How Filippo Brunelleschi, Untrained in Architecture or Engineering, Built the World’s Largest Dome at the Dawn of the Renaissance

Sent back in time 600 years and tasked with build­ing the world’s largest dome, how would most of us fare? Most of us, of course, are not trained archi­tects or engi­neers, but then, nei­ther was Fil­ip­po Brunelleschi. Known at the time as a gold­smith, Brunelleschi end­ed up win­ning the com­mis­sion to build just such a colos­sal dome atop Flo­rence’s Cat­te­drale di San­ta Maria del Fiore, which itself had already been under con­struc­tion for well over a cen­tu­ry. The year was 1418, the dawn of the Ital­ian Renais­sance, but a break with medieval build­ing styles had already been made, not least in the rejec­tion of the kind of fly­ing but­tress­es that had held up the stone ceil­ings of pre­vi­ous cathe­drals. Brunelleschi had thus not just to build an unprece­dent­ed­ly large dome, in accor­dance with a design drawn up 122 years ear­li­er, but also to come up with the tech­nol­o­gy required to do so.

“He invent­ed an ox-dri­ven hoist that brought the tremen­dous­ly heavy stones up to the lev­el of con­struc­tion,” archi­tect David Wild­man tells How­Stuff­Works. Notic­ing that “mar­ble for the project was being dam­aged as it was unloaded off of boats,” he also “invent­ed an amphibi­ous boat that could be used on land to trans­port the large pieces of mar­ble to the cathe­dral.”

These and oth­er new devices were employed in ser­vice of an inge­nious struc­ture using not just one dome but two, the small­er inner one rein­forced with hoops of stone and chain. Built in brick — the for­mu­la for the con­crete used in the Pan­theon hav­ing been lost, like so much ancient Roman knowl­edge — the dome took six­teen years in total, which con­sti­tut­ed the final stage of the Cat­te­drale di San­ta Maria del Fiore’s gen­er­a­tions-long con­struc­tion.

Brunelleschi’s mas­ter­piece, still the largest mason­ry dome in the world, has yet to quite yield all of its secrets: “There is still some mys­tery as to how all of the com­po­nents of the dome con­nect with each oth­er,” as Wild­man puts it, thanks to Brunelleschi’s vig­i­lance about con­ceal­ing the nature of his tech­niques through­out the project. But you can see some of the cur­rent the­o­ries visu­al­ized (and, in a shame­less­ly fake Ital­ian accent, hear them explained) in the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic video at the top of the post. How­ev­er he did it, Brunelleschi ensured that every part of his struc­ture fit togeth­er per­fect­ly — and that it would hold up six cen­turies lat­er, when we can look at it and see not just an impres­sive church, but the begin­ning of the Renais­sance itself.

To learn more, you can read Ross King’s 2013 book, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renais­sance Genius Rein­vent­ed Archi­tec­ture.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Build Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inge­nious Self-Sup­port­ing Bridge: Renais­sance Inno­va­tions You Can Still Enjoy Today

The Life & Times of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Geo­des­ic Dome: A Doc­u­men­tary

The His­to­ry of West­ern Archi­tec­ture: A Free Course Mov­ing from Ancient Greece to Roco­co

Free Course: An Intro­duc­tion to the Art of the Ital­ian Renais­sance

The Wine Win­dows of Renais­sance Flo­rence Dis­pense Wine Safe­ly Again Dur­ing COVID-19

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • francesca says:

    The facade of the cathe­dral was not fin­ished until the late 19th cen­tu­ry, so it’s not exact­ly accu­rate to say the dome com­plet­ed the church. It’s still an incred­i­ble dome, don’t get me wrong!

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