English View all editions and formats Summary: Yet the elegance of the building belies the tremendous labour, technical ingenuity and bitter personal strife involved in its creation. The greatest architectural puzzle of its age, when finally completed in the dome was hailed as one of the great wonders of the world. To this day, it remains the highest and widest masonry dome ever built. Also told is the story of the dome's architect, Filippo Brunelleschi. Denounced as a madman at the start of his labours, he was celebrated at their end as a great genius.
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Whoever doesn't do this is going to make a big fool of themselves. In the Renaissance, there were no lasers, computer-animated models, or detailed blueprints to guide the process. Builders relied on ropes to control the progress of the work. Ricci is convinced that the secret to the dome has something to do with a special way Brunelleschi used rope lines to establish how each brick should fit into place. Ricci's dome is one-fifth the size of Brunelleschi's, but still huge, large enough, he hopes, to prove his theory of the secret of the dome correct.
I think, oftentimes, when you have an artist whose personality remains as vague as Brunelleschi's, inevitably what scholars do is to almost assume the role of the artist. What you're trying to do is to put yourself into the mind of the architect. Trying to find the secret of the dome is trying to find the secret of Brunelleschi. The search for that secret begins in the years just before the Renaissance. At the dawn of the 14th century, a kind of medieval arms race is raging between Florence and other emerging city-states, like Siena and Pisa, each trying to outdo the other by building bigger and bigger cathedrals.
Florentines are very creative people. They are also very competitive people. That means, among other things, they want to do what no one else has done. And they decided that other cites in Tuscany, other cities in Italy, had grander temples than they did, and so they wanted to compete with them and, more especially, they wanted to outdo them. In , the city leaders of Florence form a committee to oversee the construction of a new cathedral.
They want theirs to be different from any other. Florentines dislike the look of the Gothic cathedrals that have been spreading across Europe for over a hundred years. They consider them too cluttered, with their walls propped up by flying buttresses and their many tall, pointed spires. For inspiration, the committee looks to ancient Rome, in particular, to the classical temple honoring all Roman gods: It was famed for its unrivaled dome, made of poured concrete. But such engineering technology had been completely erased by centuries of war, and it's the accepted wisdom of the time that no culture will ever rival the Romans in the building arts.
Florence is determined to surpass all architectural glories, past and present. Through the s, the cathedral committee's vision for Santa Maria del Fiore keeps expanding: Eventually, the committee's reach begins to exceed its grasp. They were really presenting themselves with a serious problem, because, in enlarging the church, what they are also enlarging is the crossing area of the church, essentially, where the two arms would intersect. Like many cathedrals, Santa Maria del Fiore is in the shape of a cross. The larger the church, the larger the area over the altar place needed to be covered by the dome.
They eventually create a crossing space which measured feet, 6-inches across. Today, in the 21st century, it would be difficult for us to cover, to roof, such a vast space. In the 14th and 15th centuries, theoretically, it should have been impossible. A mural depicting the cathedral, years before the dome was begun, shows what the committee had in mind: There's no question it's going to be spectacular.
There is just one catch: What was so challenging about building a dome on this cathedral? After all, a dome is nothing more than an arch rotated degrees. And, by , Gothic cathedrals have been using arches and vaulting for over a hundred years. Medieval technology relies on wooden frameworks to hold the masonry until the final piece is put in place, the two sides pushing against each other allow the structure to stand on its own. This method is known as "centering.
In the Middle Ages, if we're building a vault, okay, we build that wooden framework; we put our blocks, our bricks on top of it; we wait for the masonry to dry. Then, we make the sign of the cross, pull the wooden framework away and run like hell, because the failure rate on most of these vaults was about 50 percent. The problem with the wooden centering for Santa Maria del Fiore was that it was going to be unprecedented in scale, if they built it.
It would have been enormously expensive. The area beneath the dome is so high and so wide, just building the wooden framework to support the masonry would have taken hundreds of trees, years of construction and huge amounts of money. Unless someone, someday, invents a way to keep curving walls in place as they rise, the dome will never be built. I mean, for me, the most extraordinary thing about the construction of the cathedral is undertaking a project that you knew, fully well, you did not have the technology to complete.
By the time Filippo Brunelleschi is born, the cathedral has already been under construction for 80 years, with no solution in sight to the problem of the dome. Brunelleschi spends his youth being trained, not as an architect or stonemason, but in a trade that continues to flourish in Florence to this day: He began in the workshop when he was 14 years old, his father's friend's workshop.
He apprenticed until he was 17 or 18 and learned all the techniques typical of the Florentine tradition. To us, in the 21st century, that may seem a slightly odd way to get your start in architecture. But, in fact, you could have had no better training in the 15th century, to become an architect or a sculptor or a designer of any sort. They worked with gold, they worked with silver. They used their minds as well as their hands. They had to figure out how to make things work both practically and also aesthetically.
