I recently finished reading Ross King’s 2000 book Brunelleschi’s Dome. For its short length, the book provides a holistic look at the dome and Filippo Brunelleschi. Part biography, part engineering and design analysis, and part chronicle of daily life in renaissance Florence and Tuscany, it is incredibly enjoyable and informative.
Despite the title, the book focuses more on Brunelleschi than his masterpiece. It is easy to see that Brunelleschi was as much the epitome of the renaissance man as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. He obviously was highly influential in the worlds of architecture and engineering, but also made great strides in art (as the painter who rediscovered perspective and vanishing points), and like da Vinci, devoted a lot of thought to military engineering (one of his plans was to build a dam that would flood the nearby city of Lucca). Brunelleschi was obviously a genius, but what he made up for intellectually he lacked socially, being highly secretive and pulling puerile pranks on other Florentines (of particular humor is the story of how he and his fellow artists convinced a carpenter that he switched minds with another Florentine for a day).
For me, however, the most interesting part of the book was the description of the design and construction of the dome. It says a lot that Ross King, as a biographer, focused more on the record-breaking dome than Brunelleschi’s reinvention of perspective. Brunelleschi’s work on the dome was so ingenious that it outshines what was, at that point, the most important artistic breakthrough in well over a thousand years. Brunelleschi was involved in almost every part of the design and engineering process. Just as groundbreaking if not more so than his design of the double-shelled, ribbed dome was the machinery he invented to build the dome without centering. He specifically designed every single stone, brick, and joint so that the dome could support itself as it was being built upwards from the duomo walls. There is sufficient evidence to argue that he was the greatest engineer ever. King rightfully highlights Brunelleschi’s genius, but also writes about the workers and tradesmen who really built the dome. Descriptions of the skill and resourcefulness of the bricklayers, the ironworkers who forged the complex clamps used to join the stone, and the woodworkers who spent up to a year treating the timber that was used in the dome’s construction show that the dome was as much a work of fine craftsmanship as it was a magnificent design.
Ross King often uses Brunelleschi’s contemporary biographers Antonio Manetti and Giorgio Vasari as a source but unlike them he provides an unbiased portrait of Brunelleschi, who also suffered some embarrassing engineering failures outside the dome. He also describes Lorenzo Ghiberti, Brunelleschi’s rival and another important contributor to the dome and its design. The breadth of King’s book is amazing and probably its greatest quality. I would definitely recommend Brunelleschi’s Dome to anybody. It is not just for individuals interested in engineering, Florence, or the Renaissance- it is for anyone willing to read a biography of one of the smartest people ever to live and for one of the greatest human achievements in history.
Photo by sailko (from wikipedia)
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