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Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance…
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Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2000)

by Ross King

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Filippo Brunelleschi is best known for his design of the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Apparently, he was an unkempt and cantankerous old goldsmith and sculptor, very paranoid and suspicious of his fellow artisans - even for fifteenth-century Florence. But it was not just the design for which he deserves accolades. The manner by which he proposed to erect the dome was so radical that he was labeled a madman. Even more startling was that he refused to reveal the details of how he intended to suspend the dome without traditional supports to the committee before he was awarded the commission, because of his fear that his new method would be stolen by other artisans. It remains the largest dome ever constructed using traditional materials.


Until 1436 when the dome was completed, the traditional method of building domes had been to support them with rigid wooden scaffolds (called centering) that had to remain in place as long as a year, until the mortar dried and it would be self-supporting. It was a remarkable feat of engineering, having the largest span ever constructed of bricks and mortar, spanning more than 140 feet, exceeding St. Pauls in London and St. Peters in Rome.

The judges of the competition were naturally reluctant to take Brunelleschi at his word without a demonstration of how he could build the structure without centering, and there is an apocryphal story that he told them they should award the project to whomever could get an egg to stand on its end. No one could do it, of course, until Brunelleschi came forward, smashed one end of the egg and showed how it could be done. Crying foul, his detractors argued it wasnt fair, to which Brunelleschi replied that had they been inventive enough to figure out as he had how to get the egg to stand on its end, they would have been able to understand how he could build the dome without centering. The fact is that the structural strength of the egg had fascinated people for centuries. It has enormous longitudinal strength. It is almost impossible to break an egg by squeezing end-to-end. Of course, now all of you will run to the kitchen to verify this, leaving a wake of eggs smashed all over.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1296, but the competition for the dome was won by Brunelleschi in 1420 after a bitter competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti, Brunelleschis rival. Political intrigue, jealousy, and paranoia characterized the story. To build the dome, all sorts of mechanical devices had to be invented and Brunelleschi designed most of them. More than seventy million pounds of bricks (each individually designed for the herringbone pattern that was the secret to the structural integrity of the dome), sand, marble and other material had to be hoisted an immense distance off the ground. In fact, when the dome was close to completion, the workers had daily to climb the equivalent of a forty-story stairway before they could begin work. The dome was completed just before the designers death. It was an engineering feat whose structural daring was without parallel.

His architectural wonder has survived numerous lightning strikes and all sorts of stresses except one he could never have imagined. Recently, cracks were discovered in the dome that had been caused by the heavy vehicular traffic around the cathedral, so all traffic has been banned in that area. Another remarkable geologic problem was discovered only recently. Apparently, part of the cathedral was constructed over an underground river. Yet, it still stands.

King, author of the novel Ex Libris, tells a compelling and informed story rich in period detail. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
I'm docking this book a full star for the paucity of illustrations. Ross King is a very good writer. But he is not good enough to explain in short prose passages what can only be shown in diagrams and illustrations. (For instance the position, relative scale and role of particular stone pieces in the dome.) This book needed maybe a dozen or so well rendered illustrations to give us a visual depiction of the vaulting/weight bearing techniques that are a central concern of this book. Otherwise, King does an excellent job of bringing these people to life and making this undertaking seem real, considering the relative lack of material to draw on and the questionable reliability of what there is. If you are considering this book I'd first suggest gathering some material from the internet for instance wikiarquitectura.com. These aren't purpose-made for the book, but they focus on some of the same techniques and elements King does. (My edition is the Walker & Co. 2000 paperback) ( )
  ehines | Jul 4, 2013 |
The building of the dome of the Cattedrale Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo of Florence, would be an amazing feat of architecture, art and engineering today, but 600 years ago! This book recounts the trials and triumphs of the genius, Brunelleschi as he builds the dome. The story is a human one, recounting the jealousies and tensions among the Florentines and also the amazing details of how Brunelleschi overcame the problems of securing, preparing and placing several hundred tons of marble and millions of bricks into one of the world’s great structures, still the largest brick and mortar dome in the world.
  rexvaughan | Jun 27, 2013 |
Interesting for its technical descriptions but pretty dry reading overall. ( )
  Mortybanks | May 20, 2013 |
There must have been something in the water in Florence, Italy during the 13, 14, and 1500's... the amount of genius that city has produced continues to stagger the imagination: Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonerotti, ... and now (I discover) Brunelleschi. There's no denying the simple beauty of the Florence cathedral's Rennaissance "five-point" dome, shelled in brilliant terra cotta, and topped with a distinctive "lantern" -whose origins are also covered in the book.


