The Ornamentation of Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence
By Jessica Lynne Clinton
Master’s Thesis, Louisiana State University, 2010
Abstract: The Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy, was constructed during the years 1419-1428 and is considered one of the most influential buildings of the early Italian Renaissance. Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy, in its original design, was pristine and void of the architectural ornamentation that had come to characterize so many buildings that preceded it and which would come to be associated with the sacristy itself on account of later alterations. Indeed, the original sacristy was characterized by a purely articulated space free of additional ornamentation to the architecture. However, shortly after the termination of construction, the Old Sacristy became a battleground for new and evolving notions concerning the ornamentation of sacred spaces. A veritable who’s who of early Quattrocento Florence including the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, the sculptor Donatello, and the wealthy and increasingly powerful Medici family took a stand. Although, the initial lack of ornamentation has been researched, scholarship thus far neglected to fully explain the decision to profoundly alter the ornamentation of the original space. This thesis interprets and evaluates the research that has been done on the Old Sacristy and, in turn, offers an explanation for the current arrangement of architectural ornamentation in light of both aesthetic considerations and patronage.
The original reason for my interest in the Old Sacristy was the amount of Italian Renaissance talent associated with it: this single building brings together Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello, as well as other pivotal figures of the artistic flowering of Florence. Once I began to study the building, I came to realize its importance and relevance to the study of architectural ornamentation. Unlike many of the more ornate buildings constructed around the same time period, the Old Sacristy provides a unique opportunity to study a revolutionary approach to architectural ornamentation.
During the time of its construction, there existed two distinct notions regarding the way sacred buildings should be ornamented. One comprised the Gothic tradition, a highly ornamented architectural style which had been popular in Italy around Brunelleschi’s time. The other was a simpler classical architectural style that did not display the richness associated with Gothic architecture and ornament. These two opposing viewpoints on architectural ornamentation came to light when the patronage of the sacristy shifted from Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici to his sons Cosimo and Lorenzo: at this point the building departed radically from Brunelleschi’s original conception and acquired a more ornamented appearance. Using the Old Sacristy as my case study, I will explore the differing attitudes toward architectural ornament that were present in Florence during the early Renaissance. At first, I will focus my attention on the architect, Brunelleschi, and his purist views of architecture supported by the patronage of Giovanni di Bicci. Then, I turn my analysis to the later, more architecturally ornamented approach expounded by Giovanni’s sons and realized by the sculptor Donatello.