Bramante’s father had decided that his son should be a painter. Donato submitted, but met with a distinct lack of success, as recorded bj the biographer Vasari: “So he determined, in order to view an important building at least once, to go to Milan and look at the cathedral.”
Bramante’s visit to Milan was momentous, for the young painter decided on the spot to become an architect. He began by making an intensive study of the classical buildings of Rome. His first commissions brought him back to Milan, but finally, after all he settled in the capital. In the early 16th century Rome was a great and prestigious place to build, and above all it was the popes who brought many notable architects to the city.
It was on the Gianicolo, a hill on the right bank of the Tiber, Donato Bramante worked on his first architectural commission. The monastery of San Pietro in Montorio was to be enriched by a memorial building to recall the martyrdom of the Apostle Peter, which was said to have taken place there. Bramante decided in favor of a central-plan structure on a circular base—that the surrounding monastery courtyard would eventually be rectangular was something the architect could not have guessed.
Three steps, arranged in circles around the structure, lead up to the little temple, the “Tempi-etto.” Columns surround the circular building, crowned with a dome, and there is a balustrade on the upper level. Bramante’s Tempietto was regarded by the next generation as a perfect central-plan building, an architectural type that was considered the epitome of ideal beauty.
St Peter’s Basilica
The Renaissance embodiment of the mania for building was undoubtedly Pope Julius II. Soon after his election in 1503 he took in hand the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica—the old building could neither accommodate the throngs of pilgrims nor satisfy the pope’s ambitious demands. Julius had big plans and Bramante was part of them: he was to build a church that would do justice to the importance of Rome as the heart of Christendom.
By 1506 Bramante’s plans had progressed so far that the foundation stone could be laid. Bramante designed St Peter’s on the ground plan of a Greek cross, with four arms of equal length—another central-plan building, again crowned with a mighty dome. With the basilica of St Peter, Bramante had taken on the most important project in Rome, but the pope was no ordinary client: “To be honest,” Bramante once summed it up, “they give you water and words, smoke and hot air. If you ask for more, you are dismissed.”
His fee was a comparatively small expense; the horrendous costs of the new building, despite the lively and controversial trade in indulgences, could not be covered. When Bramante died in 1514, only the choir area had made any progress, and subsequent generations of architects largely overruled his design—today’s basilica reflects Bramante’s plans at most in its gigantic proportions.