What is not widely appreciated is how revolutionary the construction of the cathedral's dome was. Prior to Brunelleschi (1377-1446), domes were built over a scaffold frame to support the masonry until it dried. The world's largest dome (43 meters diameter) constructed by ancient methods is the Pantheon in Rome.


The Florence cathedral dome was to be only slightly wider at the base (44 meters), but given its vertically elongated shape, it was to be considerably heavier than a half-sphere dome. The added weight precluded traditional methods of construction. Brunelleschi overcame the technical challenges by implementing an ingeneous dome-within-a-dome design, with barrel hoops around the inner dome, which direct force towards buttresses, which run down the side of the dome, to the eight points of the octagonal base. During intermediate stages of construction, a series of chains helped direct weight of the emerging dome outward, towards the weight-bearing walls of the cathedral, rather than inward, where the dome could collapse on itself.



All the while Brunelleschi was working out the technical aspects of the project, there were political and interpersonal intrigues, plagues and wars which all threatened either the project itself, or Brunelleschi's participation in the construction. It might be argued that his political savvy navigating these tricky situations was as impressive as his skill as a master builder. In the end, the dome was completed in 1446, and remains today one of the icons of Italian architecture, and a world heritage site of historical interest.

Author Ross King ties these many elements together to deliver an edifying read, which leaves one with a good sense of Brunelleschi's genius, the important leap forward in architecture which the dome represents, and what life was like for those involved in its construction nearly six hundred years ago. ( )
3 vote BirdBrian | Apr 4, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ross Kingprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Matthews, RichardNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tacchetti, MaurizioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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On August 19, 1418, a competition was announced in Florece, where the city's magnificent new cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, had been under construction for more than a century:  Whoever desires to make any model or design for the vaulting of the main Dome of theCathedral under construction by the Opera del Duomo--for armature, scaffold or other thing, or any lifting device pertaining to the construction and perfection of said cupola or vault--shall do so before the end of the month of September.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0142000159, Paperback)

Filippo Brunelleschi's design for the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence remains one of the most towering achievements of Renaissance architecture. Completed in 1436, the dome remains a remarkable feat of design and engineering. Its span of more than 140 feet exceeds St Paul's in London and St Peter's in Rome, and even outdoes the Capitol in Washington, D.C., making it the largest dome ever constructed using bricks and mortar. The story of its creation and its brilliant but "hot-tempered" creator is told in Ross King's delightful Brunelleschi's Dome.

Both dome and architect offer King plenty of rich material. The story of the dome goes back to 1296, when work began on the cathedral, but it was only in 1420, when Brunelleschi won a competition over his bitter rival Lorenzo Ghiberti to design the daunting cupola, that work began in earnest. King weaves an engrossing tale from the political intrigue, personal jealousies, dramatic setbacks, and sheer inventive brilliance that led to the paranoid Filippo, "who was so proud of his inventions and so fearful of plagiarism," finally seeing his dome completed only months before his death. King argues that it was Brunelleschi's improvised brilliance in solving the problem of suspending the enormous cupola in bricks and mortar (painstakingly detailed with precise illustrations) that led him to "succeed in performing an engineering feat whose structural daring was without parallel." He tells a compelling, informed story, ranging from discussions of the construction of the bricks, mortar, and marble that made up the dome, to its subsequent use as a scientific instrument by the Florentine astronomer Paolo Toscanelli. --Jerry Brotton, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:57 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Tells the story of how fifteenth-century goldsmith and clock maker Filippo Brunelleschi devised the plan to build the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, an engineering feat that had puzzled architects for over a century.

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