Review: Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating and inspiring read. Filippo Brunelleschi was an Italian goldsmith and clock maker. In 1418, Filippo won a competition for the design and construction of the massive dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence. The original design of the cathedral completed in the previous century had called for this dome, but no one had any idea how it could constructed and stand without collapsing under its own weight. The span and height of the dome was greater than any dome in existence in the world at that time, and I think it’s still the greatest to this day.

The builder of the dome would have to overcome obstacles that few even saw possible. The use of buttresses had been outlawed by the city. Buttresses were commonly used on large structures to reinforce the vertical walls against lateral forces, particularly those created by the sheer weight of a massive dome. At that point, all domes were built using wooden scaffolding and centering support until all the mortar was set, which could take a long time. The span and height of the proposed dome meant that it would not be possible to use the conventional methods. Additionally, no known machines existed to lift the weight required to the height required in order to construct the dome.

Filippo believed it could be done, though many problems would have to be solved as they went. His model was impressive and ambitious, but he refused to divulge the details of his design, which led to a long deliberation before the award of the commission. If you’ve heard of Brunelleschi at all, you’ve probably heard of how he won the competition by making an egg stand on its end and his clever quip to his competitors. It appears that story is a myth without any historical foundation though it’s been oft repeated through the centuries.

The author pieces together the account of the construction of this dome with its successive challenges to be solved. The portrait of Brunelleschi emerges as a man of extraordinary mechanical genius. He was ahead of his time and accomplished feats of architecture, engineering, and construction that are marvels. He wasn’t without flaws and the author brings these to light as well. Brunelleschi is credited for giving rise to the Renaissance and elevating architecture from low trade to high art.

If you are interested in history, architecture, engineering, and construction, this is a great read.

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