Florences cathedral and skyline at sunset
Florence, Brunelleschi and the mother of all domes

Florence, Brunelleschi and the mother of all domes

An anecdote reveals the consideration that other great contemporary personalities of Brunelleschi had for his extraordinary dome.

In fact, as reported by Vasari who was about to leave for Rome where he would direct the work for the construction of the dome of St. Peter, Michelangelo would have commented as follows, referring figuratively to that of Brunelleschi:

"I'm going to Rome to make your sister, yours may be bigger, but not more beautiful".

There was therefore awareness, already among contemporary geniuses, not only of the extraordinary nature of a work that is the 'sum’' of technical and theoretical knowledge and which contributed to represent that formidable epic that was the Renaissance.

Another element made it a model for subsequent generations: the commitment and complexity of its realization, which required a fundamental organizational effort to complete the work in a very short time.

All this materialized just 600 years ago, on 7 August 1420.

On that day the construction site that would lead to the construction of the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence officially started.

The building would mark a series of innovations that anticipated the future. Starting with the choice of the project design which took place, as we would say today, after a competition for ideas.

In addition to Filippo di ser Brunellesco, Manno di Benincasa, Giovanni dell'Abbaco, Andrea di Giovanni, Giovanni di Ambrogio, Matteo di Leonardo, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Piero d'Antonio, Piero di Santa Maria a Monte, Bruno di ser Lapo, Leonarduzzo di Piero, Forzore di Nicola di Luca Spinelli, Ventura di Tuccio and Matteo di Cristoforo, Bartolomeo di Jacopo and Simone d'Antonio da Siena, Michele di Nicola Dini, Giuliano d'Arrigo (Pesello) were competitors.

Later, in 1419, Giovanni d’Antonio di Banco (Nanni di Banco) and Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (Donatello) also registered interested.

The construction of the dome was a great opportunity for technological innovation and work organization. The construction site proceeded so quickly that in 1436 the dome was completed and became part of the Florence skyline with its incredible dimensions: 45.5 meters in diameter and 116 meters in height.

But what were the innovations that allowed these results to occur?

There were a number of them, but two construction strategies in particular deserve to be mentioned. The first was the constraint not to use scaffolding. For this it was necessary to work on a self-supporting structure. A revolutionary challenge that required solid knowledge of geometry and materials technology.

Ordering a structure of this magnitude without the use of internal wooden reinforcements was possible by resorting to the construction of a double cap: one internal and one external.

The other constructive choice lay in the use of corner bricks and, above all, in the "herringbone" wall system. This technique required the use of horizontal elements, alternating with others arranged vertically.

Leon Battista Alberti celebrated the dome structure placed "above the sky, wide enough to cover all Tuscan peoples with its shadow".

While Giorgio Vasari noted: "seeing her rising to such height that the mountains around Florence seem similar to her".

In reality, the challenge started earlier, in 1418 when the work of the Duomo launched a competition for ideas to create a truly formidable project.

Once in charge, Brunelleschi, who did not really have a nice character, hinged on the organization.

Another anecdote reveals his resolve.

Invited to present his project, Brunelleschi refused, alternatively proposing a test of skill. Victory would have been won if one was able to keep an egg standing on a marble table. Thus, while the other competitors failed, Brunelleschi did nothing but flatten the lower part of the shell by tapping it on the table.

As the others objected, complaining about the obviousness of the test, he showed how to find solutions to problems one must think of the most obvious ones.

As Timothy Verdon, a great connoisseur of art history and lecturer at Stanford University, declared, the construction of the Florentine dome marked the beginning of the modern era and marked the beginning of the modern concept of progress.

Brunelleschi worked in a difficult context, as Vasari relates, between suspicions and continuous accusations.

In fact, it reveals how virtually every week anonymous or signed letters came to the work of the Duomo which attributed gross errors to Brunelleschi and warned against the structural collapse of the dome.

When the work was nearing completion, it was clear to everyone that the accusations were unfounded.

Brunelleschi confided in Buggiano, his. adopted son and professional heir, that he had seen during a walk in the hills the swollen and reddish sails of the cathedral suspended in the sky of Florence long before he started to work.

On that occasion Brunelleschi experienced what the ancient Greeks called "theoreoin": the ability to see what will be.

And again, Brunelleschi, who used to spend a lot of time on the construction site, claimed to know every single brick used for the construction of the work.

In fact, he affirmed that there can be no equal. Each of them is made to be placed in the only space where it should be. The stability of the dome is guaranteed by every single element.

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