Building one of the world’s largest domes was no mean task for anyone, let alone an amateur goldsmith, so how did Filippo Brunelleschi accomplish building not one, but two of them?
For the story of Brunelleschi’s dome, his magnum opus, we travel back in time to Florence, a city already captured by the Renaissance movement and poised to become the epicentre of creativity, innovation and affluence, and yet flummoxed by the challenge of completing the dome of the Florence Cathedral, the city’s grand structure. To find a solution to this problem as well as establish their ingenuity, the Arte della Lana (the most prominent wool guild) announced an architecture competition.
And so, Brunelleschi entered the competition with the promise of completing the dome, but would not let anyone know of his plans – prompting the jury and the crowd to unanimously ridicule and reject him. But Brunelleschi said he could explain with the help of an egg.
He asked the crowd and jury to make the egg stand upright without letting it fall, and in doing so, they would understand how he was going to build the dome. As they all tried and failed at the task, they gave the egg back to Brunelleschi who, according to artist and historian Giorgio Vasari, ‘broke the egg’s ass’ to make it stand upright. Truly, an epiphany, now cracked (pun unintended) open!
Begun in the medieval era, in 1296, the Florence cathedral is mostly Gothic, with pointed arches and angular vertical spaces. By the time Brunelleschi began work on the dome 124 years later, Italian Renaissance was already underway and Italian architects rejected traditional Gothic elements, especially the flying buttress – an element that would keep the large dome from falling under its own weight. Furthermore, the use of buttresses was forbidden in Renaissance Florence, as the style was favoured by central Italy’s traditional enemies to the north. And so, Brunelleschi’s solution was an unbuttressed octagonal drum; and stone and iron chains built like octagonal railroad tracks.
His double dome contains over 4 million bricks, spans over 135 feet wide and is over 30 storeys tall – in terms of size and technology, nothing like this had ever been envisioned before. With his inventive technique of brick laying that balanced a load of over 25,000 tons, Brunelleschi, the ‘amateur’ enigmatic genius still stands in history as one of the greatest architects of all time.