Ospedale degli Innocenti II

A comparison: the facades of the Ospedale and the San Matteo (Accademia)

Ospedale degli Innocenti: facade
photo: Rachel Boyd Smarthistory

Brunelleschi’s facade is quite different from San Matteo’s: a spedale at a stone throw’s distance from the Ospedale degli Innocenti. The columns that Brunelleschi used are similar to classical columns. The Greeks compared their columns to man. Vitruvius, for instance, has the following to say about the Ionic column:

“Command my body unto the earth, so that it behoveth no more to wake, but let it be stretched freely to thee, which art fountain of joy never failing. And when he had said this, there cam“[…] they conveyed female slenderness to the column first and foremost by first making its thickness an eighth of its height, to make it appear taller. At its lower end, they placed a base by way of a shoe, the capital was adorned with volutes, that hung down on the right and the left like curled locks in a hairdo. The front was decorated with egg-and-dart bands and garlands shaped to resemble hair on the forehead and had grooves running down the entire length of the torso, like folds in the long clothes usually worn by women.” According to Vitruvius’ in his description of an Ionic capital. Translated from: Vitruvius, ‘Handbook of Architecture’, Athenaeum-Polak &Van Gennep, Amsterdam 1997 page. 113 (Volume IV).

A little further along in his text, Vitruvius remarks that the height of the Ionic column eventually became nine times its diameter. The Corinthian column that Brunelleschi generally used, was not considered a woman, but a girl. Obviously, such a pillar had to appear even more slender, which is why the diameter was multiplied by ten to arrive at the correct height. Walking up the steps, you come level with the Corinthian columns. Your foot is right beside a plinth not much higher than your shoe.
With this design, Brunelleschi returned to the classical, anthropomorphic ideas about columns. Bear in mind that people spoke of the foot of a pillar and a capitellum [Latin for little head], from which the word capital is derived. This approach to columns represented a break with the architectural tradition of Florence. Octagonal pillars without an entasis were used, among others, in the old Santa Reparata, the Duomo and the Santa Maria Novella. The loggia of the oldest spedale, San Matteo, which dates to around 1390, provides a beautiful example of how novel Brunelleschi’s approach was.

Ospedale degli Innocenti: column

The columns of the loggia are octagonal and placed on a wall. The leaves of these columns are very rigid and unnatural (columns Ospedale). These stone leaves bear no resemblance to the naturalist Tuscan style: folia d’aqua, they appear to be uniform stampings. The arches that these columns support are not hemispherical, but slightly flattened.

And yet, there are also clear similarities between the San Matteo and the Ospedale degli Innocenti. There is, for instance, the odd number of bays – seven compared to nine at the Ospedale – creating symmetry with the emphasis on a central axis. What is more, the floors of the building are clearly separated by a string course and the series of arcades is concluded with a final bay as if it were a bookend.

Ospedale San Matteo

Ospedale San Matteo Accademia
photo: Sailko
Brunelleschi's Corinthian capital
photo: Sailko

Corinthian capital

The capitals of the Ospedale degli Innocenti’s columns of the Corinthian order are considerably more naturalistic than the ones we just saw at the San Matteo. In addition, these capitals have the classical double row of leaves. The shaft of the column does not seem as rigid as the octagonal columns of the San Matteo. In his round columns, Brunelleschi also used an entasis for his round columns, which lends them a much more natural appearance.

The arches just barely touch the architrave. This in contrast to what we saw at the San Matteo, were a narrow band, a string course, is not connected to the arches below it. At each bay, a window was built exactly above the centre of the arch, allowing sufficient light to enter the corridor behind it that provides access to the sleeping quarters. Brunelleschi was very meticulous in his placement of windows and always provided regular lighting. The two end bays are wider, as a result of which the distance between the windows in the corner bays and the other windows is also greater. This is partly why Brunelleschi had originally planned pilasters at the end bays. This had the additional advantage that the corner bays would have served as bookends, just like they do in the series of nine identical bays (the number of bays was later to be extended).

When Brunelleschi’s involvement in the construction of the Ospedale degli Innocenti ends in 1427, Francesco di Francesco di Pierozzo della Luna (erroneously identified by Vasari as Francesco della Luna) takes charge of the project. Francesco had considerable influence in the silk guild and was probably the driving force behind the plans of 1427 to substantially extend the complex. Brunelleschi’s biographer, Manetti, was not at all happy about the way Francesco built the facade. His criticism was:
Several significant deficiencies in its design become evident when compared to Brunelleschi’s work, with one notable issue being the frieze running along the arches, and another concerning the architrave. In contrast to Brunelleschi’s design, this one exhibits several notable shortcomings, including problems with the frieze that spans the arches and issues with the architrave. In addition to the two windows, there are the slim pilasters that extend beyond the cornice, doubling as support for the upper cornice, purportedly carrying the weight of the overhanging roof. Similarly, the building’s expansion [south side bay] along the front facade of the portico exhibits both proportionate irregularities and structural issues of its own. Additionally, there’s the matter of the architrave curving downward, extending all the way to the building’s basement. To sum it up succinctly, various deviations abound. For quote see: Manetti, ‘The life of Brunelleschi by Antonio di Tucci Manetti’, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park and London 1970, lines: 1074-1089 (first edition published around 1480).

