Santo Spirito

We now head west for the Santo Spirito, another project by Brunelleschii. The Augustines had desired a new church ever since 1397. The older church no longer sufficed: it was small and particularly old-fashioned. Allegedly, the monks spent four decades skipping a meal a day to save up enough funds for their church. Vasari describes how after some deliberation around 1434, it was decided to hire Filippo Brunelleschi and: ‘[…] someone was sent to Filippo to ask if he could produce a model, equipped with all the possibly useful and noteworthy additions fit for a Christian house of worship […]’

Santo Spirito Piazza Florence
photo:  Дмитрий Мозжухин
Santo Spirito Piazza Bell tower Florence
photos: Rufus46 and dome: Lucas Aless

Bell Tower

The design made by Filippo Brunelleschi left him free to do as he pleased, as opposed to with the San Lorenzo where he was restricted by what the first architect had already constructed. This time, he enjoyed reasonable freedom. This explains why his biographer Manetti writes that Brunelleschi ‘made a church aligned with his ideas.’ Construction started around 1435, leaving the old church intact as much as possible. After all, it still had to provide room for mass. At the north side, at the apse, work started on the foundation. The war against Luca and the battle of Anghiari resulted in construction being halted for seven years. On April 5th 1446, ten days before Filippo’s death, sources confirm that the first column was paid for. However, this was not erected until 8 years later. The arms around the crossing were built between 1460 and 1470. The dome was completed in 1481 and modelled by Brunelleschi, though some changes were added later on. Construction was then finalised with a facade.

Santo Spirito

Santo Spirito facade Florence

The San Spirito: a church without the errors of the San Lorenzo

Santo Spirito Brunelleschi Florence
photo: Lucarelli

Santo Spirito       Zoom in

Santo Spirito: nave Brunelleschi Florence
photo: Smarthistory and zoom: Rufus 46

The flaws in the San Lorenzo that we spoke of before can now be avoided. In this regard, a comparison between the Santo Spirito and the San Lorenzo can be insightful. Let us again briefly recap the flaws of the San Lorenzo: a basilisk of which the pillars were already built by Dolfini before Brunelleschi was involved:
1. the ugly connection of the chapels in the aisles at the nave and the ones in the transept arm. Chapels that partly overlap.
2. the dark dome that is poorly proportioned compared to the rest of the structure. What’s more, the dome is not the prettiest sight from outside.
3. the height at which the columns were placed in the nave, is much lower than the pilasters that are seen at the back wall of the aisle. Vasari comments that this gives the construction a kind of cripple look. Two ‘legs’ that are uneven (Click here: scroll down).

Transept and nave

Filippo Brunelleschi now attempted to prevent all these flaws in his Santo Spirito. For instance, Filippo now makes sure that the connection of the transept arms on the vertical axis, the nave, are in harmony. The Santo Spirito has no overlapping chapels. Filippo finds a solution for the connection by turning a basilisk with a transept into a centred plane. Looking at the layout, what you really see is a Greek cross, of which only one of the four arms has been extended with seven bays. Leaving those seven bays out, you would have a perfect Greek cross around a crossing with a dome. From that perspective, the whole is entirely without a transept (Click here for the layout of the original design by Brunelleschi). All chapels are even, at least visually. The two adjacent side-chapels at the transition from the aisles at the nave to the transept look just like all other chapels, but this is not the case. All chapels were given a semi-circle shape, but this is not the case for the eight chapels at the transition from the length and the transverse arm. Upon closer inspection, these chapels have an irregular shape, though this not evident when you first (and again) look at them. The dilemma for any architect lies in that it is impossible to make all chapels even in a church with a transept. So Brunelleschi was left with no other choice but to mask the differences as best he could.

He actually managed this, at least for the interior, by clever use of a column: 3/4th of a column was placed on the corner at the front where the two chapels of the nave and the lateral arm touch. If you stand in the transept or in the aisle at the nave, this three-quarter column appears equal to the other columns of the side-chapels, namely as a semi-column. This makes all chapels look alike and their irregular shape remains hidden. The two wall surfaces of the chapels that collide at the corners around the crossing both have an irregular thickness. The wall surface between both corner chapels has a strange curvature (click here for a drawing of the wall surfaces). At the thinnest point, the wall has a diameter of just fifteen centimeters. What Brunelleschi was unable to hide was how the two windows of the chapels came together. In the corner, the two windows collide as opposed to the other windows that were placed with a fixed distance from each other. However, this is only visible at the outside of the church where the transept and the longitudinal arm connect. Naturally, Brunelleschi chose for a beautiful and harmonious interior and the ugly corner of the two windows at the exterior was a lesser evil for him that he could do little about.

