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Brunelleschi, Old Sacristy

Brunelleschi, Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo, Florence, begun c. 1421 Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We're in San Lorenzo in Florence in the Old Sacristy. That's a room that is traditionally used in a church for the priest to vest, that is to put on the garments for a religious ritual, but in this case, it was intended to be a mausoleum for the founder of the Medici dynasty. Dr. Harris: Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, who is buried here, along with his wife. In the early 1400s when a group of people decided to rebuild the church that was here, the families contributed money. Dr. Zucker: It wasn't that they were chipping in. Each was in control of it's own chapel. Dr. Harris: Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici decided to pay for the building of the sacristy. Dr. Zucker: He got a bigger space. Dr. Harris: He got a bigger space, he paid more money and he hired Brunelleschi, he was smart. We should say that when you enter the church, the sacristy is off the left transit. It's now known as the Old Sacristy - Dr. Zucker: Because Michelangelo designed the New Sacristy. Dr. Harris: Here we are in Brunelleschi's Old Sacristy, which is the epitome of Renaissance architecture. Dr. Zucker: Brunelleschi's done some extraordinary things here. First of all, there's a sense of solemnity, of calmness, that is, in part, a result of the extraordinary sense of geometry here and order and rationalism. So many of the characteristics that we associate with 15th century Florentine Renaissance thinking humanism. Dr. Harris: Instead of the mysterious, soaring spaces of a gothic church, we have a space built on the fundamental geometric shapes of the square and the circle and a sense of clarity. Dr. Zucker: This notion of geometry having a philosophical importance. Of course, this is a burial site, so the idea of the eternal, the idea, in fact, of resurrection is crucial here. The room itself is a perfect square. In fact, one could argue it comes close to being a cube. Then it's surmounted by this beautiful hemisphere of dome and one of the ways in which art historians understand this is that the circle is a reference to the spirituality and geometry of heaven. Dr. Harris: If you think about a circle, it has no beginning and no end, like God. Dr. Zucker: Whereas we inhabit the much more rectilinear space, the earthly space, the space of gravity. How do you get the circle down to the square that is the room itself? He's done this by borrowing a technique that we find in Byzantine architecture, in thinking about Hagia Sophia which is to use a pendentives. In this case, Brunelleschi's created these perfect hemispheres, these perfect half circles that rise up, but don't quite touch the bottom of the dome, which creates a sense of lightness. It is this sort of tension between that circle and that square that so informs this entire room, but it also informs it's symbolism. At the same time, it's all just the colors. Dr. Harris: The grey-ish green of the Pietra Serena, which Brunelleschi and Michelangelo both used a lot, stone that was local to Florence. Dr. Zucker: That frames these broad, open planes of a cream colored stucco that really helps to emphasize the geometry of this space. Dr. Harris: It sort of outlines the squares and rectangles and semi-circles and circles, so you really read the geometry. One of the things that's remarkable about Brunelleschi is that he is clearly borrowing so many forms from ancient Greek and Roman art. The pilasters and the fluting and the capitals and also this rational approach to architecture. But he's combining those elements and using them in a new way. Dr. Zucker: He is, he's using it as a kind of license to begin to construct a kind of rationalism that was for his modern world. Brunelleschi had gone to rome and actually studied antique architecture, so we can certainly see that influence, but you've seen nothing like this in Rome. This is a Renaissance room. (jazz music)