The Pazzi Chapel of Santa Croce by Brunelleschi

The Pazzi Chapel was commissioned from Brunelleschi some time during 1429-30 by the Pazzi family to serve as the Chapter House of the Church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross), although construction did not begin until 1442. This kind of donation to a church or monastic foundation by a wealthy family is typical in the middle ages and later times. The family senses an obligation to share its resources with the general public in an act of noblesse oblige. Needless to say, the prestige of the family was also enhanced by such gifts.

The chapel remains unfinished on the outside The portico area is capped by a loggia and beyond that there is little certainty as to what Brunelleschi intended. The portico recalls the past in its general detailing of Corinthian columns and an entablature with architrave, frieze and cornice. But the arched opening is not so classical as it is Early Christian and could be compared to some monuments from that period.

Many classicizing forms are used, either directly quoted or nearly so, but each seems to come from a different source. This is no imitation of any single building. Using a linguistic analogy, it is as though Brunelleschi were using the vocabulary of classical architecture without its syntax or grammar.

The implications of the facade take on an unexpected twist on the interior. Although the symmetrical disposition of the facade elements continues in the plan on the interior, the central axis that focuses on the altar in its niche is crossed by a second axis which, although the minor axis, extends through the width of the main room which is larger than its depth from the doorway to the arch of the altar niche. This wide cross-axial dimension balances the otherwise insistent forward movement of the processional axis. The priority of the main axis is maintained, however, by the presence of a series of three domes: one on the loggia, one above the main space of the chapel, and another over the altar. Short segments of barrel vaults enframce the end walls on the cross axis.

The walls are articulated with classical pilasters and classicizing panels in grey pietra serena stone. These include a series of roundels on the lower walls and in the pendentives as well as oculus windows in the bands above the arches on the four walls and in the base of the dome.

The pilasters have, of course, no structural capacity but they allude to the bearing function of the wall and its structural value. They also offer proportional clarity, rhythm, and color and enhance the unity of experience between exterior and interior.

The dome over the central space and its ribs as well as the pendentives below the dome are outlined in slender moldings of pietra serena. The dome floats just above the four arches below and the stone elements against the white plaster walls stress the abstract quality of the form altogether.

The Pazzi Chapel is a major experiment in the working out of the Renaissance architectural value system. There are still some important elements to work out: for example, the unresolved tension between the thickness of the decorative elements and the almost non-existent thickness of the planar elements. The chapel is foremost a design problem, not an engineering problem or a struggle with structural innovation. From the history of Brunelleschi's work, including the dome of the cathedral, we know that he was only too capable of a structural or engineering challenge; however, the question here is about what the building means visually, optically, and symbolically.