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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Donato Bramante was an essential element in the rise of Renaissance Architecture within the Papal States of Italy. He can be considered one of the most famous Renaissance architects and his legacy can still be found in Rome and Milan.

The biggest highlights of the architect's career would have to be the plans that he produced for St. Peter's Basilica which were eventually used as the basis for Michelangelo's own creation. The stunning ensemble also featured contributions by Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, although Michelangelo's role was by far the most high profile and also significantly more in-depth than that of the rest. Bramante was intially competing against a number of other architects who all submitted their plans and ideas for this project, but he eventually won out. The next stage was then to take his work and implement it, and that is where the others were introduced. Many of the rival designs can now be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Renaissance projects would often take many years to complete, sometimes even centuries, and this led to the occasional deaths of architects, leading to new names taking over. This occured several times within the project to produce St. Peter's Basilica, with first Bramante passing away in 1514, but then Raphael just six years later. It was eventually left to Michelangelo to complete the work, which must have been a challenge, considering the number of architects and designers who had already put their own touches on various elements of this complex project. The finished structure remains fairly faithful to Bramante's original design, and if one can set aside the logistical setbacks, this project marks his finest achievement, even though it wasn't completed in his own lifetime.

Bramante was a highly skilled painter who eventually found greater success as an architect. Within the Renaissance there was somewhat of a crossover between the two disciplines in the work of some, with perspective now starting to be implemented more accurately for the first time. This contrasted with the pre-Renaissance art styles, which were predominantly flat and completely ignored perspective as a concept at all. Two of his colleagues, Melozzo da Forlì and Piero della Francesca, were particularly interested in using architecture directly in painting, as well as some of its simplest principles in order to produce an accuracy that satisfied them. Bramante himself impressed in painting but soon realised that his true talents lied elsewhere, in the complex but rewarding discipline of architecture. It is believed that all three had also studied the work of Andrea Mantgna as well, for some of his particularly unique painting techniques.

The architect was born near to the city of Urbino, and studied architecture for several years before moving to Milan at around the age of 30. He realised that he could not maximise his artistic talents if he stayed in his native province of Italy and so sought out greater opportunities within this famous artistic city. This route to success has been followed by most provincial artists over the ages, and even today most creative minds who grow up in rural areas of Europe will invariably have to relocate in order to promote themselves and also to connect with other members of their industry. In today's world of the modern media it isn't always necessary, but certainly more often than not. In terms of the progress made through the Renaissance, onwards from the Gothic period, architecture was always the discipline that would take longer for this development to be seen, such were the logistical and timescale challenges faced.

Bramante worked predominantly within Milan until the turn of the century, though had taken some projects in Rome too. This connection to Rome would serve him well when forced to flee Milan in 1499 due to the rampaging French forces. He already had connections and a strong reputation within his new city and so could quickly get up and running again. Whilst in Milan for around 15 years he served under Duke Ludovico Sforza and became considered his favoured architect, which ensured a good number of high profile projects would be assigned to him. Amongst them all were some items in the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, as well as a tribune for the Santa Maria delle Grazie. Despite Milan being a predominantly gothic city, in terms of its existing architecture, he was encouraged to introduce the new inspirations of the Renaissance into Milan and help to develop its artistic offering.

Once in Rome, Bramante quickly built on his existing connections around the city to draw in a number of new commissions. Pope Julius II supported him throughout his term as the two knew each other prior to his election. Tempietto (1502) was one of his earliest and most successful architectural creations within Rome, a small but perfectly formed display of Renaissance architecture, albeit with clear classical influences. It was a concise design which achieved a lot in a relatively small space. Plans to develop the surrounding area never came to anything, though. The project served as a small commission with which to challenge the architect in his early days in Rome, but also allow him to demonstrate the potential that would eventually lead to larger scale work. He did not have to wait long, for in 1503 he was requested to produce plans for the development of St Peter's Basilica, that was to be one of the largest architectural projects in Europe in the 16th century.

Understanding the challenge that lie ahead, Bramante took his most highly skilled assistants and set about producing a set of plans worthy of this building. He was up against others but his design was accepted. Some of the original designs have been preserved in the Uffizi in Florence, alongside a number of the competing ideas. His chosen plan centered around a traditional Greek cross which would serve as a top-down layout for his structure. Amendments were made to this after his death, but much of the original construction that he had in mind can be seen in the finished building. There was always a certain level of politics and bureaucracy involved in these types of projects, which could also drag on for decades, and so it would not have surprised him to find that the final construction was not entirely as he had intended. Where others become involved, so the initial artistic direction will inevitably be tweaked and challenged, particularly when the original designer is no-longer there to defend it.

The architect would also complete other commissions whilst waiting for the construction of the Basilica to commence and was active right up until his passing in 1514. Many of his original drawings and plans have been lost or damaged over the past five centuries but thankfully many also have been successfully preserved and are available to view in some Italian institutions. His architecture also stands tall in several cities today and his reputation has remained strong even though he was prominent at the same time of true Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. His career also offers an interesting insight into how architecture and painting can come together, although his work within the latter medium is often ignored today. His paintings included depictions of Christ and also some perspective based scenes which reminds us of a connection to Piero della Francesca.