Brunelleschi: the Pazzi chapel and the Barbadori or Capponi chapel

The Pazzi chapel in the cloister of the Santa Croce

We now head back to the area of Santa Croce. This time, we will examine the Pazzi chapel.123

To the right of the Santa Croce, at a cloister, we immediately see the facade of this chapel. Next to the thirteenth-century church of the Franciscans with a gothic courtyard lies the all’antica chapel of the Pazzi family.

The courtyard of the Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel large size       Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel 15th century
The courtyard of the Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel Brunelleschi

This chapel was used as a capital hall, but simultaneously served as a Pazzi burial chapel. Its type is rather traditional: a square layout with surrounding benches and the choir area with the altar opposite to the entrance door. The capital hall, the Spanish chapel, at the Santa Maria Novella has the same design. The chairman of the convent, the padre guardino, would sit on a chair; located in front of the steps leading to the altar. Other members, depending on their place in the hierarchy, would sit close to the padre guardino or some distance away.

Once we procure some tickets and walk into the gothic courtyard, we notice how different this chapel is from the surrounding gothic loggias.

 Carl Georg Anton ‘Hof mit der Cappella Pazzi an der Kirche St. Croce zu Florenz’ 1858 large size
Odoardo Borrani ‘Cappella dei Pazzi’ 1885-1887
 Carl Georg Anton 'Hof mit der Cappella Pazzi an der Kirche St. Croce zu Florenz' 1858

Six monolithic non-fluted Corinthian columns are supporting an entablature. There are five bays.124 Six monolithic non-fluted Corinthian columns are supporting an entablature. There are five bays.124 The middle-most bay with the entrance is clearly wider than the bays at the flank. In each section of the attic, which is slightly higher than it is wide, we see a Greek cross. This is a reference to the adjacent church, the Santa Croce, which is devoted to the holy cross.

Brunelleschi placed a portico for the capital hall cq. burial chamber. The Pazzi family coat of arms, two dolphins and five crosses on a blue background, appears regularly in the portico: at the centre of the small, round dome and straight abovethe door, two flying angels hold a wreath that bears the Pazzi symbol. In addition, the family crest is also visible in the outer and middle-most panelled ceilings in the barrel vault and finally at the corners of the top-most frieze. (Click here for a layout and cross-section).

Facade Pazzi Chapel large size        The drum and the dome      The dome and the lantern
Video Khan Academy Brunelleschi Pazzi-kapel (3.22 minutes)
Facade Pazzi Chapel Brunelleschi

photos: Boston Naumans and rob_digiava


Pazzi chapel interior large size          Inner wall of the entrance           Interior
Pazzi Chapel interior Brunelleschi

Upon entry, you will immediately see the altar in the choir area. This altar with its six Corinthian pillars and red marble panels has an entablature at the top that says the following in Latin with classical capital letters:

‘The Pazzis dedicated this temple to us, the most sacred Andreas [Teg: saint of Andrea Pazzi, the client of this chapel], so that it may be a place where Francis [Teg: of Assisi; the Santa Croce is a Franciscan church] appeals to his nets, as the immortal God turned you into a fisher of man.’

The souls of man are rescued by the fisherman who catches them in his net. Let us remember that we are standing in a burial chapel. The round opening in front of the altar with inlaid marble points to plans for a burial plate. The right door in the area with the altar provides access to the sacristy. This also served as the private entrance for the Pazzi family. Behind the main altar we see a stained glass window with St. Andreas. We came across this Saint earlier at the portico in the lunette above the door. The top of the lunette has a round window depicting God the Father. He holds the gospel and makes a blessing gesture with his right hand.

The  altar in the choir room    St. Andreas stained glass window
Vault of the choir room            Zodiac  july 4  1442 
Pazzi chapel choir room altar Brunelleschi

But there is still an important difference: the Old Sacristy is square and the Pazzi chapel is quadrangular. The decorations also differ. For example, the Pazzi chapel has winged angel heads and a lamb with seven seals on its frieze. This kind of lamb is a reference to the dream that John experienced in Patmos and which can be read in his Revelation 6: 1-17:The large and small dome above the altar are identical. Here, too, the entablature above the fluted Corinthian pillar runs through the entire area, including the choir.