Santo Spirito two windows Brunelleschi Florence
photo: Bas Haasakker

While it was popular to say in Florence that all people were equal, this was of course nothing but a myth. For instance, the Medici owned a lot of chapels in the San Lorenzo and in particular the nicest and largest one: the choir chapel. This also applies to the Tornabuoni family who had managed to obtain the chapel behind the altar in the Santa Maria Novella. We will visit this chapel later when we examine the fresco cycle by Ghirlandaio. Now, Brunelleschi came with the idea of true equality: all chapels in the church had to be identical. The rich families that lived in this neighbourhood, the Santo Spirito, paid hefty sums to own the rights to a chapel. Naturally, like elsewhere in the city, there was a fierce rivalry in obtaining the largest chapel. With Brunelleschi’s design accepted, the only option to get a somewhat nicer chapel was the chapel nearest to the crossing where the altar was. These were traditionally highly desired altars and thus the most expensive.

Crossing dome of the Santo Spirito

A flawed dome like the one in the San Lorenzo was easier to prevent than the flawed connections of the side chapels on the transept chapels. The dome does provide sufficient light to the Santo Spirito and is well-proportioned as opposed to the dome of the San Lorenzo. Twelve round windows were installed at the base of the dome, like we have seen at the Old Sacristy and the Pazzi chapel.

At the San Lorenzo, prior Dolfini made the pillars at the crossing too narrow to support a dome that Brunelleschi insisted on building. All stops had to be pulled by Filippo to fortify these crossing pillars, by adding fluted pilasters on all sides. At the Santo Spirito, Brunelleschi was free to make pillars that were strong enough to support a large folded dome. The pillars in the Santo Spirito are two braccia in thickness (approx. 1.17 meters), the ones in the San Lorenzo are 1.5 braccio. Another advantage of the dome in the Santo Spirito is that it clearly extends above the gable roof of the church. In the sixteenth century, another lantern and a second outer shell were added to the dome.

Santo Spirito aisle Brunelleschi Florence
photo: scottgunn


The flaw of columns without a pedestal and the different heights of the two legs in the San Lorenzo (columns nave and the semi-pilasters at the wall of the aisles), resulting in Vasari’s comment of a ‘cripple construction’, are of course not repeated in the Santo Spirito. The semi-columns at the aisles and the full columns in the nave are placed at an equal height. The columns are of course monoliths, which was imperative to Filippo. There are however two differences between ‘the legs’. The semi-column is not a true monolith, but comprises two parts. Furthermore, the semi-columns do not have an entasis like the columns that are supporting the formerets. Naturally, the Corinthian columns, the order that Brunelleschi favoured most, was placed on an Attic basement. This was done in full accordance with the classical rules including the correct proportions of the two tori (ring shape) and the trochilus (ring between the outer two).

The crossing as a module in the Santo Spirito and the San Lorenzo

Santo Spirito

Santo Spirito: nave Brunelleschi Florence
photo: Randy Connolly

Despite the differences between the San Lorenzo and the Santo Spirito, Filippo used the system of balanced proportions (symmetria) for both churches, like Vitruvius had described. In both churches, the crossing (Smarthistory) was used as a module and the other parts were derived from it. For instance, one bay of the nave is exactly half that of the crossing. The aisle is half of the bay of the nave, so a quarter of the crossing. The side chapel is half of the aisle bays and 1/8th of the crossing. The circumference of the floors in both churches is accurately indicated with the lining in the marble. Yet this is where the difference shows. The San Lorenzo has the lines in the floor running next to the plinth of the column – put differently, the space of the basements does not match the bay – while the floor of the Santo Spirito has coloured marble strips running exactly to the centre of the columns (Wikipedia: intercolumnium).

