Brunelleschi’s Dome Sits On Top of the World
The view from the top of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is one of magnificence and awe. It feels as if you have stepped back in time, because you cannot see the details of modern Florence below, only the history and antiquity is in clear view far from above. I’ve been to Florence more times than I can count and have toured the Cathedral almost as many times as I have simply walked by, but experiencing Filippo Brunelleschi’s Dome was all new to me and something I’ve been wanting to do for many years.
The cathedral was built in 1296, but not until many years passed had they finally held a competition seeking the best architect/engineer to devise a plan to finish the cathedral by building the final jewel, the dome. Ultimately, Filippo Brunelleschi was chosen as the lead on the project and his rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti to work alongside him. The rivalry began in 1401 when both men vied for the commission of the Bronze Doors for the Florentine Bapistry. Their work together on the Duomo proved to be uneventful and many would even say symbiotic. Work on the Duomo did not begin until 1420, two years after the commission had been rewarded. Those 24 months were spent planning the impossible. Brunelleschi, thought of throughout this project as an illusionist, had many Florentines concerned that he was not up to the task, given that all of Tuscany did not hold enough timber for this project, from an engineering perspective, it had never been done and the tools needed to conquer this feat has yet to be invented. So, how did he do it?
First, he devised a hoisting system that would allow him to transport his heavy materials high above the ground. It involved a series of pulleys, gears, driveshafts and screws that were all moved by only one yoke of oxen. What is a yoke, you ask? It is the thick wood beam that enables animals to work in pairs in order to move considerable loads. Next, he had to formulate the methodology and engineering behind the octagonal shape of the dome. This turned out to be the more trivial aspect of the dome structure, given that this would essentially be the foundation and groundwork needed for the dome to maintain its stability. His solution was not to simply lay bricks in the traditional format, but to interweave a herringbone pattern into the brickwork. This proved to be the solution to building such a massive architectural masterpiece without supporting structures. This is definitively why he was considered an “illusionist” or “magician”. There was ongoing and long-term debate and lack of true understanding as to how this structure stood with such strength and grace. It was considered truly remarkable. Finally, he oversaw the specific brick material and production, he chose the marble and stone and was meticulous about the precision to which each element way laid out in impeccable balance and harmony. Thankfully, he was a true perfectionist and we now have the perfected gift of the Duomo.
He completed this exquisite work of art in 1436. Soon after the completion and unveiling of the dome, but prior to the building and design of the upper portion of the drum, Brunelleschi died of sudden illness. He was buried in the crypt of the cathedral with a plaque memorializing his “divine intellect.” Fillipo Brunelleschi was one of the first to be buried within a crypt without being a religious Saint.
In 1572, the dome interior fresco project was commissioned from Cosimo I de Medici to Giorgio Vasari. He spent only two years depicting images of the Last Judgement. After his death in 1574, the project was picked up and completed by Federico Zuccaro around 1575-79. The interior artistry is my most beloved and intriguing portion of the dome visit…walking around the narrow walkway, eyes lifted to the sky to take in the “stories” come to life through the frescoes. You’d have to take much more time than we were afforded on our tour to truly view everything. It’s reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel in it’s grandeur and magnitude, but the ability to behold and examine it up so close and personal allows for a unique and memorable intimacy with the work.
Once out on the veranda, overlooking Florence, you are reminded how far from the cobbled streets of Florence you actually are above the city…463 steps and 374 feet! If you weren’t already out of breath from the climb, you are certain to have your breath taken away by the views of one of the most magical cities in the world. I highly recommend spending the additional cost to buy a ticket to the top of the world…I mean, dome. Well worth every Euro!