Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King

Sometimes, upon reading the last sentence of a book, I feel like I need to start again at the very beginning.  In the case of Brunelleschi’s Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King, so much new-to-me information was presented that I feel like I don’t remember even a tenth of it.  One of the more straight-forward new pieces of information was that the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence took nearly 200 years to complete.  Besides the obvious technical challenges presented, the city of Florence had to deal with wars and plagues several times during the construction.  None of the people in charge of construction, including Brunelleschi, were trained architects.  The original planner’s model for the dome collapsed under its own weight.  Good thing he didn’t build the real one.  Many domes and towers of the time did collapse due to errors in planning or materials.  Obviously, we’ve never heard about them.  The whole building process of the cathedral sounds like a cobbled-together, seat-of-your pants operation.


Brunelleschi was a clockmaker and goldsmith, turned amateur painter, sculptor, and architect.  His father wanted him to be a notary.  Maybe father doesn’t always know best.  He built a model for the dome and won the competition to build it but didn’t have any recorded plans of how to build it.  The dome would be massive, on a scale of things just not done at that time.  Before even beginning on the dome, Brunelleschi spent 13 years, off and on, in Rome.  Rome had become a less-than-important, small city at this point, all its glory buried under years of rubble and rubbish.  People went there on pilgrimages, but at the insistence of the church, ignored the classical, pagan past and its ruins.  “To such pious Christians these ancient ruins were so much heathen idolatry…..  Antique images that had survived a millennium of earthquakes, erosion, and neglect were therefore deliberately trampled underfoot, spat on, or thrown to the ground and smashed to pieces.”  (p23)    Chalk up another instance of forward-thinking for the church.  Brunelleschi spent his time in Rome digging in ruins, studying the ancient art and architectural techniques.  He also re-discovered the mathematics behind perspective in art.


Eventually, Brunelleschi begins to work on the dome.  He will build two domes, nested one inside the other, without using the traditional wooden centering scaffolds.  The masons he hires will be expected to supply their own tools, their own food, and their own drink everyday.  Depending on how high up they are working, they will either be drinking wine or watered-down wine. God knows I would need wine to work up that high.  At least then you might not know if you fell.   They will not be allowed to descend during the day.   Brunelleschi will also be responsible for managing these myriad men without the convenience of standardized time – so no punching in and out.  Some of these men will die on the job – no OSHA, no workers comp, no health insurance benefits.  You get hurt, you and your family don’t eat.    None of them, including Brunelleschi, really knows if what they are doing will work.


Brunelleschi had to invent and build the lifting devices (hoists and cranes) he needed as the job progressed.  He had to intuit this knowledge.  The ancients had known these maths, but they had been lost during the Dark Ages and were not rediscovered until after he had already built his machines.  His hoists and cranes outlived him.  They were not removed from the dome until after his death.  In addition to the machines, he somehow figured out to lay the bricks in a herringbone pattern so that one row would support another as the bricks were being laid, and he had the dome built with a nine-tiered circular skeleton as support.  Even after the dome was finally completed, a massive lantern for the apex had to be designed and built.  This lantern required a different kind of hoist, which, of course, Brunelleschi invented and built.  The book has a great section describing how this lantern was used as a giant sundial and how the knowledge gained from this use improved navigation maps that were used by Columbus, but you’ll have to read the book to get all that.  I’m too tired to interpret it for you.


At the end of the book,  Ross King writes, “Indeed, in height and span the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore has never really been surpassed….  Not until the twentieth century were wider vaults raised, and then only by using modern materials like plastic, high-carbon steel, and aluminum….” (p163) 


And all this was accomplished by a short (5’ 4”), ugly, stinky, uneducated, secretive, suspicious, petty little unassuming Florentine man.    Short people rule.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Heck yeah short people rule!

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