strong like a knight in mail, and the large and noble lines of the Cathedral, ample and liberal and majestic in ornate robes and wealthy ornaments, show how well he knew to vary and adapt his art to the different requirements of municipal and religious life and to the necessities of the age.

We are not informed who they were who carried out the design of the Duomo. Arnolfo only lived to see a portion of this, his greatest work, completed—”the three principal tribunes which were under the cupola,” and which Vasari tells us were so solid and strongly built as to be able to bear the full weight of Brunelleschi’s dome, which was much larger and heavier than the one the original architect had himself designed. Arnolfo died when he had built his Palazzo in rugged strength, as it still stands, with walls like living rock and heavy Tuscan cornices—tho it was reserved to the other masters to put upon it the wonderful crown of its appropriate tower—and just as the round apse of the cathedral approached completion; a hard fate for a great builder to leave such noble work behind him half done, yet the most common of all fates. He died, so far as there is any certainty in dates, in 1300, during the brief period of Dante’s power in Florence, when the poet was one of the priors and much engaged in public business; and the same eventful year concluded the existence of Cimabue, the first of the great school of Florentine painters—he whose picture was carried home to the church in which it was to dwell for all the intervening centuries with such pride and acclamation that the Borgo Allegri is said to have taken its name from this wonderful rejoicing. .

No more notable or distinct figure than Giotto is in all the history of Florence. He was born a peasant, in the village of Vespignano in the Mugello, the same district which afterward gave birth to Fra Angelico. Giotto had at least part of his professional training in the great cathedral at Assisi built over the bones of St. Francis, and was one of those homely, vigorous souls, ” a natural person,” like his father, whom neither the lapse of centuries nor the neighborhood of much greater and more striking per-sons about them, can deprive of their naive and genuine individuality. Burly, homely, characteristic, he carries our attentions always with him, alike on the silent road, or in the king’s palace, or his own simple shop. Wherever he is, he is always the same, shrewd, humorous, plain-spoken, seeing through all pre-tenses, yet never ill-natured in doing so—a character not very lofty or elevated, and to which the racy ugliness of a strong, uncultivated race seems natural—but who under that homely nature carried appreciations and conceptions of beauty such as few fine minds possess.

Of all the beautiful things with which Giotto adorned his city, not one speaks so powerfully to the foreign visitor—the forestiere whom he and his fellows never took into account, tho who occupy so large a space among the admirers of his genius nowadays—as the lovely Campanile which stands by the great cathedral like the white royal lily beside the Mary of the Annunciation, slender and strong and everlasting in its delicate grace. It is not often that a man takes up a new trade when he is approaching sixty, or even goes into a new path out of his familiar routine. But Giotto seems to have turned without a moment’s hesitation from his paints and panels to the less easily wrought materials of the builder and sculptor, without either faltering from the great enterprise or doubting his own power to do it. His frescoes and altarpieces and crucifixes, the work he had been so long accustomed to, and which he could execute pleasantly in his own workshop or on the cool new walls of church or convent, with his trained school of younger artists round to aid him, were as different as possible from the elaborate calculations and measurements by which alone the lofty tower, straight and light-some as a lily, could have sprung so high and stood so lightly against that Italian sky.

Like the poet or the romancist when he turns from the flowery ways of fiction and invention, where he is unincumbered by any restrictions save those of artistic keeping and personal will, to the grave and beaten path of history-the painter must have felt when he too turned from the freedom and poetry of art to this first scientific undertaking. The Cathedral was so far finished by this time, its front not scarred and bare as afterward, but adorned with statues according to old Arnolfo’s plan, who was dead more than thirty years before; but there was no belfry, no companion peal of peace and sweetness to balance the hoarse old vacca with its voice of iron.

Giotto seems to have thrown himself into work not only without reluctance but with enthusiasm. The foundation-stone of the building was laid in July of that year, with all the greatness of Florence looking on; and the painter entered upon his work at once, working out the most poetic effort of his life in marble and stone, among the masons’ chippings and the dust and blaze of the public street. At the same time he designed, tho it does not seem sure whether he lived long enough to execute, a new facade for the Cathedral, replacing Arnolfo’s old statues by something better,

Of the Campanile itself it is difficult to speak in ordinary words. The enrichments of the surface, which is covered by beautiful groups set in a graceful framework of marble, with scarcely a flat or unadorned spot from top to bottom, have been ever since the admiration of artists and of the world. But we confess, for our own part, that it is the structure itself that affords us that soft ecstasy of contemplation, sense of a perfection before which the mind stops short, silenced and filled with the completeness of beauty unbroken, which Art so seldom gives, tho Nature often attains it by the simplest means, through the exquisite perfection of a flower or a stretch of summer sky.

Just as we have looked at a sunset we look at Giotto’s tower, poised far above in the blue air, in all the wonderful dawns and moonlights of Italy, swift darkness shadowing its white glory at the tinkle of the Ave Maria, and a golden glow of sunbeams accompanying the mid-day angelus. Between the solemn antiquity of the old baptistery and the historical gloom of the great cathedral, it stands like the lily—if not, rather, like the great angel himself hailing her who was blest among women, and keeping up that lovely salutation, musical and sweet as its own beauty, for century after century, day after day. Giotto made not only the design, but even, Vasari assures us, worked at the groups and “bassi-relievi” of these “stories in marble, in which are depicted the beginning of all the arts.”

