How the World’s Biggest Dome Was Built: The Story of Filippo Brunelleschi and the Duomo in Florence

Even if Flo­rence did­n’t rep­re­sent the absolute pin­na­cle of human civ­i­liza­tion at the end of the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, it had to have been a strong con­tender for the posi­tion. What the city lacked, how­ev­er, was a cathe­dral befit­ting its sta­tus. Hence the con­struc­tion, which com­menced in 1296, of just such a holy struc­ture, in accor­dance with ambi­tious plans drawn up by archi­tect Arnol­fo di Cam­bio. But when di Cam­bio died in 1302, work came more or less to a stop for near­ly half a cen­tu­ry. Con­struc­tion resumed in 1344 under Giot­to, whose own death three years lat­er left the project to his assis­tant Andrea Pisano, who was him­self suc­ceed­ed by Francesco Tal­en­ti, Gio­van­ni di Lapo Ghi­ni, Alber­to Arnol­di, Gio­van­ni d’Am­bro­gio, Neri di Fio­ra­van­ti, and Andrea Orcagna.

None of these archi­tects, how­ev­er astute, man­aged to fin­ish the cathe­dral: in 1418, it still had a gap­ing hole on top where its dome should have been, and in any case no viable design or engi­neer­ing pro­ce­dure to con­struct one. “So they had a com­pe­ti­tion, and every­body was invit­ed to sub­mit their projects,” says Youtu­ber Manuel Bra­vo, who tells the sto­ry in the video at the top of the post.

Enter the sculp­tor Fil­ip­po Brunelleschi, who declared, in effect, “I can do it. I can build you the dome. And what’s more, I can build you the dome with­out coins or earth.” That last was a ref­er­ence to an ear­li­er archi­tec­t’s sug­ges­tion that the dome under con­struc­tion be sup­port­ed with a mound of dirt filled with mon­ey, so peas­ants would glad­ly vol­un­teer to cart it away after com­ple­tion.

Brunelleschi’s con­sid­er­ably more ele­gant idea was inspired by the ruins of antiq­ui­ty, not least the Pan­theon, which then boast­ed the largest dome ever built in Europe, dis­cussed by Bra­vo in a pre­vi­ous video. In this one he breaks down the inge­nious tech­niques Brunelleschi used to out­do the Pan­theon, and with­out using a tem­po­rary sup­port­ing struc­ture of any kind. Instead, he incor­po­rat­ed ring-like ele­ments “tying the dome from out­side, as if they were belts like the ones we wear,” as well as “a par­tic­u­lar kind of brick­work, a pat­tern with a series of spi­ral ribs” which “allowed them to lock togeth­er the bricks that were placed hor­i­zon­tal­ly.” The result, a struc­ture “com­plete­ly self-brac­ing in all its phas­es of con­struc­tion,” has stood firm­ly since 1469 as, quite lit­er­al­ly, a crown­ing glo­ry: not just of the Duo­mo, but of Flo­rence as well.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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 Beau­ty & Inge­nu­ity of the Pan­theon, Ancient Rome’s Best-Pre­served Mon­u­ment: An Intro­duc­tion

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

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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