What About Those Frames?

What are those splashes of intense color doing here, other than harshly intruding onto the clean, pristine surfaces and crisp architectural framing of Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence?  Aren't these clean, crisp lines and surfaces the very elements we most celebrate in Brunelleschi's architecture?  And aren't they compromised by the animated frescoes we see here under these vaults?  

by Michael Djordjevitch

In reviewing these familiar images, however, we are compelled to notice where exactly those intrusive splashes of color are found: above doorways---thresholds---where they consistently fill up the whole field of the lunettes above them.    

Stepping back, we see, however, that the outer surfaces of the building are not much affected by the various contingencies within the colonnade. 

It is here that we might recall that much of the writing on this monument focuses on its proportions.  Indeed, these are strikingly straightforward, a simple composition in C Major, as it were. 

But is this proportional system what we actually see when we visit or view the Ospedale?  Certainly, to a degree, but demonstrably---not only.  What we see, more directly and insistently than its proportions, are the various relations between the pietra serena architectural elements.  It is true that these elements relentlessly frame spaces and surfaces, from the vaults beyond the colonnade to the walls above and behind it.   

Did Brunelleschi then anticipate that these surfaces and spaces throughout would remain neutral fields, empty and un-ornamented? 

The frescoes we see on the ospedale's walls and vaults quietly suggest, perhaps not.  

The most striking of the vividly colorful frescoes in the portico is found above the central entry.  It is  the work of Bernardino Poccetti (1548-1612), a notable Florentine painter, who painted them around 1600.

Poccetti's fresco, in its captivating charm, is immediately recognizable as indebted to Michelangelo's work at the Sistine Chapel, which, through its mesmerizing and comprehensive authority had already formed the artistic horizons of Poccetti's immediate artistic predecessors, the likes of Pontormo (1494 – 1557), Parmigianino (1503 – 1540) and Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609).

As in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, we have here at the Ospedale a painted composition of sculptural and architectural and human figures, framing painted scenes.  These architectural figures, virtual doors and windows, while providing perches for virtual sculptures and human figures, offer glimpses into worlds beyond.

By way of the mediating art of fresco painting we have the intrinsically related arts of architecture and sculpture working all-together, and conjuring up a mesmerizing Threshold, a window onto a Transcendent World. 

Is this, then, how Brunelleschi intended the framed fields of his architecture, here and elsewhere, to be filled? 

While he was certainly the most celebrated engineer builder of his time---witness his achievement at the Duomo---Brunelleschi was also celebrated in his time as a painter, the inventor of pictorially coherent perspective, a stage designer for festivals, a sculptor, considered equal to Ghiberti, a builder of fortifications, a hydraulic engineer, and an architect of many works, including his crowning achievement at the Duomo, the Lantern to his Dome.   

Looking beyond this painting, and discovering through recent careful scholarship that every one of Brunelleschi's architectural works, other that his very last, the Lantern, is significantly incomplete, we are compelled to re-consider the whole of his architecture in the light of what is demonstrably complete and whole.

Where Brunelleschi's artistic works are complete, they consistently integrate sculpture and painting with architecture.  Brunelleschi's one surviving painting, his Holy Trinity, in Florence's Santa Maria Novella, was a collaboration between himself and Masaccio (1401–1428) where Brunelleschi composed the whole and Masaccio contributed the figures.  This painting presents many of the familiar elements of Brunelleschi's architecture, both planar and volumetric.  Here, along with the human figures, the architectural elements work to frame a vaulted space filled with the Very Icon of the Transcendent.  Human and Divine figures and architectural elements are intimately related: cannot, in fact, be considered separately from one another.

From the evidence of a complete Brunelleschian work, then, we might imagine that the pietra serena elements at his Ospedale constitute not only frames, but also frames for figures and scenes, such as we see in Poccetti's fresco and in Brunelleschi's own Holy Trinity.  As in the Holy Trinity painting, these figured frames are also thresholds, portals into imagined, and transcendent realms.  

Thus, these painted idealized visions, of worlds beyond our everyday-own, present an architecture that is radically at odds with contemporary notions about the meaning and significance of Brunelleschi's architecture.  These contemporary notions anachronistically assert that his architecture was in some sense proto-modern, that its "clean lines" and "pure surfaces" were indicative of a "functional approach", much ahead of its time; or, as the foremost Brunelleschi authority, Howard Saalman put it, Mies van der Rohe "avant la lettre" (Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings, Penn State Press, 1993).  

It is highly unlikely that Brunelleschi's famous frame-works throughout his oeuvre were intended everywhere to be empty.  How he himself might have filled them is the subject of our next essay.

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