There are many churches in the city of Florence, Italy but the most grand and elaborate of these is Santa Maria del Fiore. The thing that makes this cathedral so amazing is its’ dome. As a matter of fact, there are many people that refer to the church as il Duomo, “the dome”. This church and one of the architects that worked on it are the main subjects of Ross King’s book Brunelleschi's Dome.
Santa Maria del Fiore began being built in 1296. Seventy years later, in 1366, the guild of artists in Florence commissioning this vast structure held a competition for the design of the dome. It was common for guilds to hold these types of competitions among artists in the Middle Ages. It may seem irresponsible to us today, but it was also common to commence major building projects before there was a plan for how the entire structure would be built. This was the instance in 14th century Florence; building had gone on for 70 years without a plan for the dome. The winner of the 1366 competition for the plan for the dome was named Neri di Fioravanti. His dome was to be the largest ever built. Vaulting for the dome (that is the actual start of the dome where the walls begin curving inwards as they are built up) would begin at an unprecedented height of 170 feet, and once completed it would stand almost 300 feet tall. The dome was to span 143 feet. If you want to put this in perspective, stand in the center of the rotunda in the lower level of central library and look up towards the prism. From the lower level to the ceiling of the library it is a height of 87 feet and 4 inches. The dome in Florence is almost three and half times taller!
This plan was venerated and celebrated as building continued for half a century. But in 1418, the guild was forced to hold another competition. You see, Fiorvanti’s plan had been accepted but he had never indicated how it was intended to be built. Another surprising idea for us modern day thinkers… Most domes in this time period were built with centering. This was most often wooden scaffolding that would hold up the construction pieces during their placement and while their mortar dried. It would be impossible, though, to build wooden scaffolding high and sturdy enough for this dome. Another apparent method of centering was to fill the area of the church underneath were the dome was to be with dirt. The dome could then be built with the support of the earth beneath it. Imagine the time and manpower it would take to mound dirt 300 feet high to build the duomo and then having to remove all of that dirt once it was finished!
The person this book is about is the architect who solved this gargantuan problem, Filippo Brunelleschi. In 1418 he developed a plan of building the dome without centering and became the new master mason of the church building project. Through war, sickness, and grating Florentine politics the dome was erected over the next 30 years. It continues to be an architectural marvel today. One of the neat things about this dome is that it has two shells, an inner and an outer shell. Today tourists can climb the stairs (which were built and used by the workers as the dome was being constructed) between the two shells all the way to the lantern at the top of the dome for a view of the city of Florence unlike any other. On the way to the top, you can see and feel the very architectural elements the author of the book explains.
The Duomo continues to stand as a majestic and magnificent structure in Florence today. Author Ross King does an excellent job describing the difficulties with building such a vast structure in his book and the ingenious ways Brunelleschi goes about dealing with these issues. Anyone who may be interested in Renaissance history, art and architecture, or engineering will find this book appealing. If you are like me, you will also find yourself in awe of the Duomo and the man who built it.