The story goes that one day Filippo Brunelleschi, the goldsmith who would go on to become the most important architect in Europe and arguably the originator of the Renaissance, devises a practical joke he and his buddies play on their mutual friend, Manetto the woodworker. The gist of it is that they contrive to convince Manetto that he is not himself but another man named Matteo.
The prank works by having everyone in Manetto’s social sphere suddenly refer to him and treat him as Matteo. He is even arrested and sent to jail for several nights for debts owed by Matteo. Brunelleschi manages the deception so well that, apparently, Manetto eventually answers to Matteo, though perhaps not entirely happy with adopting this new identity.
Eventually Filippo and company drug “Matteo,” bring him back to his home, and then begin calling him Manetto again as if nothing happened. Manetto, perplexed beyond imagination, decides he dreamed the whole thing.
It’s not clear if anyone ever explained the joke to Manetto, though it’s unlikely Brunelleschi would have. He liked his secrets.
He also protected the secret of perspective painting, which he developed decades before anyone else figured it out. His apparent insight encapsulates the central impulse of the Renaissance: to look with human, not divine, sight.
We don’t know whether a lot of the stories about Brunelleschi are true. Did he really win the competition to design the cupola in Florence by standing an egg on end? Did he really fake an illness in order to make his rival, Ghiberti, look incompetent?
We do learn from the stories, however, that Brunelleschi was uniquely attuned to the social construction of reality. It was an insight that followed directly from the humanistic paradigm shift, though no one else achieved it until, perhaps, Machiavelli developed his brand of cynicism.
But whereas one can read Machiavelli and conclude that God has little to do with human affairs, one doesn’t get the same sense from Brunelleschi. He was always a religious humanist.
If our ways of looking at and structuring our environments impacted how we experienced ourselves and God, then that meant to him that we should look at and structure our environments in a manner that expresses the image of God in humanity and thus glorifies God.
Consider his recovery of the column as a metaphor for the human form. He lined the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti with them. In contrast to the stockier or square pillars, the columns rise from small bases and taper slightly toward the top. The effect is simple and elegant, and it presumes the basic dignity of the orphaned children who would live there.
I don’t know if I’ve learned, yet, what Brunelleschi has to teach me, which is perhaps why I remain fascinated with him. Certainly he embodies some contradictions, and yet in his architecture he achieves a seemingly effortless balance of Christian devotion and humanistic philosophy. Great people after him lost the ability to see how the dignity of the columns, say, depends upon a cosmic reality that permeates them, invisibly. Brunelleschi always believed his skill praised God.And yet Filippo was not above the scheming and competition of the Florentine art world, enmeshed with the guilds and local politics as it was. This is a man who, for the glory of God, solved the decades-old problem of how to build the world’s largest dome. He was also capable of having a friend locked up in prison as a prank? Would he really try to get Ghiberti fired from the cupola project over professional differences?
Why, though, should I expect genius, passion, discipline, and faith to be free of pettiness, ambition, envy, or cruelty? He was but a man, after all. Sometimes he was a not very good man, but as literary critic Wayne Booth argues in The Rhetoric of Fiction, perhaps in his moments of creation he was expressing his best self.
To think this is to think incarnationally, which is to say, to see both the physical and spiritual at once, to believe that a concrete reality like art could be a conduit for purification or refinement. It’s possible that such a way of thinking originated with Brunelleschi himself, the man who showed us how the physical (and social) world could be manipulated for both good and ill, but believed more deeply in the power of good.
As we see in his earliest work, a bronze panel cast as part of the competition to design the Baptistery doors—the competition that began his lifelong rivalry with Ghiberti (who won).
In Filippo’s panel, Abraham, a man of faith, though just a man, looks determined to bring the knife down on Isaac. Yet suddenly an angel reaches down from heaven and grabs his hand.
Thinking to please God, Abraham nearly committed a grave sin, but God forestalls him. Perhaps Brunelleschi, too, sought to live with Abraham’s ferocity, having faith that God would protect him from the worst errors.
If that’s the lesson, it’s not so new. Few of them are. But Brunelleschi’s statues and buildings—and his great dome—are the concrete means through which I’m relearning it now. Who knows where I’ll be inspired next? It’s part of the adventure of incarnation, the plenitude of revelation, the richness of art, the infinitude of the mind—and the felicity of discovery in a world permeated by God.
Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.
Above image by étoiles filantes, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.