Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
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On August 19, 1418, a competition concerning Florence's magnificent new cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore--already under construction for more than a century--was announced: "Whoever desires to make any model or design for the vaulting of the main Dome....shall do so before the end of the month of September." The proposed dome was regarded far and wide as all but impossible to build: not only would it be enormous, but its original and sacrosanct design shunned the flying buttresses that supported cathedrals all over Europe. The dome would literally need to be erected over thin air.
Of the many plans submitted, one stood out--a daring and unorthodox solution to vaulting what is still the largest dome (143 feet in diameter) in the world. It was offered not by a master mason or carpenter, but by a goldsmith and clockmaker named Filippo Brunelleschi, then forty-one, who would dedicate the next twenty-eight years to solving the puzzles of the dome's construction. In the process, he did nothing less than reinvent the field of architecture.
Brunelleschi's Dome is the story of how a Renaissance genius bent men, materials, and the very forces of nature to build an architectural wonder we continue to marvel at today. Denounced at first as a madman, Brunelleschi was celebrated at the end as a genius. He engineered the perfect placement of brick and stone, built ingenious hoists and cranes (among some of the most renowned machines of the Renaissance) to carry an estimated 70 million pounds hundreds of feet into the air, and designed the workers' platforms and routines so carefully that only one man died during the decades of construction--all the while defying those who said the dome would surely collapse and his own personal obstacles that at times threatened to overwhelm him. This drama was played out amid plagues, wars, political feuds, and the intellectual ferments of Renaissance Florence-- events Ross King weaves into the story to great effect, from Brunelleschi's bitter, ongoing rivalry with the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti to the near catpure of Florence by the Duke of Milan. King also offers a wealth of fascinating detail that opens windows onto fifteenth-century life: the celebrated traditions of the brickmaker's art, the daily routine of the artisans laboring hundreds of feet above the ground as the dome grew ever higher, the problems of transportation, the power of the guilds.
Even today, in an age of soaring skyscrapers, the cathedral dome of Santa Maria del Fiore retains a rare power to astonish. Ross King brings its creation to life in a fifteenth-century chronicle with twenty-first-century resonance.
domes would have been available for him to scrutinize. After large parts of the city were burned in the fire of A.D. 64, Nero had established regulations (much like those adopted after the Great Fire of London in 1666) that widened the streets, controlled the water supply, and—most vital from an architectural perspective—restricted the use of inflammable building materials. The Romans therefore started to use concrete, a new invention, in their buildings. The secret of Roman concrete was in its
we have seen, is the thicker of the two, measuring between seven feet at its widest and five feet at its narrowest. With these dimensions it was large enough to incorporate into its center a complete circular vault roughly two and a half feet thick. Rowland Mainstone, the English structural engineer who determined this form following a survey in the mid-1970s, explains that the inner dome was constructed “as if it were a circular dome ... but with parts cut away from both the inside and outside
had shipped on the Badalone from the city of Pisa to Empoli.” The order was not executed within the time stipulated. Two months after the abortive journey Filippo was purchasing a 240-pound rope with which to salvage either the stricken vessel or her cargo—a humiliating spectacle that Giovanni da Prato must have contemplated with relish. How Filippo attempted to recover the load from the bed of the Arno is not known, but a sketch by Taccola shows two stone-laden barges being used to raise a
his escape down the Tiber in disguise, sailed from Ostia, then disembarked at Livorno after a perilous journey. Altogether he would spend several years in Florence, where he would take part in a number of historic ceremonies in Santa Maria del Fiore. The papal abbreviator at this time was Leon Battista Alberti, who had accompanied Eugenius to Florence. In 1434 Alberti was writing De Pictura (On painting), the Italian version of which he would dedicate to Filippo two years later, with its praise
purposes. k Ancient Romans had a dubious method of protecting their buildings from lightning: believing that eagles and sea-calves were never struck, they buried the corpses of these creatures within the walls in the hope of warding off disaster. Select Bibliography Alberti, Leon Battista. Ten Books on Architecture. London: A. Tiranti, 1965. Battisti, Eugenio. Brunelleschi: The Complete Work. London: Thames & Hudson, 1981. Gaertner, Peter. Brunelleschi. Cologne: Könemann, 1998. Galluzzi,