Monday 13 May 2013

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King

I first came across Ross King at the Bath Literature Festival back in February, talking about his latest book Leonardo and the Last Supper. I'd say he's one of that rare species - an author who wears his extensive knowledge lightly and is able to convey it without his audience losing the thread. So I vowed to read more of his books, and, what with a trip planned to Florence this summer (I hope, I hope, I hope!), Brunelleschi's Dome was just what was needed.

This is a factual story of ingenuity and intrigue, of bitter divisions and close collaborations and above all of how one man, born and brought up in the shadow of the building site of Florence's great cathedral Santa Maria del Fiori, overcame enormous obstacles to raise the highest and widest dome in the world.

The foundation stone of Florence's new cathedral had been laid back in 1296, but the original architect, a master mason by the name of Arnolfo di Cambio, died soon after construction began and his model for the design was either lost or demolished. So in 1367 the office of works in charge of the cathedral selected the plans of one Neri di Fioravanti, who believed his ambitious design for an octagonal dome could be supported by the use of a series of stone or wooden chains encircling it as an iron hoop does a barrel. Problem was, his theory was largely untested and many considered it impossible, while others simply had faith that God would at some stage send a man who could provide the solution.

It was against this background that Filippo Brunelleschi, not an architect but a master goldsmith by profession, entered a competition in 1418 to design the dome. Competitions for such projects were common but tended to cement existing rivalries, like the one between Filippo and Lorenzo Ghiberti who had already beaten him in the competition to design the magnificent bronze doors of the baptistery.

The Baptistery and Ghiberti's bronze doors
This time Filippo's plan was audacious and revolutionary, proposing to construct the dome entirely without the use of 'centring' or scaffolding, and it was initially greeted with scepticism and even hostility. But eventually, his design was accepted ahead of his rivals', and by 1420 Filippo was able to begin his work.

The ox-hoist (here drawn by horse)

At every stage of this story, Filippo had to overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties, which he achieved through combining studies of recently rediscovered Greek and Roman techniques with his own ingenuity. He invented sophisticated winches powered by oxen to haul huge sandstone blocks into place and exacting methodology to ensure the angle of the dome's inner and outer walls were ascending as they should. Not everything went according to plan, though, and alongside his triumphs he suffered significant failures, such as the loss of a whole cargo of marble being transported along the Arno. These were failures which his enemies were waiting to exploit, even when the cupola was being consecrated in 1436.

This is a compact but engaging tale of one man's perseverance and remarkable inventiveness and King tells it well, catching the flavour of the times in his description of ordinary working men's lives as well as the divisions which beset the project. The problems Fillipo had to overcome and his solutions are well illustrated, although with my very limited scientific knowledge I must admit to losing track from time to time. My husband was well impressed though (not to mention a little shocked!) by my explanations of hoop stress and tramelling (building a circular wall), so much so that he's about to embark on the book. I'd certainly recommend reading it before visiting Florence, as besides the astounding achievement of the dome, King's writing breathes vitality into the wider life and development of this fascinating city.

Have you visited Brunelleschi's Dome? If I make it up those 463 steps to the summit this summer, I'll be reflecting on the daily ascent of those early renaissance workmen who ate their lunches and drank their wine up there at 140 feet and of how, despite modern technological advances, the height and span of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiori has still not been surpassed.

 Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King, 192 pages, published by Vintage
Picture of ox-hoist courtesy of Newton Excel Bach

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