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Lives of the Great Painters
Vasari's Filippo di ser Brunelesco


It is a habit of Nature when she makes one man very great in any art, not to make him alone, but at the same time and in the same place to produce another to rival him, that they may aid each other by emulation. And that this is true may be seen by the example of Florence, which produced at one epoch Filippo, Donatello, Lorenzo, Paolo Uccello, and Masaccio, each one most excellent in his way. This last, who came from Castello San Giovanni di Valdarno, was a most absentminded man, and seemed like one who, having fixed his mind on things of art only, cared little for himself and less for others. And because he would never trouble himself about the things of the world, not even about dressing himself, and never took the pains to get money from those who owed it him, unless he were in extreme need, he was by every one nicknamed Masaccio for Tommaso, which was his real name, and this not because he was a bad man, but merely from his slovenliness, for he was goodness itself, and as ready to do another a service as any one could desire. All the most celebrated sculptors and painters from his time until now have studied his works in the Brancacci chapel, as Lionardo da Vinci, Perugino, the divine Michael Angelo, Raffaello da Urbino, Andrea del Sarto, and many more, and if I have not mentioned many Florentines and strangers who have gone to that chapel to study there, it is because where the heads of the art go, there the members are sure to follow. Yet although his works have always been held in such reputation, it is the firm belief of many that he would have brought forth much greater fruit if death had not carried him off, at the age of twentysix, so suddenly that there were not wanting those who laid it down to poison. It is said that when Filippo di Ser Brunellesco heard of his death, he said, "We have suffered a great loss in Masaccio," and mourned for him deeply.

There are some whom Nature has created little of stature, but with a soul of greatness and a heart of such immeasurable daring that if they do not set themselves to difficult and almost impossible things, and do not complete them to the wonder of those who behold, they have no peace in their lives. Thus it was with Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, who was small in stature like Giotto, but great in genius. His father, Ser Brunellesco, taught him in his childhood the first principles of letters, in which he showed himself intelligent, but careless of perfecting himself in these matters. Therefore, seeing him occupied with matters of art, he put him under a goldsmith, to Filippo's great satisfaction. Having become skilled in setting stones, and in niello work, and in the science of the motion of weights and wheels, not content with this, there awoke within him a great desire for the study of sculpture. And Donatello, then a young man, being held in esteem as a sculptor, Filippo began to hold intercourse with him, and such an affection sprang up between them that it seemed as if the one could not live without the other. Filippo, who was capable of many things, was held also by those who understood such matters to be a good architect. He studied also perspective, and taught it to Masaccio his friend.

Messer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, having returned from his studies, invited Filippo with other friends to supper in a garden, and the discourse falling on mathematical subjects, Filippo formed a friendship with him and learned geometry from him. And although he was not learned, he would reason on all matters from his own practical experience so as frequently to confound Toscanelli. He also applied himself to the study of the sacred scriptures, never failing to be present at the disputations or lectures of learned men, and making such good use of his wonderful memory that Messer Paolo used to say when he heard Filippo argue, he seemed to him a new St. Paul.

Filippo, as we have said, entered into competition with Lorenzo and the others for the gates of S. Giovanni, but when the work was assigned to Lorenzo at the request of Filippo and Donatello, they determined to set out together from Florence and to spend some years in Rome, that Filippo might study architecture and Donatello sculpture. And when he came to Rome, and saw the grandeur of the buildings and the perfection of the form of the temples, he remained lost in thought and like one out of his mind; and he and Donatello set themselves to measure them and to draw out the plan of them, sparing neither time nor expense. And Filippo gave himself up to the study of them, so that he cared neither to eat or to sleep, having two great ideas in his mind, the one to restore the knowledge of good architecture, hoping thus to leave behind no less a memory of himself than Cimabue and Giotto had done, and the other to find a way, if it were possible, of raising the cupola of S. Maria del Fiore in Florence, the difficulty of which was so great that since the death of Arnolfo Lapi none had had courage enough to attempt it. He confided his intention neither to Donatello or any soul living, but gave himself no rest until he had considered all the difficulties of the Pantheon and had noted and drawn all the ancient vaulted roofs, continually studying this matter, and if by chance they found any pieces of capitals or columns they set to work and had them dug out. And the story ran through Rome that they were "treasure seekers," the people thinking that they studied divination to find treasures, it having befallen them once to find an ancient pitcher filled with medals.

