Currently reading : Donato Bramante: Sacred Geometry in Rome

Donato Bramante: Sacred Geometry in Rome

14 November 2013

Author : helenlevin


Fig. 01

Throughout history, geometry has been employed symbolically in religious architecture to cause spiritual effect. Sacred Geometry, specifically the circle and the square, was used prevalently in Italian High Renaissance architecture to designate a house of God. Yet attempts by the architects of the era to build churches in pure sacred form were thwarted by the functional requirements of the church. What would have been the spiritual effect of these places of worship, and was the church intentionally curtailing the power a sacred geometrical space could wield?

Fig. 02

Italian architect Donato Bramante (1444-1514), Papal Architect for Pope Julius II, is known to have shared many ideas about geometry and construction with Leonardo DaVinci while both were working in Milan at the end of the 15th century. Both men were highly influenced by ancient Greece and Rome, specifically the writer Vitruvius, prescriber of proportion, and the work of Leon Battista Alberti, a writer and architect who preceded Bramante and Leonardo.

Fig. 03

Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man demonstrates the Greek sacred mathematical influence while illustrating the Christian ideal of man created in the image of God. The Vitruvian Man was the diagram, instructing builders of religious architecture that the ideal sacred form was to be a circle or square. Thus through its architectural form, a building became the house of God. This diagram however, has no real mention of the experiential effect of a worshipper praying inside of that building.

Fig. 04

Bramante’s buildings in Milan show Vitruvian influence, especially in plan. The use of sacred geometry is not pure; instead composites of circles and squares overlap to form the church plans. The spatial conglomeration of the composite creates its own effect, but it is surely not the same as it would be if it were pure sacred geometry.

Fig. 05

Fig. 06

The sacred diagram is exemplified in Bramante’s Tempietto, a commemorative martyrium in the courtyard of The Church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, from approximately 1502. The Tempietto is perfectly circular in plan and the proportions of the dome in elevation hold both the sacred square and circle. The Tempietto is the purest example of sacred geometry of the High Renaissance, even though it is only a small commemorative structure, not a church, diminishing the potential spiritual effect.

Fig. 07

Bramante additionally designed a spiral connecting stair for the Pope on Vatican grounds in 1512. The stair plan is arranged in the same sacred circle as the Tempietto, but the elevation is pulled into a helix. Traveling that many stories alone via a tightly enclosed, spirally ramp would seemingly promote meditative contemplation. Could the circumambulatory journey cause a God connection for the user and how related to Bramante’s use of the pure sacred circular form is that effect?

Fig. 08

Bramante and Julius II began to design the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in sacred symmetry. The square plan considers how processions had become an integral part of Catholic worship at the time, the form of the Basilica divides into quadrants separated by four processional naves to form a Greek Cross in plan. The central meeting point of the naves forms a circle, where a dome would have enclosed and elevated the space. This plan is as egalitarian as it is sacred, yet the processional requirement of the church, like in the Basilica being replaced, demanded more focus on the Pope-led ceremony. With the addition of an axial nave to the design long after Bramante’s death in the end of the 16th century, the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica exists today as yet another composite.

Fig. 09

Here the power of church’s influence, masked in the pragmatism of a ritual, conflicted with the Basilica becoming a veritable expression of God, according to the Vitruvian diagram. Had the Basilica been rebuilt with non-composite sacred geometry, the architecture could have focused less on the Papal ceremony and more on the individual God connection through the pure form. The final non-sacred arrangement of the Basilica surfaces deep questions about whether or not there is holistic energy embodied within pure geometry that would affect the individual spiritually. Yet this would mean an end to the requirement of the Pope’s leadership in order to spiritually connect to God, perhaps even questioning whether a Basilica, sacred in geometry or not, was even required for prayer.

Fig. 10


List of Figures

Figure 01: Spatial organization and pilaster location according to Serlio’s Plan of the Tempietto. Brusci, Arnaldo. Bramante. Thames and Hudson, London 1973. Page 241.

Figure 02: The Circular Temple According to Vitruvius. + Temple of Tivoli. Vitruvius. Ten Books on Architecture.

Figure 03: Alberti, Leon Battista. San Sebastiano Church, Mantua. Plans. 1460.

Figure 04: MS 2037 folio 5. Leonardo da Vinci. Codex Ashburnham.

Figure 05: Bramante’s proposed site plans for the Tempietto. Brusci, Arnaldo. Bramante. Thames and Hudson, London 1973. Page 238.

Figure 06: Tempietto Plan and Elevation Diagram. Fletcher, Rachel.

Figure 07: Paul Marie Letarouilly: cross sections and plans of Bramante’s spiral staircase, in Le Vatican et la basilique de Saint-Pierre de Rome, Paris 1882, II.

Figure 08: Sketch for the urban planning of St. Peter’s, attributed to Bramante (Firenze, Uffizi, Arch. 104) and project development of the urban planning of St. Peters, attributed to perhaps Bramante and Peruzzi (Upperville, USA, coll. Mellon.).

Figure 09: Plan Drawing of four architect’s projects for St. Peter’s Basilica: (A) Bramante, 1506; (B) Peruzzi, ca. 1520; (C) Antonio da Sangallo the Younger; (D) Michaelangelo, 1546.

Figure 10: St. Peter’s Dome from Bramante’s design (S. Serlio, Lib. III, c. 66r-v).


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