From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages. Bramante’s Tempietto was broadcast on the 17th September 2022. You can listen to the audio here.*
Once in a while a building comes along that changes the course of architectural history. Like the tiny little chapel – or tempietto – that’s squeezed into a courtyard of a church in Rome. It’s the work of Donato Bramante and was built in the first years of the 16th century. It moved architecture up a notch, leaving far behind the memory of medievalism that lingered in buildings of the time, with their rustications and heavy walls reminiscent of fortresses, and into a more refined mode that brought together Classical elements, like columns and balanced proportion. Bramante created a building that is quite simply one of the most exquisite in the world.
It’s a misleadingly simple thing, with a double height cylinder at its core, topped by a decorative dome and its lower floor encircled by a row of columns, that circular quality further emphasised by rings of shallow steps. The interior is a single space, the inside of the dome decorated with gold stars on a sky blue background. A circular hole in the centre of the floor tells you why this building is here. The chamber directly below is said to be the spot on which Saint Peter was crucified. While it’s a sacred place for Roman Catholics, its architecture is as important, being so influential. Once you see it then you begin to see it everywhere.
Like all Renaissance architecture, it looked to antiquity for its inspiration, this one influenced by buildings of Ancient Rome, including the Pantheon and the Temple of Vesta at nearby Tivoli. It inspired others to use its form in their buildings of the time but it would also be copied for centuries to come. The great drum and dome of Wren’s enormous Saint Paul’s cathedral in London, built over a 150 years later, is a direct reference to this little tempietto, as is the famous Radcliffe Camera in Oxford designed by James Gibbs in the 1730s. It’s also seen as part of a number of American Classical buildings, too, including the Capitol in Washington, and is found perched atop town halls in Britain. So what was it that so captured the imagination of so many architects?
It all comes down to balance. At the Tempietto, everything from the height of the dome to the diameter of the central cylinder works in perfect harmony. The sophistication of this can be traced to Bramante’s early career as a painter, at one time even working alongside Piero della Francesca. He’d explored the work of earlier architects like Brunelleschi in Florence and then put these ideas into buildings he designed in Milan for the ruling Sforza family. His fame spread so that after he decamped to Rome, the Pope charged him to work on a new plan for the city. His design for the new cathedral of Saint Peters wasn’t built but what was eventually completed by Michelangelo was a direct reference to it, including its version of the drum and dome.
The Tempietto encapsulates the energy of the time, moving architecture into the more assured High Renaissance period, just as Raphael and Leonardo moved painting in a new direction. It’s often referred to as more of a sculpture than a building, in much the same way as were the simple lines of Mies van der Rohe’s modernist pavilion in Barcelona some four hundred years later. Both speak of their time and both represent significant shifts in architectural design. You sense greatness when you stand within it. That Bramante did it so beautifully and on such a modest scale clearly demonstrates that proportion is key to our notion of beauty. In today’s supersized world, that is surely a lesson that remains relevant.
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