Then money becoming scarce with Filippo, he set himself to work for the goldsmiths, and remained thus alone in Rome when Donatello returned to Florence. Neither did he cease from his studies, until he had drawn every kind of building, temples round and square and eightsided, basilicas, aqueducts, baths, arches, and others, and the different orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, until he was able to see in imagination Rome as she was before she fell into ruins.

In the year 1407 he returned to Florence, and the same year there was held a meeting of architects and engineers to consider how to raise the cupola of S. Maria del Fiore. Among them came Filippo, and gave it as his opinion that it should not be done according to the design of Arnolfo, but in another fashion, of which he made a model.

Some months after, Filippo being one morning in the Piazza of S. Maria del Fiore with Donatello and other artists, talking about ancient sculpture, Donatello began telling them how when he was returning from Rome he had journeyed by Orvieto to see the famous marble facade of the cathedral, and afterwards passing through Cortona went into the church there and found a most beautiful piece of ancient sculpture, which was then a rare thing, for they had not then disinterred such an abundance as they have in our times. So Donatello, going on to describe the manner of the work and its perfection and excellence, kindled such an ardent desire in Filippo to see it that, without saying where he was going, he set out on foot in his mantle and hood and sandals, and was carried to Cortona by the love he bore to art. The sculpture pleasing him much, he made a drawing of it with the pen, and returned to Florence before Donatello or any one else had discovered that he was gone. And when he showed him the careful drawing he had made, Donatello marvelled greatly at his love for art.

The other architects meanwhile being dismayed at the difficulties in raising the cupola, the masters of the works in S. Maria and the consuls of the Guild of the Woollen Merchants assembled together, and sent to pray Filippo to come to them. And he being come, they laid before him the difficulties small and great which the architects felt who were also present. And Filippo answered them, "Sirs, there is no doubt that in great undertakings you have always to encounter great difficulties, and in this one of yours there are greater than you perhaps imagine, for I do not think that even the ancients ever raised such a vaulted roof as this will be. And I, having considered it much, have never been able to come to any conclusion, the width as well as the height of the building dismaying me. But remembering that it is a temple consecrated to God and the Virgin, I believe that the wisdom and skill of any one who undertook it would not be allowed to fail, and if it were my affair I would resolutely set myself to find out a way. But if you resolve upon doing it you must take counsel not alone of me, who am not sufficient to give counsel in so great a matter, but summon to Florence upon a fixed day within a year's time architects, not only Tuscan and Italian but German and French, and those of every nation, and lay before them this matter, that having been discussed and decided by so many masters, it may be entrusted to him who has the best judgment and knows the best way."

And this counsel pleased them well, and they desired that he also would consider the matter and make a model for it. But he made believe not to care about the matter, and took his leave of them to return to Rome. And they, seeing that their prayers availed not to stop him, made many of his friends implore him also; and when he would not be moved, the members of the council voted him an offering of money. But he, keeping firm to his resolution, left Florence and returned to Rome, where he applied himself to continual study of the matter, thinking, as was true, that none but he could accomplish it.