Brunelleschi first attracts public attention in the year Just 23, he enters a competition to decorate the most revered building in all of Florence: For centuries, Florentines, including Dante and the Medicis, have been baptized here. And the building needs a new set of ornamented bronze doors. And Filippo Brunelleschi, being very ambitious and very talented, threw his hat into the ring. It's the most important artistic competition for a public work that everyone will see, that will immediately create fame and prestige.
And he manages to become one of the finalists, along with another beginning master, Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The competition involved casting a trial panel, making an experimental piece to show what you could do. So everyone was given the same amount of bronze and told, "Go away to your workshop and make us something. They produced two panels, which, luckily, still survive. In these two panels, there's a confrontation between the classical style of Ghiberti and the Renaissance style of Brunelleschi.
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The Abraham of Lorenzo Ghiberti is very beautiful. He has a long, curly beard, flowing hair; the scene is very decorated, it's very rich in detail. The one from Brunelleschi is one of incredible humanism. That's already something new. Look at the way in which Abraham wants to kill his son. While the Abraham of Ghiberti is just in his pose with the knife, and the son is there casually, almost like he's ready to be stabbed, in the one by Brunelleschi, he's taken his son by the throat, and you can see that he has placed his hand where the blood is flowing, because he wanted to stun the child, because he didn't want the son to feel the pain, when he stabbed him with the knife.
This is the creation of an incredible genius. Above all, it defines Brunelleschi as an artist. That is the difference this brought to the art of in the Renaissance. This is the Renaissance. Both panels are masterpieces, but Brunelleschi's vision may have been too far ahead of its time. The commission goes to Lorenzo Ghiberti. Losing the commission to Lorenzo Ghiberti, I think there's no question, hurt Brunelleschi very badly and, in many ways, shaped his career and the way that he proceeded after that.
Brunelleschi may or may not have understood why he lost, but certainly, from that point, Filippo Brunelleschi must feel that he has to carve out a new niche for himself. Following the competition, the disappointed Brunelleschi leaves Florence. Little is known about his life for the next 15 years, but it's clear he spends time in Rome, studying the ancient monuments. Some believe he's already preparing himself for a future challenge: Here, in the nearby park, Massimo Ricci's dome is at a critical point.
He and his helpers are preparing for its biggest test yet. With the walls increasing in height, Ricci is concerned about having his students continue the work, so a new team has arrived in town to help push Ricci's experiment forward. They're members of the International Masonry Institute, an organization that trains workers in the craft of bricklaying. Each one has more than 20 years on the job. Not in Florence for the food or the works of art, they are here to lay some brick. The bricklayers understand the basic structure of Brunelleschi's plan.
The eight corners of the dome, where the walls meet, act like the ribs of the dome. Once these corner ribs meet at the top, they form powerful arches.
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Together with smaller interior arches, this goes a long way toward holding the 40,ton mass together. Basically, it's a series of four Gothic arches, arches that come up this way. So, if you see that this rib, here…the opposite one there is going to come up, you know, like that. So, you've got a series of four gothic arches that all should meet in the middle. Working on the model, the Americans will be confronting the key mystery of the dome: And what magic did Brunelleschi use to defy gravity?
You know, I've built a lot of things, from stadiums…baseball, football, but I've never ever worked on something like this.
We use different mechanisms to hold arches in place. Then, once we are done, we take them out. But this is freestanding, which…I have never ever seen construction like this before. Their first task will be to literally "learn the ropes" and begin to understand Ricci's theory. By , more than years after work had begun, the enormous cathedral is almost complete. It's bigger than any other in the world, but without a dome, it is in danger of becoming the world's largest joke.
It's clear the people of the city were worried about this problem. All the Florentines were talking about it. They knew very well that they risked looking bad in front of their rivals. They realized the building has got to the point where they cannot put off any longer how they're going to build this. And so they put forth a competition saying that whoever has any ideas about how on earth we can do this, we're open.
It's sort of, "answers on a post card, please. Proposals for the dome come pouring into the committee, but they all share a fatal flaw: Only one candidate promises to build a free-standing, self-sustaining dome: He tells the committee he's figured out a way for the dome to stand on its own, even as it is curving inward. The financial advantage of that must have been extraordinary, but the skepticism was probably even greater, in the sense that, how could that be possible, what will prevent that structure from simply sliding out and caving in as we're building it?
But there is a problem. The year-old Brunelleschi has never built anything. When they get to that final piece—I mean this is really the climax of the entire two-century construction history of the church—who is this man working in jewelry, who now steps forward and says, "Look, I have the credentials, I have the knowhow, I have the inspiration to actually design this structure? And, I mean, would you have trusted him?
I mean, I would not have. Perhaps, Brunelleschi's supreme self-confidence impresses the committee, because he clearly does not have all of the problems worked out in advance. I think that Brunelleschi had a very clear idea of how to build that dome, but realized that there were certain construction details that he could only figure out as the work was in progress.