San Lorenzo floor pattern Florence

For the loggia of the Ospedale, Brunelleschi combined two systems as described earlier: the geometric system and the classic system based on the diameter of the column. This inevitably leads to conflicts and flaws. Giuliano da Sangallo, who had extensively studied the Santo Spirito, and much to his surprise, discovered these flaws in this church, too. Sangallo would later go on to build the sacristy in the Santo Spirito. If you stand in the nave and look at the series of arches that are supported by the Corinthian columns, you will see what problem is occurring at the end of the arcades. Each column in the formeret is supporting two arches that convene right in the centre of the bearing carrier. Each pillar of the crossing has a semi-column instead of a full column. This makes a lot of sense. After all, each bay of the formerets has to be equal. But right at the end of the formeret at the pillar and the semi-column do we see an unavoidable conflict that is impossible to solve. The choice for a semi-column is the obvious one to achieve symmetry at each bay in the formerets. Furthermore, it makes sense that if one column supports two arches, a semi-column can be used to support one arch.

Santo Spirito: transept Florence

However, the problem is that the distance of the bay between the pillar becomes smaller with a semi-column and the next with a full column than the distance of other bays in the formerets with two full columns. The distance between full columns is eleven braccia, but the space between the semi-column at the crossing pillar and the next full column is one braccio less. The consequence of this difference is that the last arch in the formerets, right before the crossing, is shorter, which shows: no more symmetry. This is an impossible to solve dilemma. This is where two opposing principles of the Renaissance collide, namely: symmetry and a consistent modular system (use of the crossing as a module as described above).

Both Manetti and Vasari praise this church of Filippo Brunelleschi. The old flaws of the San Lorenzo were avoided. Vasari does note that if the church was built after Brunelleschi’s original model, then
“[…] this building would [Vasari wrote this around 1568] be the most perfect house of worship of Christianity: after all, how it is now, it is more pleasant and better arranged than any other, while the original model was not adhered to, discernible from certain exterior facets that are not in alignment with the interior plan, like the doors and window frames, which seem to be alien from Filippo’s model.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel I blz. 189-190

Semi-round chapel

The first three semi-round chapels (Cathedral Orvieto and semi-round chapel exterior and interior) that were built, towards the end of the right transept (east side), protruded from the construction. With the exterior, Filippo did not want a straight wall like we see now, but a wavy wall with semi-round protruding chapel walls.

Chapel of Capponi      Grid of Bernardo Rossellino
Web Gallery of Art

After construction of the first three chapels and the death of Brunelleschi in 1446, a decision was made to cancel that idea (designed plan and plan as constructed). Presumably because of a number of practical reasons:

  • The main one is likely that the semi-round chapels had limited space to bury the dead. A straight outer wall provides a bit of extra space. Sources claim that the grandson of Neri di Gino Capponi had permission to break through the round wall on the inside to give him enough room in the gap up to the straight outer wall for a grave. Capponi did have to repair the wall afterwards. It was Bernardo Rossellino who used a grid to repair this gap.
  • Construction would not only cost a significant sum of money, a straight wall is a lot cheaper.
  • The recesses where the semi-round walls convened are hard to maintenance and accumulate a lot of filth, let alone pigeon and other bird droppings.
Santo Spirito: Chapel of Capponi
photos: Hench Hsu and grid: Sailko

The facade of the Santo Spirito

Piazza Santo Spirito       Santo Spirito

Piazza Santo Spirito Florence
photos: Kari and Santo Spirito: Erik Parker

There was a long, fierce debate, which was well-documented, about how the facade had to loo. On March 11th 1482, a meeting was held to reach a decision about the facade. There were two options for the door in the facade:

  • a wide and high door in the centre near the nave, flanked by two smaller doors that would each be placed at the aisles.
  • four equal door.
Santo Spirito: facade three doors  Florence

In the first case, the longitudinal axis of the basilisk is strongly emphasised, similar to what you see when entering Brunelleschi’s other church, the San Lorenzo. Four equal doors removes the axis. After all, there would be no door on the same line with the altar that is positioned right in the centre of the crossing under the dome. Out of the four master buildings at the meeting of March 11, 1482, the only one in favour of a facade with four doors with the son of Lorenzo Ghiberti, Vittore. The others opted for three doors. They provided the measurements for the width and height: twelve by six braccia for the large, middle door and the other two would be eight by four braccia. A beautiful proportion of 1:2, which in music is called an octave. However, the opinion of the three master builders was not decisive. It was such a sensitive issue that the Signoria became involved. By March 1483, it was decided to build a facade with three doors. Still, not a year later the construction was halted and the masons were fired.