So the Florentine merchants who dwell in France and England and Spain were commanded to obtain from the princes of those lands, without sparing expense, the most skilled and gifted men in those regions. And when the year 1420 was come, there were assembled in Florence all these masters from other lands and those of Tuscany, and the skilled artificers of Florence itself, and Filippo returned from Rome. And they came together in S. Maria del Fiore, with the consuls and members of the guild, and some ingenious men chosen from among the citizens, that the minds of all might be known, and the manner of raising the dome decided upon. So one by one each architect was called upon to give his opinion and describe the way in which it should be done. And it was a fine thing to hear the strange and diverse opinions in the matter. For some proposed that it should be built of spongestone that the weight might be less, and many agreed that it would be best to put a pillar in the middle, while there were not wanting those who suggested that they should fill the space with earth, mixing money with it, and when the dome was built give leave to every one to take the money, by which means the earth would be cleared away without expense. Filippo alone declared that he could make a vaulted roof without much wood, without pillars or supports, and with little expense of arches. It seemed to all who heard him that what he had said was foolish, and they mocked him and laughed at him, saying he was speaking like a madman. Then Filippo, being offended, said, "Though you laugh at me, you will find out that it can be done in no other manner." And as he grew warm in explaining his ideas, they doubted him the more, and held him to be a mere chattering fool. And when they had bidden him depart several times and he would not go, he was carried out by force, all supposing him to be mad. And this was how it came about that Filippo used to say afterwards that he dared not at that time pass along any part of the city lest it should be said, "There goes that madman." So the consuls in the assembly were left altogether confused with the difficult methods proposed by the other masters, and Filippo's plan, which seemed to them foolish. And on his part Filippo was many times tempted to leave Florence; but desiring to conquer, he had to arm himself with patience. He might have shown a little model that he had made, but he would not, knowing how little the consuls understood the matter, and aware of the jealousy of the artists, and the unstable character of the citizens, who favoured now one, now another. And I do not marvel at this, for in that city every one professes to know as much as skilled masters themselves, although there are few who really understand such things.

So Filippo, not having succeeded at the assembly, began to treat with them separately, talking now to this consul, now to that member of the guild, and to some of the citizens, showing them part of his design. And so, having been moved by his arguments, they met again and disputed of the matter. The other architects desired that Filippo would tell all his mind and show his model. This he would not do, but made a proposal that the building of the cupola should be given to him who could make an egg stand firmly on the smooth marble, for by doing this he would show his skill. And an egg being brought, all the masters tried to make it stand upright, but none found the way. And when they bade Filippo set it up, he took it, and striking it on the marble made it stand. And the architects murmured, saying that they could have done that; but Filippo replied laughing that they could have built the cupola, too, if they had seen his model and designs. So it was resolved that the charge of the work should be entrusted to him.

But while he was making ready to begin to build, some began to say that such a work as this ought not to be entrusted to one only, as too great a burden for one to bear alone. And Lorenzo Ghiberti, having obtained great credit by his gates of S. Giovanni, and being beloved by certain who had power with the Government, he was joined with Filippo in this work. What was Filippo's bitter despair when he heard of this may be imagined from his desiring to leave Florence; and had it not been for Donatello and Luca della Robbia, who comforted him, he would have gone out of his mind. He set to work with little will, knowing that he should have all the trouble and yet be obliged to share the honour and fame with Lorenzo. In this state of torment they went on working together until the end of 1426, when they had raised the walls twelve braccia, and it was time to begin works of wood and stone to strengthen it, which, being a difficult thing, he consulted Lorenzo to see whether he had considered this difficulty, and he was so barren of suggestions that he only replied that he would leave it to him. The answer pleased Filippo, for he thought he had found a way of driving him from the work. One morning, therefore, he did not come to the place, but took to his bed, and lay groaning and causing hot cloths to be brought him constantly, pretending to be ill.

So the masons, having waited for his orders in vain, went to Lorenzo, and asked what they were to do. But he replied that it was for Filippo to order, and they must wait for him. And one asked him, "Do you not know his mind?" and Lorenzo answered, "Yes, but I will do nothing without him." And this he said to excuse himself, for he had never seen Filippo's model. But when this had lasted two days the chief masons went to Filippo to ask what they were to do. And he answered, "You have Lorenzo, let him do a little." So there arose great murmuring among the men, some saying that Lorenzo was good at taking his salary, but at giving orders, no!

Then the wardens of S. Maria went to see Filippo, and after having condoled with him on his sickness, told him how it had brought all the building into confusion. But he answered with passionate words, "Is not he there-Lorenzo?" And they answered, "He will do nothing without you." "I could do very well without him," said Filippo.

