Book 2; Continent: Europe

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King

  • 208 pages (197 pages of content)
  • There’s more to the story behind that one slide from your college art history class

 The most iconic image from Florence, Italy, is that same view from the air we all saw in our college art history slides of Il Duomo, the dome for Santa Maria del Fiore. It was devised by Philippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century. Did you get that one right on the test? Great. Now here are the more interesting bits about this dome.

 The cathedral’s designer, Arnolfo di Cambio, had called for an enormous dome to cap the structure, but he didn’t have a workable plan for it—just a model, and models don’t always behave like their life-size counterparts. The church was still missing its dome a century later, when Neri di Fioravante proposed to eschew buttresses in the hypothetical dome’s construction—not that he knew how to do that, either. In any case, Brunelleschi didn’t design the entire cathedral, nor was he the one who insisted that it needed a giant, buttress-free dome to make it really special. His achievement was that he made the thing happen, designed and executed.

 In 15th century Florence, guilds held all the power, political or commercial. To really show who was boss, the powerful wool guild sponsored a contest to see who could design the most remarkable dome to complete the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. Their 100-florin prize was big money in those days, even for a gentleman of some means, so the contest attracted many notable entrants, among them, Brunelleschi.

 The other major artist who entered this contest was Lorenzo Ghiberti—another correct answer from art history class for the famous bronze doors of Florence’s Baptistry. Like Brunelleschi, Ghiberti had been apprenticed in bronzeworking and achieved some renown for his work. The two had been obliged to compete for the Baptistry doors commission some years earlier. In that instance, Ghiberti won. Proud Brunelleschi seems never to have quite gotten over the snub, not even when he beat out Ghiberti with his design for the dome at Santa Maria del Fiore.

 The wool guild’s committee to oversee the dome project was understandably nervous about the exciting design entered by Brunelleschi. Not only was it to become the tallest dome in Europe at the time (and for centuries thereafter), but Brunelleschi proposed to build it without centering. Centering was the standard technique of the times for constructing a dome, basically amounting to erecting a huge wooden scaffold to take the weight of the incomplete dome while the masonry seasoned. Sounds like the safe play, right? But centering had some significant drawbacks. First, for a dome of the proposed size, the exceptionally tall, sturdy timber required would be expensive and difficult to obtain. Second, the wooden structure would take up much of the interior space of the cathedral, a huge obstacle for workmen and anyone else on site inside the church.

 The committee’s degree of comfort could only be informed by practical knowledge of the materials, largely unchanged from the Middle Ages. The paradigm shift required for confidence in Brunellesci’s tantalizing design proved too much, so to reassure themselves, they hired another capomaestro (“master-in-chief”) for the project. They picked the worst guy in Florence possible: Lorenzo Ghiberti, the one man in Florence who completely antagonized Brunelleschi.

 When it was finally time to plan the process of building the the dome, the committee announced another contest, this one to design the system to raise building materials to the height required, as existing machinery of the day was not up to the task. Brunelleschi grumbled and submitted his plan for an ox hoist (hoist powered by oxen, not for lifting them), clearly superior to anything else any other competitor had suggested, including plans from an associate of Ghiberti’s. Other contests followed for related design problems.

 The whole contest-for-every-dumb-little-thing routine wore thin with Brunelleschi over the years, despite the fact that he was routinely winning the committee’s contests and getting the associated purse for each. He thought he had pretty much convinced the committee of his irrefutable genius. In fact, he had, to the chagrin of poor Ghiberti. Although Ghiberti held the same title for the project, that of capomaestro, he was paid only a fraction of the salary provided to Brunelleschi.

 Naturally, Ghiberti harbored some bitterness for the slights he endured over the dome project. In fact, he made several strident, dire warnings to the committee about terrible fates awaiting them and their workmen if Brunelleschi’s crazy, untested schemes were implemented. Mostly, he was wrong, and his own credibility suffered.

 This book is not so much a narrative as a lens through which to consider the practical and technical aspects of large-scale Renaissance architecture. Yes, the vitriol spewed by Brunelleschi and his rival Ghiberti made me shake my head and chuckle. So did the announcement of a contest for every technical hurdle to the dome’s construction. If Brunelleschi isn’t a personal hero of yours, I would understand: he had a lousy temper and was supposedly terribly ugly. Even so, this book is worth a read just for a sense of the scale, the politics, the engineering—no math, I promise!—and the enormous sweat equity involved in creating an architectural masterpiece of this kind.

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