The leading architect of the High Renaissance was Donato Bramante.  Influenced by Brunelleschi and Alberti, Bramante developed a new church design based on a central plan.

Plan of Old Saint Peters, begun c. 319

The Early Christian church was derived from the Roman basilica, and took the form of a Latin cross.  This basic format eventually evolved into the Gothic Cathedral in France and England, but in Italy church architecture retained the basic basilica plan (Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito, for example,  follows the basic basilica format).

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first to experiment with the central plan concept, though none of his projects was ever realized.  He was inspired by the idea that a circle inscribed within a square corresponds to the proportions of the human figure, and that these geometric shapes represent divine perfection.  This concept was the basis of his famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man.  His sketchbooks contain numerous designs for churches that are centrally planned (rather than the traditional basilica plan), based on the divine geometry of the circle and the square.

Donato Bramante, Tempietto, San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, 1502

One of the first buildings to use the central plan was the Tempietto (meaning “little temple”), a small church in Rome that marked the site of Saint Peter’s crucifixion.  Based on the Greco-Roman tholos temple, the building is circular in design, and topped by a dome.   It heralded a new approach to architecture that is sculptural in its handling of forms.

Bramante’s Tempietto (Khan Academy)

Reconstruction of Old St. Peter's, built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century
Reconstruction of Old St. Peter’s, built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century

The Rebuilding of Saint Peter’s
One of Bramante’s most important projects was the rebuilding of Saint Peters.  The original basilica had been built by Constantine, but it had fallen into disrepair.  Rather than repair it, the Pope decided to replace it with a new building.

Bramante based his design on the Roman Pantheon (a pagan temple!).  A central plan in the shape of a Greek cross, and topped by a dome, replaced the basilica design that had been in use for centuries.  Bramante’s new design reflected Renaissance architecture’s emphasis on geometry and “ideal forms” derived from the proportions of the human body.

Medal showing Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s, 1506

Unfortunately, Bramante did not live to see his project completed.  When he died Michelangelo was called in to design the dome, and in the next century several architects were hired to make the building conform to the traditional basilica plan.  But a commemorative medal cast in 1506 gives some sense of what the original design would have looked like.  Bramante had planned a large dome over the central crossing, and smaller domes at the corners of the central cross.

Saint Peter’s Basilica (Khan Academy)

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