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July 11, 2007

Brunellieschi’s Dome

How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
Ross King – ISBN – 9780142000151

This is an extremely interesting book of which I would have been unaware had it not been given to me by a customer and friend.

Filipo Brunellieschi was a 15th century goldsmith who invigorated architecture and almost single-handedly brought architects from the status of mere day-laborer to the level of respected artisan; indeed, the only European architect of his time to gain fame in his own lifetime, which fame has endured to the present because of his incredible genius. It was this recognition which permitted subsequent architects such as Christopher Wren to be honorable. Along the way this capomaestro rediscovered Roman mortar and recreated lost building techniques, while adding a host of his own creations to the craft.

The dome of the Florentine cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (which you’ve seen if you saw the movie Room with a View) is the source of that fame, and he alone is honored by burial in that cathedral along with its Patron Saint Zenobius. In fact, his grave was lost beneath the paved central aisle for over 500 years until rediscovered in 1972.

A dreamer drew an idealized sketch for this almost impossible octagonal dome, and against all odds Filipo was able to render it buildable, and built it, taking over 25 years to do so, dying only a year or so before the cupola was completed.

In so doing he constructed the largest masonry dome of its--and all--time. It remains the largest free-span dome in the world. Only with modernity, new building materials, techniques and equipment has it been surpassed by the superdome(s). It is larger than St. Peter’s in Rome, larger than the Capitol Building in D.C.: a radius of 70+ feet at its base and but 10 ft. at its apex. At the top the angle is 30 degrees from perpendicular, despite which it was built without centering (scaffolding to support it while under construction.) This alone was ingenious . . . and necessary because it would have been all but impossible to construct scaffolding that high. Overall this was an achievement at least equal to Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge four centuries later, and at a time when far less was known about engineering.

When an elderly Michelangelo was designing the dome for St. Peters he carefully studied Filipo’s work and noted that he could equal this dome but never surpass it. Most don’t feel he even equaled it: it is narrower and, “arguably, much less graceful and striking” (there, Mike, take that!), while Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is smaller in diameter by 30 feet.

The base of Brunelleschi’s dome was 180 ft. off of the ground and over 300 ft. to its apex, with a 30 ft. cupola (also known as a lantern.) The dome is estimated to have taken 37,000 tons of stone, brick and mortar, and the lantern itself adds another 500 tons. Atop all of that was a huge bronze ball with a Christian cross. He had to revolutionize architecture to accomplish this. Furthermore, he had to design and build wooden machine cranes 300 ft. high to get the materials to the height needed; machines precise enough to seat them exactlywhere needed. Worse, this had to be done when navies were going abroad to find 120 ft. logs to be used as masts.

Masons had to climb 42 stories of steps just to get to work at the top! (Must have been in great shape.) And they took their lunch along with them in the morning—no great surprise there.

He forgot nothing. As he was building the dome he left iron rings in the mortar so that the fresco which he knew would follow had moorings for the scaffolding which would be required.

King laces the entire narrative with anecdotes about the builder and his friends (and enemies) which make the story more interesting, and he emphasizes that the height and openness of this magnificent dome were critical to the mathematical studies made by another sage in pursuit if improving the accuracy of determinations of longitude and latitude which made sailing in the open ocean safe, and indirectly resulted in the discovery of the (admittedly not lost) new world only a few years later.

For those with an interest in art or architecture this is a wonderful read.

Posted by respeto at July 11, 2007 1:17 PM