‘I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder,  “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.’

John described his dream of the end of the world. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse. After opening the seals, many disasters begin to strike the Earth. The dead rise from their graves and their souls are weighed. Those deemed too light are eternally damned and taken away by the devil. Those who have led virtuous lives can ascend into heaven.

The twelve apostles in tondos of Luca della Robbia can be seen directly under the entablature on a blue background. The pendentives that support the folded dome show the four evangelists with again the Pazzi family crest.

The dome of the  Pazzi chapel large size         The wall and the dome            The exterior of the dome
interior: The dome of the  Pazzi chapel Brunelleschi
Four evangelists in the pendentives Andrea della Robbia:

The interior is approx. 18 x 11 meters, with benches along the walls that are one braccio (58.36 cm)  wide. These benches were used by members of the capital during meetings and they continue subtly along the choir area. In the entrance to the altar, the bench changes into a tree in its top section. The short sides of the chapel have barrel vaults with a width of just one narrow bay. The barrel vault is flanked on both sides by an ornamented frame: an archivolt. The wide archivolt on the tall sides of the walls are supported by a widely fluted pillar. The archivolts are supported by small pillars in the far corners of the short wall and only have one fluting.

The Corinthian capitals of the Pazzi chapel and Pantheon
The Corinthian capital of the Pazzi chapel Brunelleschi


Corinthian pilaster in the corner of the choir room large
Pazzi chapel Corinthian pilaster in the corner of the choir room Brunelleschi

These pillars thus have a load-bearing function. Also, the small pillars in the corners of the altar area are largely hidden in the walls and also have a load-bearing function. In this respect, Brunelleschi used his knowledge of gothic constructions in the Duomo chapels. There, such load-bearing small columns, with a gothic design (left: Duomo and right Pazzi chapel) were also largely hidden in the wall.125

The wide bays on the central axis have the entablature supported by consoles. This is also visible in the choir area. This again underlines the central axes of the interior.

The division of the space is repeated in the pattern of the marble floor. The lines in the marble indicate exactly where the pillars are located. Each bay of the wall: a wide one in the middle flanked by two smaller ones, is reflected in the floor pattern.



Around 1429, Brunelleschi was commissioned by Andrea Pazzi to begin construction. While the Old Sacristy only took ten years to complete, the construction of this chapel lasted forty years. When Brunelleschi dies in 1447, construction continues for at least two more decades. Michelozzo took over from Brunelleschi after the latter’s passing, and Michelozzo was in turn succeeded by Giuliano de Maciano. According to some authors, this is exactly why the facade looks less appealing, which can be seen as you walk through the gate of the courtyard to the chapel. Furthermore, the six Corinthian columns proved too weak to support the heavy barrel vault in the portico. The columns already needed replacing once before.

The Corinthian columns in the porticus large size
 The facade of the porticus
The Corinthian columns in the porticus Pazzi Chapel Brunelleschi

We take a closer look at the portico, particularly the barrel vault with the panels. If you compare the outer wall that has the four windows and door in the middle with the inner wall, you will notice that the fluted pillars are not nearly as high outside as they are inside. The inside has tondos above the windows, while the outer wall quickly makes way for the entablature that is being supported by fluted Corinthian pillars. Two inscriptions were discovered in 1962 beneath the pent roof of the portico and below the roof of the large dome. The tambour listed a date of eleven October 1459 and the plaster of the small dome in the portico listed the year 1461. This shows that the top part was not built by Brunelleschi. According to Saalman, Brunelleschi intended to construct a fully round dome and not the round dome on pendentives that was ultimately erected.126 A fully round dome is not as high as a pendentives dome. If you look through the pent roof with its red rooftiles, you can see the top of the dome. According to Saalman, this was never the intention. Behind the pendentive dome, we can still make out a round, bricked up window, and the corners of the walls still show the initial elements of gargoyles. If the rounded dome would be built in the portico, the pent roof could do without its pillars and perhaps not be as high. The round window would then actually be able to light the interior. Based on his findings and thesis, Saalman made a reconstruction of how the facade of the chapel courtyard would have looked like in Brunelleschi’s actual vision.

