Although Florence did not represent the absolute pinnacle of human civilization at the end of the thirteenth century, it must have been a strong contender for that position. What the city lacked, however, was a cathedral befitting its status. Therefore, in 1296, the construction of just such a holy building was started according to the ambitious plans drawn up by the architect Arnolfo di Cambio. However, when di Cambio died in 1302, work more or less stopped for nearly half a century. Construction resumed in 1344 under Giotto, whose own death three years later left the project to his assistant Andrea Pisano, who was himself followed by Francesco Talenti, Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, Alberto Arnoldi, Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Neri di Fioravanti and Andrea Orcagna. .
None of these architects, however brilliant, managed to finish the cathedral: in 1418 it still had a gaping hole at the top where its dome should have been, and there was no viable design or engineering procedure to build it anyway. “So they had a contest and everyone was invited to submit their projects,” says Youtuber Manuel Bravo, who tells the story in the video at the top of the post.
Enter the sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi, who basically declared, “I can do it. I can build you a dome. What’s more, I can build you a dome without coins or earth.” The latter was a reference to the architect’s earlier suggestion that the dome under construction be supported by a pile of dirt filled with money, so that the peasants would be happy to haul it away when it was finished.
Brunelleschi’s considerably more elegant idea was inspired by the ruins of antiquity, not least the Pantheon, which at the time boasted the largest dome ever built in Europe, which Bravo discussed in a previous video. In it, he breaks down the ingenious techniques Brunelleschi used to scale the Pantheon without the use of a temporary support structure of any kind. Instead, he incorporated ring elements “binding the dome from the outside as if they were belts like the ones we wear”, as well as “a special kind of masonry, a pattern with a series of spiral ribs” that “allowed them to lock the bricks that were placed horizontally. ” The result, a structure “completely self-supporting in all phases of construction”, has stood firm since 1469 as a literal crowning glory: not only of the Duomo, but also of Florence.
How Filippo Brunelleschi, Untrained in Architecture or Engineering, Built the World’s Largest Dome at the Dawn of the Renaissance
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The Beauty and Ingenuity of the Pantheon, Ancient Rome’s Best-Preserved Monument: An Introduction
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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.