Brunelleschi’s Dome – Ross King

24 Jun

You have to hand it to the Italians.  They certainly have chutzpah.  Not only can they create miracles with carbohydrates, they know that their technology will match their imagination if only given enough time.  For example, Leonardo da Vinci had designs for the bicycle and flying machines.  Then there’s the story of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi’s dome.  If you hadn’t guessed it, that’s what we’re talking about today.

See those black circles on the dome? That's Brunelleschi's design to channel wind force. Brilliant!

 In 1296 construction began on Santa Maria del Fiore.  The design called for a large dome.  So large a dome, in fact, that the techniques to build it had yet to be invented.  Work started anyway and would continue, more or less, until 1436.  When completed it would claim the world’s largest masonry dome and it holds this record today.  Now that we can build with steel frames, feats like the Astro Dome are possible.  But are they as beautiful as the Duomo in Florence?  Is the Pope Presbyterian?

 You could say that Filippo Brunelleschi was awarded the job because he was a sore loser.  The wool guild who was in charge of building the Duomo (and Florence is all about the guilds, you may have heard of their guild of medical doctors.  Does the name Medici ring a bell?) initially had a contest for a different building.  The Baptistery, one of three buildings in the Piazza del Duomo besides, you know, the Duomo, needed doors.  Andrea Pisano had created bronze doors for the south entrance.  New doors were needed for the north.  Brunelleschi entered, as did his rival Ghiberti.  They both turned in elaborate designs.  Back in the 1300 and 1400s a small scale model for consideration meant months of work.  For example, Brunelleschi’s model for the dome was 12 feet high… but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

 The guild then awarded a tie to Brunelleschi and Ghiberti.  They were to work on the doors together and sing songs about cooperation.  Filippo was less than thrilled and so he took his ball and moved to Rome.  While there he licked his wounds and studied ancient Roman architecture.  He’d measure angles and arches and… domes.  He was there between 13-14 years, sources differ, and then he returned to Florence.  And as luck would have it, they were having another contest.  This time for who would build the dome and we all know this time our little pouter ended up on top, beating out his rival, Ghiberti.  Ahhhh, snap!

 During the dome’s construction, many different design and functional elements were created by Brunelleschi.  He created a hoist that was able to lift marble pieces weighing tons to the top of the structure.  The hoist was so large that the rope used was custom made in Pisa by shipbuilders.  It was 600 feet long and weighed 1,000 pounds.  Without it the work would have halted as conventional wisdom only included a kind of treadmill worked by as many as two workers.  It was limited by weight and by height.  Here again the Italian belief that technology would match creativity came into play and the hoist went off without a hitch.

So, in summary, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture was endlessly fascinating.  King is really deft at incorporating so many areas of history into Brunelleschi’s tale.  I was amazed at how much detail he was able to share about people who lived so long ago.  How they looked, how they were paid, what they ate and how they worked up a good prank.  Even if you don’t have any interest in architecture (that’s me, raising my hand!) you will enjoy this.  And if you’re lucky enough to visit Florence, walking up all those steps to stand atop the dome will seem even greater a thrill… once you stop wheezing.


One Response to “Brunelleschi’s Dome – Ross King”


  1. Body by Italy « Trip Ahoy! - 2011/06/25

    […] the Duomo (“cathedral” in Italian). So you add her enthusiasm and the fact that I loved Ross King’s book about the Duomo and this became a necessary […]

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