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The remarkable Santa Maria degli Angeli, or St Mary of the Angels, is a former church that was once part of a monastery of the same name in Florence, Italy.
The distinctive rotunda of the building can be seen for miles around, and the original monastic community was formed as early as 1012 by St Romuald - a hermit of that era - who was based in Camaldoli near to Arezzo. The later congregation, who based themselves on the original hermitage, were a reformed arm of the Benedictines order known as the Camaldolese, however there is not much left of the medieval parts of the building today.
By 1434 Filippo Brunellschi was an established figure in Italian design and architecture and was commissioned by the famous Medici family to work on a design for the oratory in what was then still a monastery at the site of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The monastery had, in Brunellschi's time, become a significant centre for Renaissance studies and produced high quality manuscripts in it's scriptorium that are still remarked upon for their beautiful illustrations.
The oratory was to be positioned at a corner of the monastery along an outer wall but work ceased in 1437 due to a lack of funds, and it was not re-started until 1503 when a rather makeshift wooden roof was erected but fell into disrepair not long after.
The building was not really completed fully until well into the 1930's when it assumed it's current appearance and was given over to the University in the city, prompting the modern name of Rotonda degli Scolari, or Scholars' Rotunda.
Even though the original building was never finished in Brunelleschi's time, a number of descriptive plans and diagrams provide a indication of his aims. At this time Brunelleschi was considered a leading Renaissance architect, and the design would have been considered a bold move and was unlike traditional architecture of the period.
Renaissance designers had begun to conceive of the perfect church as being circular or centralized, and Brunelleschi would be the initial designer to attempt this. It can be seen from his plans that the Santa Maria degli Angeli was to be a central plan church and would have been the first of it's kind if it had been finished.
Luckily Brunelleschi's notes survived to give information on the proposed design which would have constituted an octagonal interior with 8 chapels, a 16-sided exterior, and it envisaged a domed vault would have covered the central area. Although the existing building is not what Brunelleschi intended, the interior gives some idea of how the original spaces were to be configured.
Although intended for a different career Brunelleschi's early interests quickly directed him towards sculpture and architecture, and he also gained a solid grounding in mathematics. Brunelleschi was, in essence, the first modern engineer of his time and became adept at solving building problems by inventions specifically designed for certain projects, such as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. However, some of his early life is shrouded in mystery and the reasons are unknown as to why he switched from Gothic and medieval design to architectural classicism at a later stage of his career.
Some of Brunelleschi's early life had been marked by disappointment when he lost out to a rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, for a commission for some bronze doors for the Florence bapistery. The winning student was a protégé of Donatello, however, Brunelleschi was also a friend of Donatello and may well have been influenced by this giant of the Renaissance era when the pair embarked on a trip to Rome to study a number of ancient sites. We do know that by the time Brunelleschi had been commissioned by the Medici family to work on St Mary of the Angels he had already made a name for himself by work on other sacred buildings, not least the Duomo, and had become renowned for his methods in linear perspective.
By assessing what we know of Brunelleschi's early life it is feasible that the combination of artistic and mathematical training were inspirational in his later designs even though this had come about in part by accident, as the intention of his family had been that he joined his father as a notary and he had also been trained as a goldsmith! By what seems like serendipity, these different experiences melded Brunelleschi to become the world-class architect whose legacy has lasted for hundreds of years as can be seen in his classic designs.
Although we will never see the Santa Maria degli Angeli as it was originally intended, it remains a fascinating site to visit. With the help of the proposed plans of Brunelleschi it is intriguing to imagine how the building might have looked and gain an insight into the life and works of one of the most influential architects of his era.