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Brunnelleschiís Dome

How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture


Book By Ross King

Review By Virginia Smith



This is the story of the genius, sweat, and emotion that went into the construction of the dome of Il Duomo, Florence's most visible landmark. Using primitive raw materials and more artistry than science, Brunelleschi demonstrated a capacity to improvise, adapt, and break through old methods to solve an almost impossible physical challenge.

In 1418 Filippo Brunelleschi was 41 years old and he had an uncanny ability to solve mechanical problems. Apparently, he was an unkempt and irritable old goldsmith and sculptor, very paranoid and suspicious of his fellow artisans. Filippo Brunelleschi is best known for his design of the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, but it was not just the design for which he deserves praise. The manner by which he proposed to erect the dome was so radical that he was labeled a madman. Even more startling was that he refused to reveal the details of how he intended to suspend the dome without traditional supports to the committee before he was awarded the commission, because of his fear that other artisans would steal his new method. It remains the largest dome ever constructed using traditional materials.

Until 1436 when the dome was completed, the traditional method of building domes had been to support them with rigid wooden scaffolds, called centering, that had to remain in place as long as a year, until the mortar dried and it would be self-supporting. It was a remarkable feat of engineering, having the largest span ever constructed of bricks and mortar, spanning more than 140 feet, exceeding St. Paul's in London and St. Peter's in Rome.

The judges of the competition were naturally reluctant to take Brunelleschi at his word without a demonstration of how he could build the structure without centering, and there is an mythical story that he told them they should award the project to whomever could get an egg to stand on its end. No one could do it, of course, until Brunelleschi came forward, smashed one end of the egg and showed how it could be done. Crying foul, his detractors argued it wasn't fair, to which Brunelleschi replied that had they been inventive enough to figure out as he had how to get the egg to stand on its end, they would have been able to understand how he could build the dome without centering. The fact is that the structural strength of the egg had fascinated people for centuries. It has enormous longitudinal strength. It is almost impossible to break an egg by squeezing end-to-end. Of course, now all of you will run to the kitchen to verify this, leaving a wake of eggs smashed all over.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1296, but Brunelleschi won the competition for the dome in 1420 after a bitter competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti, his longtime rival. Political intrigue, jealousy, and paranoia characterized the story. To build the dome, all sorts of mechanical devices had to be invented and Brunelleschi designed most of them. More than seventy million pounds of bricks (each individually designed for the herringbone pattern that was the secret to the structural integrity of the dome), sand, marble and other material had to be hoisted an immense distance off the ground. In fact, when the dome was close to completion, the workers had daily to climb the equivalent of a forty-story stairway before they could begin work. The dome was completed just before the designer's death. It was an engineering feat whose structural daring was without parallel.

His architectural wonder has survived numerous lightning strikes and all sorts of stresses except one he could never have imagined. Recently, cracks were discovered in the dome that had been caused by the heavy vehicular traffic around the cathedral, so all traffic has been banned in that area. Another remarkable geologic problem was discovered only recently. Apparently, part of the cathedral was constructed over an underground river. Yet, it still stands.

This is a tale of Renaissance engineering and organization with a nice healthy dose of intrigue, competition, and betrayal, and with tales of eccentricity and practical jokes thrown in for good measure. On the whole it is clearly and cleverly written, and is, as they say, hard to put down. The people and their society are all brought to life in an engaging way and the interaction of the guilds, artists and patrons are seen to be only little changed in how such projects are sometimes brought together today. The dome itself was and is a staggering achievement in planning and execution, and would today, no doubt, engage more than a few computers and engineers for a couple of years before even a brick were laid. I enjoyed this book greatly, but I found myself confused over his technical explanations, rummaging through my library for a superior cutaway of the dome to better visualize his wordy explanations. It would have greatly helped to have had an illustration of Brunelleschi's Gothic vaulting underneath the classically inspired outer dome to better understand. For a book that has a fair number of illustrations, I found these, for the most part, poorly chosen. Unfortunately, King only provides one small photograph of the dome in middle distance - no angles, no details, no full-page, no color. In my mind, that would have definitely been an obvious illustration to include. I did though appreciated the reproductions of period etchings and drawings.

The author does a great job of setting the scene in Italy of those days. The crumbling of the Roman Empire, the plague, militarism, politics, and scientific rivalry are all covered. King obviously did plenty of research to thoroughly convey the building of this great building. If you have an interest in architecture, building, ancient Italy, or Florence, this book is definitely for you.