Santi Apostoli and Parte Guelfa

The Santi Apostoli: a source of inspiration for Brunelleschi

Santi Apostoli      Facade

photos: Sailko and facade Rufus46


Piazza del Limbo
“[…] Limbo is the place where, according to Catholic doctrine, small children go to when they die before being baptised. They have not committed any sins themselves, but have not been freed from the original sin by the sacrament of baptism. As a result, they cannot be admitted to Heaven, and have to stay “in Limbo”. The church was built in a children’s cemetery, hence the name of the Piazza. Religion can be cruel.” Cited from: Corvinus

The Santi Miniato al Monte, the Baptistery and the Santi Apostoli have all greatly influenced Brunelleschi’s architecture.


The Santi Miniato al Monte, the Baptistery and the Santi Apostoli have all greatly influenced Brunelleschi’s architecture. The Florentines attributed the founding of the Santi Apostoli to Charles the Great. Vasari share this belief, as he writes the following in his prelude of ‘The Lives’: ‘Later, in Florence, architecture made some little progress, and the Church of S. Apostolo, that was erected by Charlemagne, although small, was most beautiful in manner; for not to mention that the shafts of the columns, although they are of separate pieces, show much grace and are made with beautiful proportion, the capitals, also, and the arches turned to make the little vaulted roofs of the two small aisles, show that in Tuscany there had survived or in truth arisen some good craftsman. In short, the architecture of this church is such that Filippo di Ser Brunellesco did not disdain to avail himself of it as a model in building the Church of S. Spirito and that of S. Lorenzo in the same city.’ Giorgio Vasari, ‘Lives’, Preface to the Lives.

Santi Apostoli Entrance door Florence
photo: Oursana

Santo Apostoli       Aisle

Santi Apostoli nave Florence
photos: Sailko and aisle Mgelormino

In reality, this church is of proto-renaissance design, more specifically the second half of the 11th century. This church, next to other proto-renaissance churches like the San Miniato al Monte and the San Giovanni – was a source of inspiration that Brunelleschi happily tapped from, as is evident from the following:

1. The columns are placed directly on the ground. This was likely the inspiration behind the new approach of Brunelleschi to use columns classically. Columns as a metaphor for man where they are not placed on a wall or other raised element, but on a very low plinth to have man again stand face to face with the column. The porticus of the Ospedale degli Innocenti shows this very clearly. The bundled pillars that were so typical for gothic churches in Florence also disappear from Brunelleschi’s designs, instead he uses columns.
2.This church makes a clear distinction between the arcades on columns and the clerestory above it. Brunelleschi will emphasise this further in his San Lorenzo and the Santo Spirito with grey-blue pietra serena (a type of stone).
3. The columns in the Santi Apostoli have a composite capital (a combination of the Ionic volute and the Corinthian acanthus leaf). Brunelleschi rejected it. He almost always used pure classical capitals, especially the Corinthian and sometimes the Ionic ones. Michelozzo, a contemporary of Brunelleschi, was much more liberal in his use of orders. He did apply the composite capital.

Brunelleschi, the first architect of the Renaissance, was very strict and diligent in his quest to pursue the correct application of architecture. He only allowed for the use of what he considered purely classical. This is not saying he did not make use of his own time period, including gothic elements by his hand that we will see in some of his other buildings later. Architects after Brunelleschi were not as rigid in their beliefs, but they had it easy: Brunelleschi had already paved the way for them.

Parte Guelfa

Corner Via delle Terme Via Capaccio Florence Parte Guelfa
photo: Roy Harris

The corner of Via delle Terme and Via Capaccio

The building of the Guelphs is another medieval building, but one where Brunelleschi – an early-Renaissance architect – made some ‘much needed’ changes (layout: orange colour work Brunelleschi). This building was the pride and joy of the Guelphs (click here for a layout of the building). The Guelphs were wealthy traders who had won the battle against the Ghibelines (the old nobility) in 1250 and had founded the New Florentine Republic. Proud as they were of their democratic city, they of course wanted their own building. While Cosimo the Elder (Medici) immediately rejected Brunelleschi’s design for his palazzo directly in front of the San Lorenzo out of fear it would be too pompous and luxurious, the Guelphs had no qualms about such a wealthy palace. Construction started in the thirteenth century, in the period of Gothicism. The building had to be rebuilt following the bombing in World War 2.

In the fifteenth century, Brunelleschi is commissioned to build a new hall on the corner of the Via delle Terme and the Via Capaccio. Brunelleschi worked on the Sala Nuova from 1421-1422.

Sala Nuova

Parte Guelfa: Sala Nuova Brunelleschi

Gothicism and the Renaissance clash quite obviously on the side of the Via delle Terme. Brunelleschi made no effort to smooth out the enormous contrast. On the contrary, it has a rather rough transition from the old gothic structure to the new section.

Brunelleschi facades Via delle Terme and Via Capaccio
Facade Brunelleschi Via Capaccio

Brunelleschi facades Via delle Terme Via Capaccio Parte Guelfa
photos: Ricardalovesmonuments and Capaccio: Sailko

The old part has the traditional Florentine trichotomy in the facade. On the ground floor, the arcades are somewhat pointed on top: typically gothic. Brunelleschi placed his facade, which only comprised two floors and a highly raised ground floor serving as a pedestal – right against the gothic construction. To do this, he needed to first tear down a part of the old palazzo. He places stone pilasters on the corners. The whole was a predecessor for designs from the High Renaissance with palazzi by Bramante and Raphaël. In Florence itself, Brunelleschi’s approach, as far as this palace goes, was never imitated.

Brunelleschi facade

Parte Guelfa: Brunelleschi facade
photo: Sailko

The cornice is the first in Florence that adheres to classical rules. While Brunelleschi’s Sala Nuova is revolutionary compared to the adjacent gothic section, he does make use of Gothicism. His large, wide windows have an ‘oculi’, meaning rounded windows. This idea is based on the gothic cathedral in Florence. Naturally, the wide, high windows of the Duomo are pointed as was custom in Gothicism.

For more information, click here for The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 126, No. 977 (Aug., 1984), pp. 494-499+501

End of day 1
Continuation Florence day 2: Santissima Annunziata