Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King (♦♦♦♦)

How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture


On August 19, 1418 a competition was announced calling for designs for vaulting of the dome of Florence's cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, scaffolds, as well as the design of machines that would make possible the erecting of the dome. The cathedral had been under construction for over a century and its foundation had been laid in 1296. The designer and original architect was a master mason named Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the city's fortifications.

In 1366 there was a call for models as how the dome of the cathedral would be built. Two models were submitted, one by Giovanni Di Lapo Ghini detailing external buttresses to channel the stress of high walls; Neri di Fioravanti's model did away with the buttresses by vaulting using iron rings embedded in the masonry to absorb the stress on the structure. The latter was the model chosen. Fifty years later, the problem of how to build the dome still confounded architects.

In 1418, Filippo Brunelleschi, who was a goldsmith and clockmaker by trade, submitted a revolutionary model: the vaulting of the dome could be done without centering, the technique that uses wooden scaffolding or sand bags to hold the structure until the mortar sets. Despite the acceptance that his model had by the Opera del Duomo, four capomaestri were chosen: Filippo was one, along with his old rival Lorenzo Ghiberti. An additional capomaestro was named to coordinate the work of all the workers on site.

Brunelleschi and Ghiberti became rivals in 1401 during the competition to sculpt in bronze the doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni. The contenders were asked to sculpt images of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Filippo set to work in isolation, but Ghiberti proved to be a savvy participant and the commission was awarded to both of them, something that made Filippo so angry that he resigned the commission and embarked on a voyage to Rome, where he would remain on and off for next fifteen years. In Rome, Filippo became a student of classic architecture, studying sites such as the Pantheon and other ruins, knowledge that would prove valuable in building the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.

The construction of the vault began in the summer of 1420 and would extend until 1436, when the dome was consecrated. Several years more would take the cathedral to be finished, for once the dome was vaulted a lantern was built on top.

For the vaulting of the duomo, Brunelleschi made ingenious contributions. He designed a hoist propelled by an ox, with a system of pulleys and counterweights, and a reversible gear, ahead of his time by at least a century. This ox-hoist would prove valuable to raise the heavy materials from the ground to hundred feet in the air. He also designed a crane called castello, which was able to move weights laterally as well as up and down. In addition, he designed the chains that would reinforce the dome internally, and his pattern of herringbone for the bricks added stability to the vault considering that, at its highest, the bricks would have an angle of thirty degrees to the horizontal.

But Brunelleschi’s career was not without controversy. The river Arno wasn’t navigational; there were no tides like in bigger rivers such as the Thames. At times, the river resembled a stream; thus, the transport of materials via the river was a difficult task to say the least. Brunelleschi designed a kind of ship named Il Badalone, whose purpose was to transport marble from Pisa to Florence. The ship sunk on its maiden voyage, sinking with it 100,000 pounds of valuable marble that the Opera del Duomo made him repay. Another one of his failures came during the battle of Florence against neighboring Lucca. Brunelleschi had the idea to divert the river Serchio and strand Lucca “in the middle of a lake contained by a dam”. But the dam construction was flimsy at best, and the Lucchese figured it out, destroying the dam and flooding the Florentine camp, whose inhabitants were forced to retreat. Workers disputes for higher salaries also managed to taint Brunelleschi’s reputation, and the last straw was when the Masons Guild sent him to jail for not paying its meager dues.

Despite all the controversies and petty rivalries, the dome was vaulted in record time and Brunelleschi managed in the process to change the way architecture is perceived.
He died on April 15, 1446 at sixty-nine years old. He was interred in the cathedral. Only the patron saint of Florence is interred there as well.

I really liked Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. The book provides a fascinating portrayal of the times and the professional and personal life of Brunelleschi. The result is a vivid, absorbing tale of intrigue and genius, of turbulent times and the men who shaped them.

Brunelleschi’s genius is inspiring, and his accomplishments off the charts. Despite writing in a very accessible way about architecture and engineering marvels, I found the reading somewhat challenging because I need pictures to visualize complex concepts, and the book had pictures but not enough in my opinion.

In summary, Brunelleschi’s Dome is an inspiring account of the life and work of Brunelleschi, as well as a very vivid portrayal of the time in which he lived.

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