A bent architrave

‘The architrave that is turned downward’ (bent architrave) might be in violation of the Vitruvian canon, but was not unusual in Florence. Both the Baptistry and the San Miniato al Monte feature an architrave that changes direction from a horizontal band to a vertical one. When Filippo Brunelleschi revisits Florence, and sees the result of his design, he admonishes Francesco. The latter defends himself by saying that he had copied the bent architrave from the San Giovanni church, which was a very old building. ‘To which Filippo said: There is only one flaw in that building [Baptistry], and you copied it.’ Also, Francesco had not built the two planned corner bay pilasters.

Ospedale degli Innocenti: bent architrave

This resulted in a much-reduced distinction between the two ‘bookends’ of the loggia and the nine bays in between. Manetti wrote about ‘another faulty proportion’ in the facade, but failed to mention exactly which proportion of the facade he was talking about.

The proportions of the facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti

Reconstruction design Brunelleschi

Ospedale degli Innocenti: reconstruction facade Brunelleschi
Adriano Marinazzo

The facade’s proportions are, among others, based on the distance between the columns as shown in this drawing. As Brunelleschi was using the Corinthian order, as he often did, he had to adhere to the classical rules and make the height of the column ten times its diameter. But this is not actually the case. This is because Brunelleschi’s designs were not just based on the classical numerical ratios, but also on the Mediaeval system of geometric proportions.

In his floorplan, for instance, Brunelleschi used the inner square (so without the logia) of the central courtyard. The diagonal of this inner square was used as a module for the layout of the floorplan. This diagonal (forty-two braccia long; rounded off, that is) was then used to create a second, larger square. This was the square of the inner courtyard including the loggia, of which the diagonal is sixty braccia long (again rounded off). Next, the two concentric squares were centred using a perpendicular line. The length of the facade was determined by the diagonal of the larger square. This was done by folding out the large diagonal (sixty braccia) on both sides of the centre line, the central east-to-west axis.

Ospedale degli Innocenti: facade
photo: Ricardalovesmonuments

The facade (Brunelleschi’s original design) then became 120 braccia wide. Finally, the facade was divided up into bays, to wit: 15 braccia for the two outermost bays and 10 for each of the nine loggia bays. However, the two systems, the mediaeval and the classical one, are incompatible. This means that Brunelleschi had no choice but to compromise. For instance, the wide corner bays are not 15, but 14.33 braccia, which meant that the geometric proportions were no longer correct. The deviation from the classical Corinthian column is almost indiscernible to the naked eye. The ratio is not 1:10, but 1:10.77. A deviation of around eight percent is almost invisible. In short, a compromise that was optically quite acceptable. It was, however, a substantial deviation for an architect who was one of the first to re-introduce the classical rules and very strict about it. Michelozzo and Alberti applied the classical canon much more loosely, in particular where the use of the orders was concerned. For his tabernacle at the San Miniato al Monte, Michelozzo used no less than four different capitals for the columns.

The Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata

Piazza della Santissima Annunziata Florence
photo: Gryffindor 

The facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti is not only explained from the geometric proportions Brunelleschi used for his original design. At least as important was the square in front of it, which was then still known as the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. When the plot for the Ospedale had been purchased, so much of it was still lying vacant, that the complex could be designed without restrictions. Walking down the Via dei Servi, a street that connects the square of the Duomo to the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, you can see the Santissima Annunziata on the other side. Michelozzo was to build an atrium with a loggia for this church in 1444, one year before the first orphans arrived at the Ospedale. The Rotunda of the Santissima Annunziata, a later addition, was placed directly on the axis of the Via dei Servi.

The Santissima Annunziata closes off the north side of the square. Brunelleschi placed the loggia of his Ospedale precisely on the axis of the existing church, and in such a way that his facade ran exactly parallel to the Santissima Annunziata. In doing so, Filippo Brunelleschi took the first step toward a regularly shaped square. Click here for a floorplan showing the changes to the square in 1427, 1454 and 1629. Filippo had probably already planned a loggia such as the one of his Ospedale even before the eventual construction of the opposite gallery.

Loggia dei Servi di Maria

Loggia dei Servi di Maria Florence
photo: Sailko

The loggia dei Servi di Maria was built in 1516 by Antonio da Sangallo and Baccio D’Agnolo, closing off the west side of the square as well. Lastly, the south side of the square is demarcated by the construction of the Palazzo Griffoni. This completed the square and gave it the appearance of a public room, albeit one without a roof.

Continuation Florence day 1: Ospedale degli Innocenti III