But seeing that Lorenzo was willing to take his salary without any work for it, he thought of another way of bringing him to scorn; so, returning to his work, he made proposition to the wardens, Lorenzo being present, that as they had divided the salary so they should divide the work. "There are now two difficulties to be overcome, the one the matter of the scaffolding to bear the men, and the other the chainwork to bind the building together. Let Lorenzo take which he will, and I will do the other, that no time may be lost." Lorenzo, being forced in honour not to refuse, chose the chainwork, trusting to the advice of the masons, and remembering that there was something like it in S. Giovanni. So they set to work, and Filippo's scaffolds were made so that the men could work as if they were on firm ground. Lorenzo with great difficulty made the chainwork on one of the eight faces, and when it was finished the wardens took Filippo to see it, but he said nothing. But to his friends he said it ought to be secured in another way to that, and that it was not sufficient for the weight to be put upon it. And his words being heard, they called upon him to show how the thing ought to be done. So he brought out his models and designs, and they saw into what an error they had fallen in favouring Lorenzo. Then they made Filippo sole head and manager of the building, and commanded that none should work thereon but with his consent.

Lorenzo, although vanquished and shamed, was so favoured by his friends that he was allowed to go on drawing his salary, having proved that they could not legally withdraw it for three years.

So the works went forward, but the masons, being urged on by Filippo more than they were used to, began to grow weary, and joining together in a body, they said it was hard work and perilous, and they would not go on without great pay, although they had more than was usual. Thereupon Filippo and those who had the management of the works, being displeased, took counsel together, and resolved on the Saturday evening to dismiss them all. And on the Monday following Filippo set ten Lombards to the work, and being constantly with them, saying, "Do this here, and do that there," he taught them in a day so much that for many weeks they were able to carry on the works. The masons, on the other hand, seeing themselves dismissed and their work taken from them, and finding no other work so profitable, sent men to intercede for them with Filippo. But for many days he kept them in suspense, and then received them at lower wages than they had received before.

The building had now proceeded so far that it was a long way for any one to climb, and much time was lost in going down to dinner and to drink, for they suffered much from thirst in the heat of the day. So Filippo ordered that eatinghouses should be opened in the cupola, where wine should be sold, and that no one should leave his work till the evening, which was a great convenience to them and profit to the work.

Although he had now overcome envy and was everywhere praised, he could not prevent all the architects in Florence, after they had seen his model, from producing others; even a lady of the Gaddi family venturing to compete with him. He, however, laughed at them all, and some of them having introduced in their models parts of Filippo's work, he remarked one day when looking at them, "The next model will be all mine." His own was infinitely praised, but because people could not see the staircase leading up to the ball, they said it was defective. So some of those presiding over the work came to him concerning the matter, and Filippo, raising a little piece of wood in his model, showed them tne staircase in one of the piers, formed like a pipe, with bars of bronze on one side by which one could climb up. He did not live to see the lantern finished, but he left orders in his will that it should be done as it was in his model, otherwise he protested the building would fall.

While this work was going on, Filippo undertook many other buildings, and his fame was spread abroad, so that any one who desired to build sent for him, among whom were the Marquis of Mantua and Count Francesco Sforza. Cosimo de' Medici also proposing to build himself a palace, Filippo laid aside all his other occupations and made a large and most beautiful model for it. But Cosimo, thinking it too sumptuous a building, and fearing not so much the expense as the envy it would excite, did not have it put in execution. While he was working at the model, Filippo used to say he thanked fortune for the opportunity of designing a house, which he had desired for many years. Therefore when he heard that Cosimo had decided not to have it carried out, in his anger he broke it into a thousand pieces. But Cosimo afterwards repented not having followed Filippo's design.

Filippo was a facetious man in conversation, and would often give a witty answer. Lorenzo Ghiberti had bought a farm at Mount Morello, called Lepriano, on which he had to spend twice as much as it brought him in, so that it being an annoyance to him he sold it. Some one therefore asking Filippo what was the best thing Lorenzo had ever done, expecting as they were enemies he would begin to find fault with his works, he answered, "Selling Lepriano." Filippo at his death was greatly lamented by other artists, especially by those who were poor, whom he often assisted. So having lived as a Christian should, he left behind him a fragrant memory of his goodness and his great talents.

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