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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...
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.
A kind of "dome envy" prevailed in medieval Italy. Domes were to the Italians during the Middle Ages what spires were to the English at about the same time: an architectural expression of civic and ecclesiastical pride. As such they became the favored kind of architectural one-upmanship, with each city or commune striving to build a bigger dome than its neighbor.
By the end of the 13th century, Florence's neighbors in Pisa and Siena both boasted domed cathedrals, and so it was important for civic pride that Florence should have one as well. Accordingly, in 1296 the Commune decreed that the city should have "a more beautiful and honorable temple than any other church in Tuscany" -- and it seems clear that they also wanted a bigger one to befit their status as a powerful mercantile city. The Florentines would ultimately get what they desired, though not without an incredible struggle that lasted for 150 years. The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was not only larger than all other domes in Tuscany: It became the highest and widest in the world, its mean diameter exceeding by a small margin even that of the Roman Pantheon, which for more than 1,000 years had been by far the world's largest dome.
The Florentines who designed the dome acted out of faith, because in 1367, when its dimensions were set, the technical knowledge needed to build such a vast structure simply did not exist. When work on the dome began in 1420 the science of statics (or "how buildings stand up") had not advanced much beyond where Archimedes left it 1,600 years earlier. Understanding of the forces of nature -- of the stresses and strains that would be put on a building -- was still very elementary. Therefore, when he began building the dome, Filippo Brunelleschi -- a goldsmith who had never worked on a building remotely as large -- could have had no reliable knowledge of the strength of materials he would be using. He had no way of knowing, for example, exactly how much force one of his blocks of sandstone would be able to resist without disintegrating, or how thick he needed to cast the rods in the iron chain to make them withstand the horizontal tension that would develop at the base as the dome rose upwards and inwards. He did not even know the intensity or exact place of this tension. He possessed, in short, no predictive capability whatsoever, which meant he had no idea whether or not his design would actually work -- whether it would stand up or else fail completely. Both Brunelleschi and the city fathers of Florence were taking an enormous risk in proceeding. To fail would mean not only a huge loss of money (and possibly of life) but also a catastrophic loss of face before the neighbors that the Florentines had been so determined to outshine.
Because of his astonishing success in raising the dome, Filippo Brunelleschi was seen by his contemporaries as a godlike figure. One of his early biographers, Giorgio Vasari, even goes so far as to claim that Brunelleschi was sent from heaven, rather like the fresco-painting angel in Santissima Annunziata. Architects and engineers no longer see him as a god, of course. But his tremendous feat in controlling the forces of nature to create one of the world's most spectacular and enduring monuments -- a feat whose technical complexities are just now beginning to be understood and appreciated -- places him at the summit of the pantheon of architectural and mechanical geniuses.
Posted May 18, 2001
This is an enjoyable read especially for those who know Florence and have climbed through the dome. The author appears to have done his research and sticks to facts. He does not simply create fiction to fill in gaps. Unlike so many books on the Italian Renaissance that are highly academic and laborsome to plough through, this reaches out to a wide audience - basically anyone who has an interest in Florence, the Renaissance, civil engineering, architecture ....
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Posted July 23, 2012
Terrific Read: Brunelleschi, his dome and Renaissance Florence
I'm no engineer and I only vaguely understand the basic tenets of architecture. But I'm a great admirer of history and have tremendous appreciation for the significance of milestone art and architecture. So in advance of an upcoming trip to Florence, I picked up Ross King's "Brunelleschi's Dome", assuming that King would do as good a job with this seminal Renaissance creation as he did with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in "Michelangelo & The Pope's Ceiling". The book is thorough and enjoyable and scores its highest marks on fleshing out the personality of Filippo Brunelleschi and connecting the building's construction to the greater context of the burgeoning Renaissance.
The Dome, of course, refers the famed Santa Maria del Fiore in the heart of Florence, Italy. The book is fascinating in it's detail of the monumental effort that went into creating such an enormous structure. Filippo Brunelleschi was a goldsmith and clockmaker, and by the time he was given the commission to build the Dome, he'd had very little experience in large-scale construction (and this was one of the most large-scale ever conceived at the time).
Work on the dome began after Brunelleschi won one of the ubiquitous Florentine architectural/design contests, and 50 years after construction on the rest of the church began. King writes, "even the original planners of the dome had been unable to advise how their project might be completed: they merely expressed a touching father that at some point in the future God might provide a solution, and architects with a more advanced knowledge would be found."
The core problem Brunelleschi faced was the sheer scope of what the leaders of Florence were asking for. Specifically, King writes, "An architect must design a structure that will counteract (push and pull) pressures...a game of action and reaction-- and channeling them safely to the ground." This had been traditionally handled through the use of flying buttresses, which can be seen throughout gothic architecture in Europe, but the Florentine leaders had previously accepted a design with no external buttresses.
After losing the "da uomo a uomo" battle of the bronze doors to Lorenzo Ghiberti, the intense Brunelleschi spent a few years traveling, including significant time in Rome. It's documented that he extensively explored the ancient Roman ruins, none of which would have been in the clean and, sometimes, rebuilt state that they are today. He undoubtedly visited the one monument, which is in, in fact, a comparable state to when it was originally built almost two thousand years ago: the Pantheon. The largest dome in the world clearly was built to handle the 'push and pull' pressures and Brunelleschi was sure to translate his learnings into his efforts back home in Florence.
I had some trouble conceptualizing some of the more nuanced engineering hurdles that Brunelleschi overcame. King incorporates drawings and images and writes very plainly, but I think my architectural and construction vocabulary is simply too small.
Throughout the long and protracted construction of the Duomo, Brunelleschi battled against supply issues, war-related interference (he was also Florence's Military Engineer), logistical concerns, as well as internecine battles from within the Florentine artistic and engineering community. In creating numerous novel mechanisms to aid in his construction, Brunelleschi clearly gained the trust and financial assurances from the Florentine leaders and was able to knock down just about every obstacle thrown his way.
This read was a worthwhile investment ahead of my trip to Florence. At only 150 pages, this is the perfect introduction to a surprisingly complex set of problems faced at the forefront of the European Renaissance. While a terrific primer on the specifics of the Duomo, the books' even greater value is it's explorations, however shallow, into the culture and context of the time in which it was built.
Posted November 21, 2006
If you love history or art history or Italy or a well written book, then you will love this book. A great tale of a 15th century Italy-- this book takes you back in time and gives you an appreciation for the unbelievable feat that was the building of this gorgeous dome. Caution: This book will make you want to go to Florence immediately!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 4, 2004
This was the worst book I have ever read. It was very boring and incredibly pointless. I don't know how anyone could read this book for fun because it was awful and put me to sleep!!!
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Posted October 25, 2003
At first, I found that the book was a bit boring, but then when I became more involved with the art of the dome, I found that it became very interesting. I became so involved in the book, that all I remember is that I started the book at 10:30 P.M. and I finished at 2:15A.M. I lost track of time. GREAT BOOK!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 19, 2003
This book reminds me of the patterns of the better known author John McPhee who has made a reputation of taking an interest and writing about it. The book is good and offers insight a good read for the plane or beach.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 9, 2011
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Posted October 16, 2009
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Posted August 29, 2009
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