Filippo, being extremely secretive and not wanting anyone else to know his plan, said, "I'll show you how to do it when you give me the job. Give me the job and I'll begin doing it and you'll see that it works. Everyone else had shown his plan. He said, "I know how to build it. Only I know how to build it. I've studied the ancient Roman structures.
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I already see it built. So he said, "Bring me an egg. Imagine all of these eminent master masons from all over Europe trying to get it to stand upright on its own. All of them fail. And so they give the egg to Brunelleschi and say, "Show us what you mean. And Vasari, who tells this story in the 16th century, uses a very vulgar term.
He says, "Pipo rupel cule vovo.
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And Brunelleschi says, "Yes, and you would be able to build the dome if you know what I know. Seventeen years earlier, his radical vision may have cost him the competition for the Baptistery doors. This time, Brunelleschi keeps his idea secret for as long as possible, asking the committee to trust him. Had he told the assembled company his secret, it would have been something that they wouldn't have understood: In April, , the committee comes to a decision.
They choose Brunelleschi, along with two others, including his old rival, Ghiberti, to build the dome. If he ever was going to have a moment of doubt, I think that would have been the one, because he would have seen, up close and personal, the magnitude of the task that literally lay before him at that point, because he would have looked across this chasm, this yawning gap.
He must have, at some level, gulped and thought, "Am I going to be able to do this? Brunelleschi quickly emerges as the leader and takes on his first challenge: Technologically, the means did not exist. Up until Brunelleschi's time, lifting devices were referred to generically as the "rota magna," or as the "great wheel," which was a large wooden wheel that looked very much like a modern gerbil cage, inside of which human beings would walk causing the wheel to turn.
And as that wheel turned, it would coil a rope and that coiling would gradually then lift an object based on the lifting power of the people who are actually walking inside. Brunelleschi realizes that the old method could not be used in a project this large and a worksite this high. He invents a hoist that uses oxen, rather than people to raise and lower the loads.
This is really Brunelleschi as the engineer, Brunelleschi as the inventor. They're turning a wheel that would turn a vertical shaft, and it, in turn, would have a series of cogged wheels that would then interlock with other cogged wheels, and so, as the oxen are moving in one direction, they could of course lift weight upward, okay? But more importantly, Brunelleschi realized, "We're not going to have to only lift weights up, we're going to have to lower those weights, as well.
Keeping the oxen moving in the same direction saves valuable time. The hoist raises or lowers material depending on which of two horizontal wheels locks into a vertical wheel on the drum holding the rope. When a load needs lifting, the bottom wheel engages, and the drum gathers rope in. When a load needs lowering, the top wheel is set in place to turn the drum in the opposite direction. By simply changing which of the wheels interlocked with the larger vertical one, you could then change the direction, technically, of actually lifting or actually lowering of the material down to the ground.
The oxen could walk all day long in the same direction, keeping materials flowing to and from the workplace above. In 3, years of engineering, no one had ever done that. He pushed beyond a boundary that no one else had crossed. No one else had even got to that boundary; Brunelleschi crossed over it. Brunelleschi had solved the problem of lifting nearly 40, tons of material up to the worksite. Now, the former goldsmith has an even bigger challenge: Florence holds its breath as the walls begin to rise.
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Around , five years into the project, the bricks, by design, start to curve inward. Without a wooden framework to hold the weight, the project is entering dangerous, uncharted territory. The old methods of bricklaying would no longer work. Most walls are built by simply laying bricks along straight lines, one after another, layer upon layer. Russell Gentry, a professor of engineering at Georgia Tech, has studied Brunelleschi's methods. So, if Brunelleschi had built the wall in the simple way you see here, you would have layers of brick and layers of mortar.
And the layers of brick and layers of mortar are very simply separated by one another, and the layers of mortar represent planes of weakness through the wall. What we see, here, is that the wall is leaning in, gravity is pulling it in towards me. And so a crack could form in one of the layers of mortar—the mortar is weaker than the brick—and the whole thing could rotate, and all of this brick could fall in.
The time had come for Brunelleschi to share part of his secret plan with the world. That's the point in the building where support of some sort was always needed. And Brunelleschi had to begin using this special pattern of laying bricks that he, himself, seems to have invented. In Brunelleschi's new design, horizontal bricks are interrupted by others set vertically. Instead of continuing in one straight line, the bricks zig-zag.
In the area between the two domes, that pattern is visible today, but only in small patches that remain unplastered. In Italian, the design is called spina pesce, "spine of the fish. The herringbone design is even easier to spot in Massimo Ricci's dome. The pattern is simple, and it's a method the American bricklayers catch on to rapidly. They lay the vertical bricks first. These are the spines. Once the spines are set, the horizontal bricks are then wedged in between the spines, row after row. In all their years of working, the Americans have never seen bricks laid quite this way.
The techniques are definitely, definitely way different than what we're used to. This system is pretty amazing really. The vertical bricks in the spina pesce pattern block the mortar's planes of weakness. This prevents large sections of wall from separating—or sheering—and tumbling to the ground.