Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brunelleschi's Dome in Loreto

Brunelleschi's Dome in Loreto

You will already be familiar with Loreto from my blog entry on Melozzo da Forli's fabulous angel chapel painted in Loreto Cathedral in 1477-80:

The style of the painter here provides the link between Mantegna and Michelangelo for ceiling painting.

         But what about the architectural style of the dome for the building Melozzo's painting is in?
                                Basilica della Santa Casa, Loreto, with Adriatic Sea behind
It, too, provides a link: between Brunelleschi's dome of the Florentine Cathedral and Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The entire cathedral complex at Loreto spans many centuries:

1291 - Holy House transported from Nazareth to Croatia
1292 - Holy House transported from Croatia to Recanati, then up the hill to Loreto 
14th-15th centuries - church dedicated to Mary already existed on the site in Loreto; planning continued to cover over and protect the Holy House; nave and side walls went up and included the fortress walls and "ronda" (round turrets surrounding the entire structure with walkways to guard from attack by sea)
1477-80 - Melozzo da Forli paints chapel
1477-80 - Signorelli paints chapel
1484 - Sixtus IV becomes Pope - issues bulls for the sacredness of the holy house; invests money in the decoration.
1499-1500 - nine months to build the dome of the basilica; designed and constructed by Giuliano da Sangallo (he lives from c. 1445-1516)
1500 - Bramante designed apostolic palace in the piazza

1571 - facade of the cathedral
1750-54 - campanile (bell tower) produced by Vanvitelli

Since the dome is our focus here, the architect of that, Giuliano da Sangallo, and its date (1499-1500) are particulars that lead us to view it as THE DOME of the intervening years between

FLORENCE CATHEDRAL DOME (1420-1436) and ROME's ST. PETER'S DOME (1503-1556.)   

Let us start back with a journey to Loreto. When you come from the sea
inland to
Loreto, the sacred site is approached up a hill, so the viewer looks up at the dome rather than
down at it in a valley, as one would the Florentine dome.

But from first glance in approach, the similarities of the silhouettes of the two structures are
striking. The height of the Loreto dome is 128 feet, slightly lower than the 144 feet of the Florence dome, but perhaps because of the hill, it seems higher than it is, making up the difference.

Even a comparison of their aerial views is particularly similar, with both buildings meant to project
the image of a flower for Mary with a long nave stem and radial petal chapels at transept and apse, as well as a public piazza in front of the facade.
And the eight ribs used to anchor the dome with similar lantern structures at the top. Only the color
of the tile on the Loreto church is dissimilar to that of the Florentine Cupola, but if you change the color is is easy to see how much they look alike.


The eight ribs descend down to the drum pierced with oculi (windows) and the ribs are reinforced by supporting pilasters in the drum.
Even at night they look satisfyingly alike.
Both were structures meant to emphasize Mary's nourishing qualities, buildings dedicated to the
mother of the Godhead of Christianity. Both buildings needed protection, which in Florence was
provided by the city walls, in Loreto by the fortress ramparts with walkways (seen here lit at night)
running around the entire church. Loreto's Holy House is built like a castle intent on defending itself against attack from the sea. (Fear of Muslims in our century has precedence in previous centuries.)

The "hortus conclusus," Latin phrase used to denote Mary in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,
the enclosed garden, is here given a physical, visual ramification. The sentry walkways still exist

high above the nave,
 giving perfect outlook for defense of the complex
which hugs the hill with head and arms almost looking like the "angels" who brought the Holy House
from Nazareth. (In reality the Italian merchants, whose last name was "Angeli" were the transporters
of the simple room, said to have bricks dating back to the first century.)

This room, thought to be the room where the Annunciation took place, is encased with a larger structure, built and decorated in the 16th century by Bramante and others:

(The guardhouse with its precious interior has precedent as a play within a play in St. Francis's
 Porziuncola covered with decoration in Santa Maria degli Angeli (appropriate), built in the
14th century in the valley of Assisi.)


The dome in this case, Loreto, is less imposing and colorful because the Nazareth building within a building within another building is the most important part of the reliquary. Atop the Loreto dome is a statue of the Madonna, in Florence a bronze orb and cross.

Extraordinary, though, for those coming from Florence on a trip down the Eastern Coast of Italy,
to come upon a Cupola whose shape, rib number, drum oculi, and lantern, replicate in local stone
sincerity the major site dedicated to Mary in the larger urban center of Florence. That it was begun 63 years after Brunelleschi finished his innovative double-shell structure speaks volumes about the influence of the Florentine architect on the rest of the peninsula. And when Michelangelo comes to design the dome of St. Peter's in Rome, not a Marian site, between 1547 and 1593 (completed by Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana after Michelangelo's death in 1564), he makes sure his Roman cupola is highest at 448 feet, has twice the ribs of the Florentine and Loreto ones, and makes his drum more muscular and articulated with alternating rectangular windows and paired Corinthian colonettes. He moves the oculi into the surface of the dome for breathing space for the stone, and he repeats the paired colonnettes in the lantern to make the whole more robust and masculine
as well as closer to the shape of a papal tiara:

While Michelangelo would not have necessarily seen
the Loreto dome, although his patron, Julius II, would
certainly have been aware of it, he would have known
that the competition to produce a dome equal to or greater than the dome of Brunelleschi's in Florence was heating
up, with the example of Loreto in the background and
other examples in Rome itself, especially one near Trajan's column by the brother of Giuliano da Sangallo, Antonio da Sangallo, begun in 1507 and curiously dedicated to Santa Maria di Loreto:

Fortunately for the viewer of St. Peter's today, Michelangelo chose not to replicate the frog-eyes
of the Roman Loreto dome in his cupola,
but he must have known that somewhere out on the horizon
to the east sat a near-replica of the beloved Florentine dome
of his childhood, and he knew he had to do better than that:


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