Corinthian columns in the porticus and the reconstruction of the facade 
The construction of the Pazzi chapel drawing Brunelleschi S. Croce

The reconstruction of the facade:  Saalman, H., ‘Filippo Brunelleschi The Buildings’, Zwemmer, London 1993 

The portico for the Pazzi chapel is not just any old front hall, but it is required to sufficiently support the building behind it. So in this case, a beautiful front hall is also being functional in that it is a tectonically necessary aid.127

The panels in the barrel vault of the portico are remarkable. The Romans carved the back of the square blocks of the panels into hemispheres. This made it possible for the panels to be placed against the barrel vaults, similar to how this was done with the Arch of Titus at the Forum Romanum in Rome. The astragal profiles surrounding the panels were then carved in at the spot. It goes without saying that this classic method was very labour-intensive. There was no shortage of masons in those times, but that was not true for fourteenth and fifteenth century Florence. There was a lot of work to do on the Duomo, the Palazzo della Signoria, etc, but there were only a limited number of masons. The mason workshops were thus forced to use more clever and less labour-intensive methods. The workshop of Bernardo Rossellino, which also worked on the portico of this chapel, took an inventive approach. The freeze with the angel heads and the cornice were cut from one block of marble. Both are the basis for the barrel vault in the portico.

The portico and a detail of the coffers in the barrel vaults
Pazzi chapel: The porticus and a detail of the coffers in the barrel vaults

The horizontal and vertical profiles were carved into separate segments on the floor, as were the panels themselves. Then, the elements were put together using a hoist. At completing the load-bearing frame, the capstone was next: the square panels were lowered into the profiles from the top of the vault.128

Brunelleschi then repeats the subtle game of the interior benches that continue to the last step of the entrance to the choir, at the outer wall. The fluted Corinthian pillars have a fully responsible basement, in full accordance with Vitruvian rules. The basement jumps back through the pillars, but does continue
along the bottom along the wall. However, the styles of the entrance door do away with the top torus and trochilus, but the bottom torus and the baseboard at the door are transformed into a doorstep.

The facade of the porticus large size
Pazzi chapel: The facade of the porticus Brunelleschi


The Barbadori or Capponi chapel

Ponte Vecchio Corridoio Florence

Picture: Oleg Gudkov

We now walk towards the other side of the Arno. We cross the Ponte Vecchio and arrive at the Via Guicciardini, with a small square to our left hand side, the Santa Felicita. This church is where Brunelleschi constructed a chapel that is mostly known for its frescos and altarpiece painted by Pontormo (click here for the story of Pontormo’s work in this chapel).

Santa Felicita
Piazza and the church of Santa Felicita Florence


Santa Felicita with a view of the main altar with left the Capponi chapel or Barbadori chapel
Santa Felicita with a view of the main altar with left the Capponi chapel or Barbadori chapel Florence

On this day, we will only examine the architecture of this remarkable church. Strangely enough, the church we find ourselves in is a gothic church, but one with a copious amount of baroque. Before we examine the Capponi chapel or Barbadori chapel, we first continue for the altar, to then turn around and look at the lattice of the corridoio above the entrance (and a view from the hall in the Santa Felicita). This is where you see the famous private hall that was constructed by Vasari for the Medici. This hall starts at the Palazzo Pitti and runs along the Ponte Vecchio to then end at the Palazzo Vecchio. To be seen on the internet here. This hall is where many artists, commissioned by the Medici, drew portraits that can still be admired today. Sadly, the ticket fees for this hall are so exuberantly high that we will skip it.