Filippo of Ser Brunellescho of the Lapi, which is, according to Florentine use, his somewhat cumbrous name, or Brunelleschi for short, as custom permitted him to be called, was the son of a notary, who as notaries do, hoped and expected his boy to follow in his steps and succeed to his practise. But, like other sons doomed their fathers’ soul to cross, Filippo took to those “figuretti” in bronze which were so captivating to the taste of the time, and preferred rather to be a goldsmith, to hang upon the skirts of art, than to work in the paternal office. He was, as Vasari insinuates, small, puny, and ugly, but full of dauntless and daring energy as well as genius. From his gold and silver work, the “carvings” which old Bartoluccio had been so glad to escape, and from his “figuretti,” the ambitious lad took to architectural drawing, of which, according to Vasari, he was one of the first amateurs, making “portraits” of the Cathedral and baptistery, of the Palazzo Pubblico, and the other chief buildings of the city. He was so eloquent a talker that a worthy citizen declared of him that he seemed “a new St. Paul;” and in his thoughts he was continually busy planning or imagining some-thing skilful and difficult.

The idea of completing the Cathedral by adding to it a cupola worthy of its magnificent size and proportions seems to have been in the young man’s head before the Signoria or the city took any action in the matter. Arnolfo’s designs are said to have been lost, and all the young Filippo could do was to study the picture in the Spanish chapel of Santa Maria Novella, where the cathedral was depicted according to Arnolfo’s intention; and this proof to the usefulness of architectural backgrounds, no doubt, moved him to those pictures of building which he was fond of making.

After his failure in the competition with Ghiberti for the baptistery gates, Filippo went to Rome, accompanied by Donato. Here the two friends lived and studied together for some time, one giving himself to sculpture, the other to architecture. Brunelleschi, according to Vasari, made this a period of very severe study. He examined all the remains of ancient buildings with the keenest care; studying the foundations and the strength of the walls, and the way in which such a prodigious load as the great dome, which already he saw in his mind’s eye, could best be supported.

So profound were his researches that he was called the treasure-hunter by those who saw him coming and going through the streets of Rome, a title so far justified that he is said in one instance to have actually found an ancient earthenware jar full of old coins. While engaged in these studies, his money failing him, he worked for a jeweler according to the robust practise of the time, and after making ornaments and setting gems all day, set to work on his buildings, round and square, octagons, basilicas, arches, colosseums, and amphitheaters, perfecting himself in the principles of his art.

In 1407 he returned to Florence, and then there began a series of negotiations between the artist and the city, to which there seemed at first as if no end could come. They met, and met again, assemblies of architects, of city authorities, of competitors less hopeful and less eager than himself. His whole heart, it is evident, was set upon the business. Hearing Donatello at one of these assemblies mention the cathedral at Orvieto, which he had visited on. his way from Rome, Filippo, having his mantle and his hood on, without saying a word to any-one, set straight off from the Piazza on foot, and got as far as Cortona, from whence he returned with various pen-and-ink drawings before Donato or any one else had found out that he was away.

Thus the small, keen, determined, ugly artist, swift and sudden as lightning, struck through all the hesitations, the consultations, the maunderings, the doubts, and the delays of the two authorities who had the matter in hand, the Signoria and the Operai, as who should say the working committee, and who made a hundred difficulties and shook their wise heads, and considered one foolish and futile plan after another with true burgher hesitation and wariness.

A last, in 1420, an assembly of competitors was held in Florence, and a great many plans put forth, one of which was to support the pro-posed vault by a great central pillar, while another advised that the space to be covered should be filled with soil mixed with money, upon which the dome might be built, and which the people would gladly remove without expense afterward for the sake of the farthings ! An expedient most droll in its simplicity. Brunelleschi, impatient of so much folly, went off to Rome, it is said, in the middle of these discussions, disgusted by the absurd ignorance which was thus put in competition with his careful study and long labor. Finally the appointment was conceded to him.

The greatest difficulty with which he had to contend was a strike of his workmen, of whom, however, there being no trades’ unions in those days, the imperious master made short work. And thus, day by day, the great dome swelled out over the shining marble walls and rose against the beautiful Italian sky. Nothing like it had been seen before by living eyes. The solemn grandeur of the Pantheon at Rome was indeed known to many, and San Giovanni* was in some sort an imitation of that; but the immense structure of the cupola, so justly poised, springing with such majestic grace from the familiar walls to which it gave new dignity, flattered the pride of the Florentines as some-thing unique, besides delighting the eyes and imagination of so beauty-loving a race.

With that veiled and subtle pride which takes the shape of pious fear, some even pretended to tremble, lest it should be supposed to be too near an emulation of the blue vault above, and that Florence was competing with heaven; others, with the delightful magniloquence of the time, declared that the hills around the city were scarcely higher than the beautiful Duomo; and Vasari himself has a doubt that the heavens were envious, so persistent were the storms amid which the cupola arose.

Yet there it stands to this day, firm and splendid, uninjured by celestial envy, more harmonious than St. Peter’s, the crown of the beautiful city. Its measurements and size and the secrets of its formation we do not pretend to set forth; the reader will find them in every guide-book. But the keen, impetuous, rapid figure of the architect, impatient, and justly impatient, of all rivalry, the murmurs and comments of the workmen; the troubled minds of the city authorities, not knowing how to hold their ground between that gnome of majestic genius who had fathomed all the secrets of construction and built a hundred Duomos in his mind, while they were pottering over the preliminaries of one; have all the interest of life for us.

Through the calm fields of art he goes like a whirlwind, keen, certain, unfailing in his aim, unsparing in means, carried forward by such an impulse of will and self-confidence that nothing can withstand him. Sure of his own powers, as he was when he carved in secret the crucifix which was to cover poor Donatello with confusion, he saw before him, over his carvings, as he worked for the Roman goldsmith, the floating vision of the great dome he was to build—and so built it, all opposition notwithstanding, clearing out of his way with the al-most contemptuous impatience of that knowledge which has no doubt of itself, the competing architects.