When I learned about the cupola of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore, in a relatively dull and dry history lesson, something in me stirred. I was intrigued and instantly enamored. Fast forward a year. I had a chance to visit Italy for the very first time during my SWS CEPT program. The neurons inside my brain whizzed about and made sure the first item I ticked off in my dream bucket list was climbing the 423 steps that lead to the lofty lantern perched atop the colossal dome.
‘Oh My! Mamma Mia!’, I exclaimed breathlessly on a cold winter morning, taking in the spectacular view of the Florence city, seeing the bulging ribs of the cupola up close in person and touching the herringbone-patterned bricks in between them. It wasn’t a joy trip or a study trip. To me, it was a pilgrimage. Whenever I had joyfully recounted this cherished memory, my baffled friends would question the aspects that made the cupola impressive. Putting an end to this speculation, I wish to state ten reasons for my obsessive fascination for the dome and the remarkable genius behind it:
It is the largest masonry dome in the world. Even after 600 years, no dome constructed could ever rival this astounding feat. With a diameter of 143 ft and 6 inches, almost half the width of a football pitch and a weight equivalent to that of 7411 elephants, it is the most expensive and highest pointed dome ever built.
It is the most ambitious project since antiquity that the critics ridiculed and claimed it to be a physical impossibility. When finished, it surpassed the architectural glories of the Romans and Greeks. Many called it ‘a work of God.’ The Opera del Duomo—the office of works in charge of the cathedral laid the foundation in 1296, and a dome for the project was worked out only in 1419, revealing that the massive undertaking began with total faith that it would be completed someday.
‘I propose to build for eternity,’ said Filippo Brunelleschi or ‘Pippo’ as he is known fondly by the Florentines, and he did just that. It has withstood the ravages of time to remain sturdy and robust.
Being a mathematics student, Brunelleschi’s keen observation and curiosity enabled him to become an innovative engineer. He designed this double-shelled dome with no formal training in architecture or craftsmanship in masonry, lumber, and stone cutting. His extensive travel to Rome and subsequent study of the ruins gave him the insight to solve the constraints.
Brunelleschi’s supreme confidence earned him the commission when several other detailed designs from his competitors were pitted against him. He daringly claimed that the dome could be self-supporting and constructed without a traditional wooden skeletal framework. But, he refused to disclose the details he had worked out, on the grounds that it was ahead of its time and not easily understandable. When the exasperated authorities relentlessly demanded a demonstration, Brunelleschi asked them to make an egg stand straight on a marble floor. After seeing a string of failed attempts, Brunelleschi calmly displayed his strategy by breaking the egg’s bottom to make it stand upright. Nevertheless of the furor he had created, he was declared the chief architect of the project.
His enormous confidence stemmed from the fact that he had, in fact, actually solved the most incredible architectural puzzle with his imagination and engineering calculations. Foremost, he tensioned the dome’s base using horizontal chains of iron and wood instead of going for flying buttresses. Despite the octagonal drum base being imperfect with no true center, he managed to make the dome’s structure a hollow double-shell inspired by Rome’s pantheon. The shells were held together by eight outer ribs, and sixteen inner ribs with nine sandstone rings around them like a barrel, keeping it from expanding outward.
The finish is painstakingly laid herringbone-patterned bricks (to have no shear point or a shear plane that could cause the bricks to topple down) between the frameworks of stone beams. Around 4,000,000 bricks of various customized dimensions were placed in angles and heights guided by a precise complex ropes system arranged in the shape of a flower. This system ensured that the bricks did not cave in as the dome curved inward while also being a continuous spiral of angled bricks that dipped in the corners like an inverted arch to counteract outward thrust and gravity. Each circular course of the brick was completed and given time for the mortar to cure before adding the next layer, making the construction process tedious and slow-paced.
The dome is a shining testimony for human and technological ingenuity. Apart from the great structure, Brunelleschi also developed the world’s first reverse gear hoist to bring building materials from the ground to the working platform several hundred feet in the air. His training as a goldsmith from the age of 14 to 18 taught him how to make things work both aesthetically and practically. He cleverly came up with original solutions as new threatening challenges arose as the construction progressed.
The cupola is a source of an enigma, shrouded in mystery as experts have still not identified the exact mechanisms and details of construction. Brunelleschi is a proud, irascible, elusive man who did not leave behind journals, drawings, sketches, or models on how he managed to achieve this feat singlehandedly, ensuring that only his city of Florence could boast of a dome of this stature.
It took 16 years to build the dome and see it come to fruition through sheer passion and perseverance against all the odds. The utter invention had no precedent. There was absolutely no guarantee that the dome’s eight sides would meet in the center and remain stable.
Combining art & technology in the construction of the cupola, Brunelleschi’s contribution sparked the birth of the Renaissance. The golden sphere on the very top of the marble lantern stood as a beacon to usher in a new age of thinking and creativity in the world.
The mysterious master, with his humanistic approach, had redefined aesthetic and engineering sensibilities to reinvent architecture. His accomplishments are an example to remind us that technology, inquiry, and ingenuity in any age is the way humanity advances. As cliché as it might sound, there is no such impossible thing in the world. As Architects and designers, our knowledge and skills must be well-rounded to benefit our problem-solving abilities. This is my take-away. What is yours?