Santo Spirito: facade Florence
photo: Dick Pountain

Facade of the Santo Spirito

A final decision is reached in May of 1486. The Operai had appointed sixty-two people, including valued architects and master builders, from all over the city, to reach a consensus. This meeting is where Antonio Canigiani proposed to make two models of the facade: one with three and another with four doors. In addition, a man named Maestro Lodovico remarked that he heard that Brunelleschi intended to place four doors. After much deliberation, all eligible voters received a black and a white bean. Now the voting could commence. The first vote was for the facade with three doors. Thirty were in favour, seventeen were against. On voting about the facade with four doors, there were six black and thirty white beans. This means that only six had voted for the four doors, and thirty against. The proposal by Antonio Canigiani to first produce two models was dismissed by twenty-seven to twenty.

The model of the Santo Spirito made by Brunelleschi had four doors, according to Saalman. So in this matter, Lodovico was right. The drawing of Giuliano da Sangallo, who had accurately studied the Santo Spirito, also showed four doors. Sangallo was very surprised when he found out that the last arch in the nave before the pillar was shorter than the other arches.

A square in front of the Santo Spirito with a view on the Arno
Giovanni Stradano ‘Piazza Santo Spirito’ c. 1560

Not only the facade and the exterior were carried out against Brunelleschi’s original intent, but this also applied to the location and the intended square. Manetti and Vasari both expand on this. The monks sent someone to Filippo

“[…] to ask if he would design a model, with all the possible useful and noteworthy additions befitting a Christian house of worship; Filippo then insisted that the layout of the church would be turned around, as it was his heart’s desire that the square would reach up to the Arno, so that all travellers from Genoa and from the Riviera, from the Lunigiana and from the regions of Pisa and Lucca, would travel past it and marvel at the splendour of the building; but certain people did not like this, as their homes would have to be torn down, hence why Filippo’s wish was not honoured.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel. I, blz. 189 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).

The home of Brunelleschi’s biographer, Manetti, was also situated at the Via del Fondaccio, but in the direction of the San Frediano so that his home did not need to be torn down. Even if the grand plan of Filippo with his square reaching to the Arno would be carried out, could this explain his enthusiasm for Brunelleschi’s plan? What Brunelleschi managed for the chapels (equal chapels for all families), he did not manage for this plan. Equal chapels were one thing, but tearing down houses, belonging to influential, wealthy families at that, was a bridge too far.

Campanile       Zoom in

The facade was constructed at the same place where the medieval church had stood. The already existing Piazza was not changed. Finally, in 1600, a man named Baccio d’Agnolo builds another campanile.

Santo Spirito: Tosini ‘Madonna with Child and saints
photo: Dick Pountain

Tosini ‘Madonna with Child and saints’ 1520 1577

A visit to this church is also more than worth it just for the many original altarpieces that are still in their original spot, like the Nerli altarpiece by Filippino Lippi.

Filippino Lippi ‘Madonna with St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Martin of Tours’

Santo Spirito: Filippino Lippi 'Madonna with St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Martin of Tours'

Michelangelo ‘Crucifix’ in situ

Santo Spirito: Michelangelo 'Crucifix' Florence

The sacristy (Wikipedia) is also a worthy place to visit (left aisle upon entering the church and then straight in the middle). It shows a wooden crucifix of Michelangelo that he presented to the prior, Bichiellini, of the Santo Spirito. This monastery is where Michelangelo performed anatomy as a young man, something Bichiellini agreed to.

Santo Spirito: Michelangelo 'Crucifix'
photo: John Cox

Michelangelo ‘Crucifix’      Jesus

‘The sign attached to the cross includes Jesus’ accusation inscribed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The wording translates “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews“. All of the evangelists record this inscription, which varies slightly among them. Here the artist favored the rendering from John’s Gospel (John 19:19). Also present is the spear wound inflicted into Jesus’ side by a Roman soldier. His blood is seen here dripping from the wound on his right side.’ Cited from: Wikipedia.

Continuation Florence day 2: Pitti and the Boboli Gardens