Matthew Cohen started wondering if what he knew of Renaissance architecture was true when he stepped into the San Lorenzo Basilica in Florence with a measuring tape.

The Italian city, known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, is home to many of the great works of Filippo Brunelleschi, perhaps the foremost engineer and architect of the period. And San Lorenzo has been studied by generations of architects and historians as one of the earliest examples of Renaissance perfection.

Matt Cohen studies church of Santo Spirito
Matt Cohen studies architecture up close in Florence. Right: Columns in the church of Santo Spirito. (Courtesy Matt Cohen)

“It is one of the most famous buildings in the world,” says Cohen, an architecture instructor at WSU Spokane. He first encountered the church when he was a graduate student visiting Italy. He had been asked by his professor to present a seminar on the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Construction on the church had been started in 1419, on the site of a Romanesque-style church from 1060. The new building, which was funded by the de Medici family, was built right at the threshold of the Renaissance.

Cohen had read about the structure and its proportions—its symmetry and geometry. “I just wasn’t convinced,” he says. So he took the tape measure to the church and, with the tourists around him, recorded a few measurements. His hands-on examination suggested the layout was not on a perfect grid, which is the lecture he provided his classmates, much to the chagrin of his professor.

Cohen went on to study architecture at Harvard and Leiden University and then to teaching. All the while, he remembered his experience at San Lorenzo. One of his Harvard professors, a Renaissance expert, encouraged him to continue his inquiry. With a grant in hand, he moved to Italy for a year and set about getting more measurements at both San Lorenzo and its sister structure Santo Spirito, which Brunelleschi designed in 1436.

“I found they had never been fully measured before,” he says. Most of what’s written about the two buildings is based on documents and plans, not on the actual completed structure, he says. “I wanted to measure every column.”

He convinced the Italian antiquities office that his research was important enough for him to be allowed to work inside the churches. “It was great timing because the Italians were just beginning a major conservation treatment of the building (San Lorenzo).”

Instead of satisfying his curiosity, the inspection caused him to wonder all the more. “I figured there would be a few irregularities here and there,” he says. “I didn’t expect so many.” The bays, which from the ground looked identical, were quite different up close. He also noticed the quality was inconsistent in design and execution.

Cohen realized the irregularities contained historical information. “I was conducting above-ground archeology.” Not only above ground, but often high, high in the rafters. Looking at the columns of San Lorenzo, for example, he found the most irregular measurements corresponded to the second phase of the church’s construction. “It appears that they were rushing to complete the building.”

Cosimo de Medici, who was funding the project, was running out of money and time. “He pushed to rush work done on the church, knowing he didn’t have much longer to live and that the new basilica was crucial to keeping the memories of the Medici family and its influences alive,” says Cohen. Tense personal dramas, harried construction management, and the errors of anonymous masons rushing to meet a deadline, “are written into the stones,” says Cohen.

Then he turned to Santo Spirito, which Brunelleschi designed and which was built at a more leisurely pace years later, for a comparison. Getting permission to assemble scaffolding in there proved more difficult. “I found a scaffolding company, got my own insurance, and on the side I had to get the permission of the priests in charge of the church,” he says. But even that wasn’t enough. He still had to have the approval of the sacristan, who maintained the church. At first the man was dismissive. “But then one day his attitude changed,” says Cohen. “He proposed a deal.” On top of all the tall columns were light bulbs that had been burned out since the 1970s. “So we made a deal: If I put up the scaffolding, I would change the light bulbs for him.”

Cohen realized he had a rare privilege. Millions of people had been on the floors of these churches, but hardly anyone had been up high since the time they were built. “When you get up there, the capitals are much bigger and much more detailed than you would imagine,” says Cohen. He saw ancient iron hooks from which banners were hung, masons’ tool marks, and little pyramids of dust collected over the centuries.

He also found that his measurements didn’t fit the written descriptions, particularly with San Lorenzo. “The text says the proportions are a certain way, and they’re not that way,” says Cohen. “So what kind of proportional system was used? And how could historians have gotten it so wrong for so long?”

The architect started working out the mathematics. He took his measurements in centimeters, and then translated them to the braccio, a measure of length used in architecture centuries ago, the length of a forearm from elbow to fingertip, about 58.36 centimeters. He converted his measurements, and “that’s the part where you start getting tingles down your spine,” he says. “Numbers started appearing. Patterns started emerging.” The ratio of one to the square root of 2 was everywhere.

It was in the distance between the plinths of the columns, the distance between the farther edges of the same plinths. It was also in the nave arcade bays. He also ran into Boëthian number theory—a pattern explained by 6th century philosopher Boëthius in Rome and “a fundamental part of the intellectual framework underlying the medieval world view,” according to Cohen. The number theory had prominence in medieval times, but was rarely used in the Renaissance or the centuries that followed.

“Why did they use these proportional systems,” he wonders. “Why bother?”

He found plans and numbers connected to San Lorenzo that dated to 1418, before Brunelleschi was hired to the job. That begged perhaps his biggest and most controversial question: Was this church designed by Brunelleschi or wasn’t it? “I’m challenging one of the fundamental assumptions of architecture history,” he says.

Cohen believes the evidence shows that Matteo Dolfini, the original architect on the project, set the stage for San Lorenzo’s structure. “My theory is that he designed the proportional system,” says Cohen. “Brunelleschi took it from there.”

So now Cohen is not only out to question the common theory about the architecture of a single church in Florence, he’s questioning how historical architecture is studied worldwide. Over the past several years, senior faculty member David Wang has both consulted and encouraged the younger architect in his research into the basilica.

Wang has even coined a term for the way Cohen has approached San Lorenzo, a term he plans to write about in the second edition of Architectural Research Methods. “Acute Observation is a combination of archival and archaeological research into an existing architectural artifact,” he says.

“Matt’s original contribution is actually creating a stir in his field,” notes Wang. Cohen challenges the notion of Renaissance buildings as expressions of artistic and architectural “perfection.”

Through his approach, Cohen is advocating the use of not only documents, engineering plans, and written histories for studying a particular building, he suggests exploring the building itself. “It’s a primary source of historical evidence,” he says.


On the web

Prof receives prestigious award for architecture research (WSU News, Aug. 20, 2012)