Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
By: Ross King
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
On August 19, 1418, a competition concerning Florence’s magnificent new cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore–already under construction for more than a century–was announced: “Whoever desires to make any model or design for the vaulting of the main Dome….shall do so before the end of the month of September.” The proposed dome was regarded far and wide as all but impossible to build: not only would it be enormous, but its original and sacrosanct design shunned the flying buttresses that supported cathedrals all over Europe. The dome would literally need to be erected over thin air.
Of the many plans submitted, one stood out–a daring and unorthodox solution to vaulting what is still the largest dome (143 feet in diameter) in the world. It was offered not by a master mason or carpenter, but by a goldsmith and clockmaker named Filippo Brunelleschi, then forty-one, who would dedicate the next twenty-eight years to solving the puzzles of the dome’s construction. In the process, he did nothing less than reinvent the field of architecture.
Brunelleschi’s Dome is the story of how a Renaissance genius bent men, materials, and the very forces of nature to build an architectural wonder we continue to marvel at today. Denounced at first as a madman, Brunelleschi was celebrated at the end as a genius. He engineered the perfect placement of brick and stone, built ingenious hoists and cranes (among some of the most renowned machines of the Renaissance) to carry an estimated 70 million pounds hundreds of feet into the air, and designed the workers’ platforms and routines so carefully that only one man died during the decades of construction–all the while defying those who said the dome would surely collapse and his own personal obstacles that at times threatened to overwhelm him. This drama was played out amid plagues, wars, political feuds, and the intellectual ferments of Renaissance Florence– events Ross King weaves into the story to great effect, from Brunelleschi’s bitter, ongoing rivalry with the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti to the near catpure of Florence by the Duke of Milan. King also offers a wealth of fascinating detail that opens windows onto fifteenth-century life: the celebrated traditions of the brickmaker’s art, the daily routine of the artisans laboring hundreds of feet above the ground as the dome grew ever higher, the problems of transportation, the power of the guilds.
Even today, in an age of soaring skyscrapers, the cathedral dome of Santa Maria del Fiore retains a rare power to astonish. Ross King brings its creation to life in a fifteenth-century chronicle with twenty-first-century resonance.
I’ve had this book on my wish-to-read list for a very long time. I’ve always been curious about Renaissance architecture (still my favourite kind around) and the Santa Maria del Fiore is one of the most famous and well-known cathedrals in Italy. So I thought it was really cool that someone had written a book about its construction.
Firstly, here are some photos of the dome of interest (click on images to enlarge):
Il Duomo is quite massive when you’re on the ground, the scale just insane and the detail gorgeous.
Ross King’s book was a very informative and enlightening read. On the one hand it’s quite biographical, focusing on Filippo Brunelleschi’s life and career, but it’s also historical, placing the construction of the dome during a tumultuous period in Florentine history (wars, intrigue, coming off bouts of the Black Death). It was interesting to see how the state of Florence, of Rome, and of the Italian peninsula was like during Brunelleschi’s time and how these conditions and political developments impacted his work.
The book meticulously details the architecture techniques of the period and of the past, of the humanist approaches that were coming to the forefront during this period and how Brunelleschi studied Roman architecture as a foundation to his future works. The nature of the guilds and how architects operate during this early modern period was also greatly informative and in some ways reinforced in my mind how some things never change, really (i.e. the paperwork put forward discussing changes to the plans). The book comes with some diagrams outlining some of the obstacles that Brunelleschi faced as well as his plans on constructing the dome.
The biographical material was just as interesting as Brunelleschi was a curious man: brilliant but also someone who worked in a very particular manner. I was surprised to learn that he can also be a bit of a troll: the prank he pulled on the carpenter Manetto “Il Grasso” was kind of lol but also pretty out there/severe for someone who failed to keep a social engagement. I can’t imagine anyone trying to pull a mind trick like that nowadays, but it goes to show that Brunelleschi is not someone you want to mess with.
Brunelleschi’s Dome is a short but informative read, filled with anecdotes and details ranging from the historical period to the architectural techniques used to construct the dome. Readers of history and fans of the Renaissance period will definitely want to pick up this book as King’s narrative is quite accessible and all around fascinating.