The only architect of the High Renaissance (with the exception of Raphael) respected by his peers and successors as the equal of the ancients, it was he, above all, who revealed the power, emotional possibilities, and gravity of Antique Roman architecture. Born near Urbino, he trained as a painter, and perhaps knew Piero della Francesca (c.1410/20–1492) and Francesco di Giorgio at the Court of Federigo da Montefeltro (reigned 1444–82) in that city, but his first documented appearance was as a painter of frescoes at the Palazzo del Podestà, Bergamo (1477). Around 1479 he entered the service of Ludovico Sforza (1452–1508) in Milan, where he turned his attention to architecture, and met Leonardo da Vinci, who was to alert him to the problems of designing centralized churches. Bramante's first significant church was Santa Maria presso San Satiro, Milan (begun c.1481), where he erected the first coffered dome since Antiquity, made the shallow east end appear as a deep chancel by means of theatrical perspective techniques, placed a barrel-vault over the nave (influenced by Alberti), and reworked the C9 chapel of San Satiro as a drum (embellished with pilasters and niches). He also planned, with Leonardo, a centralized arrangement at Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan (1490s), which has a drum with dome on pendentives rising over it.
The fall of the Sforzas forced Bramante to abandon Milan for Rome, where he designed the elegant cloisters of Santa Maria della Pace (1500–4) which were more refined than his earlier cloisters of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (1492). The Pace cloisters have piers with Ionic pilasters and arcades (based on the Colosseum) carrying a continuous entablature with an inscription on the frieze, while above is an open colonnaded gallery with the columns set between piers and situated on the centre-line of each arch. Then (1502–10) came the astonishing Tempietto in the chiostro (cloister) of San Pietro in Montorio, a drum surmounted by a dome and surrounded by a peristyle of Tuscan columns carrying a Roman Doric entablature: the effect is graceful, serene, and Antique. Tuscan Doric was used because of its association with the strong masculine character of St Peter, on the supposed site of whose Martyrdom the Tempietto was erected. Indeed Serlio credited Bramante with adapting the Doric temple for Christian purposes, for Vitruvius, no less, had recommended Doric as appropriate for heroic, masculine deities. Circular plans were based upon Antique temples, but they also have important precedents in the martyria of Early Christian churches: thus Bramante, in this tiny building, linked Christian martyria, Roman circular temples, and Classical architecture in the first great building of the High Renaissance.
With the election of Pope Julius II (1503–13) Bramante acquired a patron with ambitions to build, and he drew up a plan for the Vatican and the Basilica of San Pietro. One range of buildings with three superimposed arcades was subsequently incorporated within the Cortile di San Damaso, and then came the vast Cortile del Belvedere of which only the spiral ramp (c.1505) remains relatively intact. However, the greatest work was the rebuilding of the Church of San Pietro. The huge Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople had fallen to Islam in the mid-C15, and it became politically and symbolically important to replace the Constantinian basilica (which was really a martyrium over the tomb of the Apostle) with a great centrally planned church. Bramante proposed a mighty Greek cross (with each arm terminating in an apse) in the corners of which would be four smaller Greek crosses (each covered by a minor dome), the centre covered by a dome to rival that of the Roman Pantheon, but carried on a huge colonnaded drum. Bramante's design was derived from the Tempietto, and he was designing a martyrium, with reference to Constantine's other foundations (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity), and to the mathematical perfection of a centralized plan that symbolized the Perfection of God. The building was only partially begun when he and the Pope died, but the great piers of the crossing and the arches carry the dome of the present building.