Review – Brunelleschi’s Dome

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.

 

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Diversity And Sameness

Walking into a small Florentine osteria like Cinghiale Bianco — there don’t appear to be any large eateries, and even after spending a whole semester in Florence and now revisiting, I still can’t figure out what the difference is between osterie, ristoranti, tratorrie and the like — I am immediately struck by the diversity and efficiency of these spaces.

In the United States at least there is a seeming obsession with uniform geometry. Every place, fancy or hole in the wall alike, is cubic and utilized in cubic form. All I have to do to clarify what I mean by this is to paint a picture for you of Cinghiale.

This little restaurant has three galleries for diners. The first is rectangular in the front and seats two rows of 4 seat tables and two rows of six seat tables. The second gallery is another rectangle behind it but attached at one of the corners and perpendicular to it. It has three tables of four and a table of two as well as a “nook” buried in the street side wall (bordering the first gallery) which seats 4 or 5. This nook has an arch and the whole thing is constructed of gloss painted brick. Above it is the third gallery, seating 2 or 3, which is accessed by a small ladder step way as if it belongs in a library bookshelf. The ladder is in the second gallery but the third gallery looks out on the first. Its claustrophobic, romantic and dangerous– a sign warns you in Italian to watch your head as you climb up because a support arch of the wall leaps out and cuts across about three feet from the top of the ladder.

I can’t even imagine how many OSHA and fire code regulations such a design would garner in the US. In Italy I’m sure this place is legally protected from ever being renovated!! The law is a singularly irrational and subjective institution wherever in the world it is crafted.

The interior of the restaurant is white washed plaster over occasionally exposed brick and dark painted timber support beams. The walls are lined with shelves covered in wine bottles and carrafe pottery. The tiny hallway segueing the first two galleries has an indent about five feet up that serves as the coat hang.

Cubic architecture should be more economical and efficient both to construct and maintain and utilize for a variety of functions, which is why I assume it is so prevalent in the US. And yet, its hard to not be charmed by the efficiency of this humanistic design in little Italy.

To a traveler, this is diversity. But the shocking truth of Italy is that all these little towns are like this. All the restaurants are ancient and cute and cozy. All the towns you ride the trains through up and down the coast are painted in a variety of dark pastel tones such as red, pink, and yellow with green window shutters. Everywhere they offer the “cucina tipica.”

Every city and village has a copy of the Garibaldi statue.

They serve the same food at every restaurant. The pasta is always good even when the meat dishes are second rate at the tourist traps. Its actually hard to find anything that isn’t Italian. Its a country that has failed by successfully and faithfully embracing mercantilist self-sufficiency, even though the osterie sometimes serve Tunisian olive oil, a blasphemy of ever there was one.

And in these ancient places nothing ever changes. It will all be here, the statues and paintings and museums and history and restaurants and hotels, next time.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I suppose it depends who you are and what you’re after. Its hard to imagine businesses shutting down, even in a recession — more economic thoughts in a coming post — and I’ve yet to see entire city blocks with For Lease or for Sale signs as there would be in the US. But I also don’t see how you could avoid being a 60 year old waiter one day. Or how you’d ever get to live a “modern” life of new things if you were just an average Joe. Or Jiacomo as it were.

Many of the portraits in the Uffizi, it turns out, were the likenesses of various condottieri of Florence under the Medicis. They were celebrating these military contractors who helped them crush their neighbors and enemies.

Today there are no more contractors in Italy. But the US government employs thousands. Do things ever change? Are we all that different? Which is modern, and which is not?

Firenze (Italy)

A few things I’ve learned about Italy:

  1. Italy is ridiculously hot in August. Like 100F+ when you’re inland.
  2. Italy is a lot more poor and a lot less glamorous than Americans (me) think (thought).
  3. Toscanans hate Pisans.

Our Italy trip began with a short stay in Florence. It was extremely hot, and it took some getting used to. Our jetlag made us even more uncomfortable, and so we took it easy for the first couple days. We stayed right in front of the River Arno by the Ponte Vecchio.

River Arno is about 150 miles long and originates from Casentino and flows thru Pisa to the sea (east to west). “Ponte Vecchio” means “old bridge,” and, according to our shuttle driver, it was initially built as a slaughterhouse. The initial slaughterhouses on land were too stinky, so they added theses houses on the bridge. The animals would be led there and slaughtered, and their guts and remains would be dumped straight into the river. The stinky water would flow to Pisa, which was perfect because no one liked the Pisans anyway.

Our hotel was also really close to the city center, where the Duomo is. Florence’s Duomo is really an impressive building. My pictures don’t really do it justice. There are a lot of details in the stonework that is really humbling. The city center is also where all the fake (replicas) statues are, but I don’t have any pictures of them because I was too lazy…

We also went to the huge market in Florence to try the roast pork sammiches, as recommended by our friends. I noticed that this place was particularly popular with the Japanese crowd, as they had an article displayed where they were featured in a Japanese magazine. There were also many signs in Japanese describing their foods, and many Asian tourists were clamoring for a photo-op with their storefront… Anyway, the sammiches were good, although a bit salty for me.

Our first dinner in Florence was fantastic. We went to this restaurant called Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco (Restaurant of the White Boar) (also at the recommendation of our friends) and ordered a meat appetizer, a cheese plate, and delicious entrees, including my “chicken in cheese sauce with truffles.” The decor was very unique, and it made the place feel very homey, like a mom-and-pop. Definitely a memorable eating experience. We also went to get gelato at least once a day so far, but it’s usually consumed pretty quickly before I get a pic 😉

On another day in Florence, we went to see The David. Michelangelo was only 26 when he was able to convince the Operai (essentially a public works committee) to let him finish what Agostino started, and it took Michy two years to finish what is now one of the most revered statues. The David is revered because it’s so different from all the other Davids. For example, in Michy’s David, David isn’t standing on the head of Goliath, a monster he’d slain. Instead, this statue captures him in the moment after he has decided to fight Goliath but before the fight has begun; in other words, “It is a representation of the moment between conscious choice and conscious action” (wiki article of The David). I don’t have any personal pics of the guy because we weren’t allowed to take pix. Plus you can just find him online.

Overall, Firenze was neat to experience but I’m not sure if it’s the most beautiful city in Italy, and unfortunately, I think the weather has had a really negative impact on my experience thus far. Like most tourist cities, Florence is a bit stinky and crowded (though probably less so than early summer when even more people are there). Wikipedia: Italy says that Italy is the 25th most developed country and ranks in the top ten of the Quality of Life index, but I think those stats are misleading. According to our Italian shuttle driver, 72% of their paycheck is taken from them in taxes- 51% top marginal tax (based on income) and 21% VAT (value added tax, or tax when a service, product, or material is added… I think). That’s a lot of money to have stolen from you!! So Italians have a difficult time covering living expenses and saving money. The Italian economy isn’t doing so hot, making it a less than ideal place where I’d want to live.

Our time in Florence was short, but there’s still a lot left to do elsewhere in Italy! Next post will be about our half day in Tuscany and Lucca!

Oh, and the answer to why the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built! We heard an interesting story from our shuttle driver the other day: LTP was built to boost the Pisan economy by increasing foot traffic in the area. The idea was that by building a structure that was a little off kilter (literally), it would increase public interest (because a leaning tower is way more interesting than a straight tower) and draw people to Pisa, as there was mass pilgrimage through the area at that time. An interesting and plausible theory!