Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
by Ross King, published 2013
The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known far and wide as Florence’s Duomo, took nearly 150 years to construct, beginning in 1296 and ending in 1436 with the completion of its massive dome under the direction of capomaestro Filippo Brunelleschi. The quinto acuto arch of the dome was an engineering marvel constructed without stabilizing buttresses and without a wooden centering to hold it in place as it was built. It defied the imagination of the civic leaders responsible for building the cathedral at the time and the methods and architectural rationale behind it were made purposefully obscure by the paranoid and secretive master “Pippo”.
Fast forward over 500 years of history and the principles by which the dome was constructed appear to be no less mysterious. From the post-war era onward numerous attempts at magnetic imaging and other sounding methods have been made to try to ascertain the precise materials and methods used with most returning a Magic 8-Ball-esque answer of “Reply hazy, try again.” Many lesser domes had been constructed in earlier history in the West and the East, but Brunelleschi’s dome was the greatest span and the highest height achieved since the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and before that the Pantheon of Rome. Few have attempted anything nearing its proportions since and it seems apparent from the text that even if some modern had an inkling to they’d be hard pressed to figure out how to accomplish it without “cheating” in some way by use of innovative new materials or other supportive techniques.
But the grandiosity and secrecy of the dome’s construction is just one of the many wonders involved. Another is that Brunelleschi was not a trained architect but a goldsmith. Of course, goldsmiths of his era were considered the master craftsmen and technicians of their time (the book mentions how most significant architectural works in the West predating the Florence cathedral failed to record the name of the architects responsible for designing and raising them, so lowly was their perceived status) and the task before Brunelleschi was not simply to design the dome but to coordinate its construction via teams of specialized handiwork guild members as well as to manage the logistics of supplying the building materials, much as a film producer is responsible for pulling together writers, actors, financiers, set locations, film teams and so on. Still, it seems to demonstrate the virtuosity of the man’s mind that he was responsible for building something which was essentially an amateur attempt given his background.
Another wonder of the raising of the cathedral and the dome is the fact that this was one of many simultaneous grand public works built over the time. The city had organized a well-financed oversight committee, the Opera del Duomo, led by the most esteemed woolen cloth guild (a key pillar of Florence’s economy and regional importance), the Arte della Lana, which hired contractors to complete the cathedral and numerous other churches, sculptures and edifices around the city. Today we might think of an economic boom period lasting a decade but it seems that Florence’s skyline was littered with cranes, booms and scaffolds for the better part of two centuries.
Besides innovating architecturally, Brunelleschi also created numerous ingenious tools and machines to aid the construction process. One was an enormous ox-powered materials hoist which rose to the height of the roof of the cathedral from the floor of the nave and had changeable gearing such that the ox team could raise and lower materials in a controlled fashion without being removed from harness and changing direction, an enormous time savings over the life of the project. He also invented specialized cranes, pulley systems and other machines for traversing materials across the expanse of the open dome while it was under construction. Getting multiple hundred-ton slabs of marble, hardened timber beams and iron chains and clasps up the 20-story height of the cathedral was only half the battle as once there they needed to be moved across numerous axes in a precise, controlled fashion before being lowered into place, all while gusts of wind, rain and sometimes even snow obstructed the workers’ efforts.
As impressive and awe-inspiring as structures like Santa Maria del Fiore are and were, I couldn’t help thinking about the monumental waste of these projects compared to alternative uses for the materials and labor and ingenuity involved. Most of the space created by the cathedral is empty by design– this heightens the sense of majesty of the house of God. And this is partly why the building was so complex and expensive to create. The mere fact that the people of this era could construct something like this is a demonstration of their wealth, organizational capabilities, technical know-how and culture of productivity. I just wonder if they weren’t filling up multiple city blocks with empty temples made of the finest construction materials, what could they have built instead that isn’t there?
Ironically, it was these “wasteful” decisions that are the primary source of Florence’s modern tourist economy, so in that sense it was a far-sighted decision by the early city masters to invest in their descendant’s future well-being. And some have even made the case that the splendors of Florence’s Renaissance urbanity were enough to protect it from destruction during World War II.
Florence in the Renaissance was something like New York City today, a wealthy center of commerce and banking, confident in its own power and influence, a great patron of culture and the arts and continually raising great structures in honor of itself. But whereas you can walk amongst the streets of Florence today and see a Medici palazzo or a fine church built half a millenium ago, it’s hard to imagine walking the streets of New York City five hundred years from today and finding the remains of yesteryear still standing and still full of wonder and delight.