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BRUNELLESCHI'S DOME The landscape of Florence is dominated by the magnificent dome of the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, whose foundation stone was laid in 1296 and took 140 years to construct. In tho…


The landscape of Florence is dominated by the magnificent dome of the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, whose foundation stone was laid in 1296 and took 140 years to construct. In those days, the economy of Florence was based on agriculture and its products and its wealth was concentrated in members of guilds, mainly those of wool, silk and goldsmiths. They were determined to build a cathedral that would be one of its kind in all the world.

I have just finished reading a small (167 pages), soft-cover book entitled "Brunelleschi's Dome - How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture" by Ross King, and highly recommend it to anyone planning to visit Florence.

Also covered are fascinating accounts of the early history of Florence, including several onslaughts of the plague, one of which resulted in as many as 4/5s of its population dying over the span of a year; the near capture of the city by the Duke of Milan; and involvement in wars such as the one against Lucca. Another account not to be missed is the mining of the white carrara marble and its transport to Florence.

The overall decision-making and construction organization, known as the opera, was composed of wool merchants, the most respected and wealthy citizens but who knew nothing about construction. While they had adopted a model of the finished cathedral, it called for a huge dome but how it would be constructed was beyond their comprehension.

As was the custom in those days, in 1418 the opera announced a competition to solve the almost impossible difficulty of constructing the dome. More than a dozen life-size models were submitted and "only one offered a magnificently, daring and unorthodox solution to the problem of vaulting such a large space." This model, made of brick, was built "not by a carpenter or mason but by a man who would make it his life's work to solve the puzzles of the dome's construction: a goldsmith and clockmaker named Filippo Brunelleschi."

In response to the city's gratefulness for surviving another bout of the plague, an additional competition was announced for making the bronze door for the Baptistry. Tied for considera-tion were Filippo and Lorenzo Gilberti and, since the judges couldn't decide the winner, they wanted them to work together on the project. Filippo, an irascible loner, refused and thus began a lifelong professional jealousy between the two men.

He then moved to Rome and spent a number of years studying the construction of the Parthenon and other structures, trying to figure out how to build the dome. Returning to Florence to begin work, he then had to invent a hoist to move and carry tremendous weights to incredible heights. It became one of the most celebrated machines of the Renaissance and was studied and sketched by many architects and engineers.

Brunelleschi decided to construct two domes, an inner and the outer one, and I will leave it to those avid readers to find out how this nerve-wracking feat was accomplished.

In 1436, during the Feast of the Annunciation, the cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV, accompanied by 7 cardinals, 37 bishops, and 9 members of the Florentine government. Ten years later, on April 15, 1446, Brunelleschi died and is only one of two honored by burial in the cathedral. A marble bust of him, by his adopted son, Buggiano, is also there.

Today, you can climb the 463 steps to the top of the dome - the same routing that was done daily of the workmen on the project. The first 150 steps takes you to the base of the dome and a small door leading to the space between the two shells and then another set of steps ending finally at the top where there is an outside viewing platform! They say the view is magnificent!

Views: 48

Comment by Sue Baker on February 5, 2008 at 12:27pm
Hi Mary Lou,
If I hurry I can get that book read before I go to Florence in March. I did get to climb the 463 steps up into the dome last spring and it was worth every step! It was not as difficult as I anticipated - there are only a couple of places where the people going up have to squeeze past the people going down. Not for the claustrophobic but very, very interesting. There are small windows at different levels so you get a feel for how high you are going. The rewarding view at the top is memorable to say the least!
Comment by Mary Lou Grier on February 5, 2008 at 8:22pm
You almost have to be an engineer or an architect to
understand some of the descriptions in the book re how
Fillipo solved the problems of erecting the dome, but you
can skim over those - there is still plenty to enjoy. Glad to hear you climbed those stairs - such stamina!


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