Early Modern Architects

The history of architecture is a history filled with important people, people who pushed the art and science of architecture to its limits.

This article deals with seven early modern greats: Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, Michelangelo, Donato Bramante, Andrea Palladio, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and Sir Christopher Wren.

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)

Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the men who started the rebirth, or renaissance, of classical architecture. When challenged with creating a dome of seemingly unprecedented proportions for the Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi turned to the ruins of the Pantheon in Rome and came up with a method to build the domed ceiling, creating, for the first time in a thousand years, a freestanding dome of Roman proportions.

Brunelleschi was also important for being a forerunner of the idea of rationally ordered space, whereby he mathematically defined the proportions of a building, seeking an innate, everlasting beauty through geometry. His work in this field is best exemplified by the Foundling Hospital in Florence, which incorporated Brunelleschi's ideal of pure circles, squares, and cubes, in determining the proportions of the arcade across the front of the orphans' asylum.

In determining the formula of linear perspective, he helped shape not only architecture, but also shipbuilding, painting, plans writing, invention, and more. Some scholars have even counted the unlocking of perspective among the numerous things that led to Europe's rise to ascendancy in the early modern era, over the other nations of the world.

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)

Leon Battista Alberti was a consummate polymath. He was active as an author, poet, linguist, architect, philosopher, and cryptographer, and, like Leonardo da Vinci, was the sort of person we call up today when referring to someone as a "Renaissance man."

In his architecture, he, like Brunelleschi and many of his contemporaries, turned to the ancients for inspiration, as with his churches, best exemplified by the Roman baths-inspired Sant’ Andrea. Besides his actual works of architecture though, he is also notable to the history of architecture for the book he wrote on the subject, the De Re Aedificatoria, which was continually referenced by architects throughout the early modern period, with translations still available today.

Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Another name that conjures up the Renaissance is Michelangelo. His full name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, and he, like Alberti, was a man of many talents. He is perhaps best known as a painter and sculptor, as with his work on the Sistine Chapel and the famous statue of David, but he was also a poet, an engineer, and an architect.

As an architect, Michelangelo designed the Capitoline Square of Rome, the Laurentian Library, and the Medici Chapel in Florence. His work was influential for using shapes to influence perspective, and, as with the Laurentian Library, creating whole new styles, such as pilasters tapering thinner at the bottom, and a staircase with contrasting rectangular and curving forms. Besides his own work, Michelangelo was also helpful to other architects in editing and correcting their work, and in offering suggestions for improvement. We turn to one such pupil now, Donato Bramante.

Donato Bramante (1444-1514)

Donato Bramante is best known for his new Saint Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. The project, and its expense, in part led to the schism between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, as to pay for its construction, Pope Julius II had to sell papal indulgences with no regard to who was on the buying end a practice that angered and annoyed many theologians.

The building alone, though, ignoring its effect on Christianity’s history, is a massive and beautiful construction. Although Bramante’s original plan was lighter than the building now, Michelangelo helped him adjust it, to provide more support for the gigantic dome Bramante wished to place atop the martyrium.

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580)

Architectural historian Leland M. Roth points out that Andrea Palladio is one of the few Renaissance greats who was actually trained as a builder. Palladio built public buildings and urban palazzo in his adopted city of Vicenza, two important churches in Venice, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, and many more than forty farm villas.

He used Classical colonnades, and whole-number proportional systems in his planning and building, as like the other Renaissance architects, he drew heavily on the ancients for inspiration. He also put the landscape on center stage, believing that a pleasing view of the surrounding countryside was important, and enjoyable. Aside from his many, many buildings, though, he also wrote an important work on architecture, if perhaps not as important as Alberti’s, entitled Quattro libri dell’ architettura, or Four Books of Architecture.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)

Most famous for his piazza and colonnades of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini also planned several Roman palaces, embellished the pre-existing structures of many churches, and was even hired by Louis XIV to build the colonnade of the Louvre in Paris but, in the last case, was ultimately turned down in favor of a French architect.

Bernini, while still influenced by Classical cultures, focused on architecture that produced an emotional impact, and began to reveal in his inspiring architectural art that architecture was a constituent part of "a total work of art."

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)

Sir Christopher Wren was a designer, astronomer, geometer, and probably the greatest English architect of his time. He founded the Royal Society, and his scientific work was highly regarded by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal.

As an architect, he designed 53 London churches, including his most famous work, St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as many secular buildings of note. Wren embodied the complexity of the Baroque style in a distinctly English way, and his studies in geometry helped assure good aesthetics and stability in his buildings. To quote one author, with regards to Wren’s rebuilding of St. Paul’s, Wren’s architecture was "a complex and brilliant fusion of traditional plan and Renaissance-Baroque formal elements and scale, its structure mathematically studied for utmost stability and efficiency".