Filippo Brunelleschi is one of the earliest heroes of Engineering Design. Read on to discover how he accomplished the construction of the Dome of the Florence cathedral, a formidable achievement that still amazes to this day.
Brunelleschi, a True Renaissance Man
Brunelleschi was a true renaissance man. Before tackling architecture, he distinguished himself as a sculptor, goldsmith and a specialist in the study of perspective.
What we know about him paints a picture of a mercurial but kind and extremely intelligent character. For example, it is thought that he abandoned sculpture after losing to Ghiberti, his bitter rival, in a competition to create a new set of doors for Florence’s Baptistery of San Giovanni. Probably it was for the better. Ghiberti’s doors are masterpieces, and Brunelleschi would go on to achieve lasting fame on his own right.
Brunelleschi embraced architecture and he is believed to have visited Rome alongside Donatello to study the ruins of ancient Roman buildings. Then, from 1417 he took on one of the most ambitious projects of the Renaissance: The construction of the dome of the Florence cathedral.
A Matter of Public Interest
This was a matter of public interest in Florence. The construction of the cathedral had started in 1296 under the supervision of its original designer, Arnolfo di Cambio. Inconveniences big and small (the Black Death among the former) slowed down the project. By 1417 there was only one part to be built, but it was also the most challenging—the dome.
Cambio had projected the massive (150 ft wide and 180 ft tall) dome to crown his project. But he didn’t leave any suggestions as to how to build it. And that was just the first challenge. The plans eschewed the flying buttresses and pointed arches of the Gothic style typical of Milan, Florence’s archenemy. Many doubted that such a massive dome could be built without them.
In addition, Florence didn’t have enough reserves of timber to build the imposing scaffolding necessary to complete the project. The situation really seemed hopeless.
Enter Brunelleschi. This time the hot-tempered goldsmith won the competition to build the dome. But the Florentine merchants who oversaw the project wouldn’t let him off easy and appointed Ghiberti, his old and wildly successful rival, as co-superintendent of the project.
Despite this unnerving factor (or maybe because of it), Brunelleschi reveled in the challenge. He took control of every aspect of the project, making clay models to explain his concepts to perplexed workers, whom he tried to protect by cutting their wine with water so they wouldn’t fall while working on the heights of the cathedral.
Brilliant Solution, Masterful Execution
Brunelleschi solved the structural challenge by building two domes, one nested inside the other. The execution was equally brilliant. To make up for the lack of scaffolding Brunelleschi invented crane and hoist mechanisms so complex that they wouldn’t be rivaled until the Industrial Revolution.
From the technical challenges to the technical ingenuity and the professional rivalries, Brunelleschi’s legend still resonates with professionals everywhere. His formidable achievement paved the way for the Renaissance and lent a new dignity to his profession. When he died in 1446 (10 years after finishing the dome) he was buried in a crypt inside Florence’s cathedral, a honor previously unthinkable for an architect-engineer.
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