Barbadori chapel or Capponi chapel and the original chapel of Brunelleschi
Barbadori chapel or Capponi chapel Santa Felicita Florence

Photo: Steven Zucker

Barbadori or  Capponi chapel and the altarpiece of Pontormo
Barbadori or  Capponi chapel Santa Felicita Florence

The chapel was later given a baroque shell to fit the tastes of that time.129 The original dome was replaced in 1736. Behind the baroque layer, the original chapel was still preserved relatively well, save for the dome. These days, that is hard to see. There are however reconstruction drawings and pictures of the chapel behind the baroque shell. The combination of a pillar and a spandrel with a rosette inside can be found back in the famous fresco, Trinity, by Masaccio from c. 1425 that we will examine later at the Santa Maria Novella. If you look closely, you will see something peculiar in the corners at the back, where Pontormo painted the deposition from the cross. Pontormo Cappella Capponi at Web Gallery of Art. Between the semi columns is a protruding profile of pietra serene. This profile continues into the pendentive. This is a real pillar, largely hidden in the wall, of which you can only see the top protruding from the wall between the two semi columns. This is reminiscent of the pilasters next to the columns supporting the arches at the Ospedale degli Innocenti. These pilasters look like pilasters to the naked eye, but in reality they are just pillars that are nearly entirely hidden in the wall. So one’s eye is perceiving something that in reality is completely different. Still, there is a difference between the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the earlier work of Brunelleschi that we are now standing in front of: the Cappella Barbadori. While Brunelleschi made less use of the different orders for the orphanage – the capital of the pilaster and the column are both Corinthian – ‘our’ young architect uses another two orders for this chapel: Ionic and Corinthian

The strange looking, or in more subjective terms, the ugly protruding profile that you can see between the semi columns at the back wall has led to some people not attributing this chapel to Brunelleschi. After all, a great architect like him could never have been responsible for this. .

 The protruding profile in the  pendentive
Barbadori chapel or Capponi chapel  The protruding profile in the  pendentive Santa Felicita Florence lBrunelleschi

They are forgetting that the young Brunelleschi was still at the start of his career, and he had not yet mastered his own style. Still, it is a work by Brunelleschi just like his biographer Manetti describest.130 Furthermore, there are several sources that indicate Brunelleschi is indeed the architect. For instance, the Barbadori’s were involved with the Opera del Duomo. For the construction of the dome on the chapel, Brunelleschi took out a three-day loan for hoisting equipment from the Duomo. Marble was also purchased from the Opera for the chapel.131 Vasari writes that Brunelleschi used the domes of the Barbadori chapel and the Ridolfi chapel (both were torn down later) to show that he could erect self-supporting domes without using scaffolding from the ground up.132

Facades Bigallo Florence
facades Bigallo Florence

Brunelleschi took his inspiration for this chapel from old gothic Florentine constructions like the Bigallo.133 These loggia are where the Florentines left behind their unwanted children. At the Bigallo, opposite from the Duomo, we see two sides placed against the back wall, but it also has two openwork sides. Still, there is a stark difference between the architect of the Bigallo, Alberto Arnoldi, and Brunelleschi.134 This difference goes further than gothic vs classic methods that Brunelleschi used for his chapel. At the Bigallo, there is no distinction between the main and the subordinate order. For instance, Arnoldi does not distinguish between the different orders at the capitals, which each support a different element. They are common capitals. This is something that Brunelleschi now rejects utterly. He makes a clear distinction between the main order, the pilasters and the subordinate order of the semi columns. It is crystal clear which order supports what. The main order: the Corinthian supports the entablature and the Ionic order, the semi columns, support the arch.

When Pontormo is commissioned to add frescos and an altarpiece for the chapel, he also paints an Announcement on the western wall. This wall originally had an Annunciation that has had miracles attributed to it. This fresco traces back to a fresco at the Santissima Annunziata that was completed by an angel. More on this when we visit this famous chapel again at the day we cover painting, but that will be to examine the work of mannerist painter Pontormo.

For the story of the frescos of Pontormo in this church, click here.

Pontormo ‘Annunciation’  Barbadori or Capponi chapel
Pontormo 'Annunciation'  Barbadori or Capponi chapel

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