Filippo Brunelleschi's Dome - An Engineer's Aspect


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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Filippo Brunelleschi's Dome


"Few men have left a legacy as monumental as Filippo Brunelleschi. He was the first modern engineer and a problem-solver with unorthodox methods. He solved one of the greatest architectural puzzles and invented his way to success. Only now is he receiving deserved recognition as the greatest architect and engineer of the Renaisssance.

Born in Florence in 1377, Brunelleschi, like his peers Ghiberti and Donatello, was apprenticed to a goldsmith, Benincasa Lotti. They worked amidst the slums of the Santa Croce quarter. It was there that young Brunelleschi learned the skills of mounting, engraving and embossing. He also studied the science of motion, using wheels, gears, cogs and weights.

In 1401, the young craftsman entered a competition to design new bronze doors for the city's baptistry. Already paranoid, Brunelleschi hid his work away, and watched as his rival, Ghiberti, the lesser technician, wooed the judges and won the commission. Legend has it that Brunelleschi stormed out of the competition when he was refused complete control, and quit the city of Florence altogether.

Brunelleschi spent the next 10-years living rough in Rome with his good friend, the sculptor Donatello, studying the ruins of the great city. He was especially interested in Roman engineering and the use of fixed proportion and Roman vaults. The construction of the Pantheon - especially the dome - fascinated him. Brunelleschi dedicated himself to understanding how it stayed up, which included pouring Roman concrete over a massive timber frame.

When Brunelleschi returned to Florence, a new prize was on offer, the magnificent Cathedral desperately needed a dome. Whilst no one had ever made a self-supporting dome before, Brunelleschi was confident that he could solve the problem. But first he had to showcase his talents.

In 1419, the Silk Merchants Guild - which included the Medici - commissioned the construction of a state orphanage. Brunelleschi worked hard to win the tender. He had already worked for the Medici, redesigning their parish church, San Lorenzo, along classical lines. Now, with these new buildings, a revolution began. Soon enormous Roman capitals and pillars, monumental windows and carved stones appeared, making this the first time true pillars were used for structural support since Ancient Roman times.

Brunelleschi was not satisfied. He hungered for the greatest prize of all, the Cathedral. The authorities demanded a demonstration. The temperamental architect displayed his strategy by standing an egg upright, breaking its bottom. The Cathedral authorities were unsure but had little choice but to trust him. To succeed, Brunelleschi needed to rewrite the rules of Western architecture and there was no guarantee of success.

Brunelleschi knew that there was not enough timber in Tuscany to build a scaffold inside the Cathedral, and the recipe for concrete had been lost since the fall of Rome. Brunelleschi instead came up with an ingenious and completely original theory. His plans showed an inner hemispherical dome within Florence cathedral's octagonal drum. A second, ovoid brick dome was to be placed on top, and nine sandstone rings would then hold the structure together, like a barrel. To raise the bricks and sandstone beams several hundred feet in the air, Brunelleschi invented a fast and efficient hoist with the world's first reverse gear, allowing an ox to raise or lower a load at the flick of a switch.

Brunelleschi had no formal training. The ideas he brought to building sites were completely new. Every day, he ensured workers remained sober by providing their lunch and watering down the wine. A safety net prevented workers from falling to their deaths, a chiming clock regulated their working hours and Brunelleschi had a canteen half way up the dome. His methods seemed to work. Only three deaths were recorded during a 16-year construction period.

As the magnificent dome neared completion, Brunelleschi indulged in other interests. In 1434, he held a public display, sketching the outline of the nearby baptistery. Using a novel technique, involving reflective material and pinholes, Brunelleschi produced an exact isometric simulation of the octagonal building. Brunelleschi had reproduced a three-dimensional object in two dimensions. He had invented perspective.

With the dome complete, Cosimo de'Medici invited the Pope himself to consecrate the finished Cathedral on Easter Sunday, 1436. The dome towered majestically over the city of Florence, a triumph for the Florentine people and the city's most powerful family.

Weighing 37,000 tons and using more than 4,000,000 bricks, Brunelleschi's dome was the greatest architectural feat in the Western world.

One man alone had realized his ambition. When Brunelleschi died in 1446, he was buried beneath his towering achievement, where he remains to this day. He was the first engineer of the Renaisssance."

(Images from Wikipedia.)

Florence: Brunelleschi's Dome

Description: Built in 1420, Brunelleschi's dome ignited an architectural Renaissance that can still be experienced today. Tourists climb 500 steps to the top in a hollow space Brunelleschi devised to make the dome lighter, therefore ultimately able to stand. For more information on the Rick Steves' Europe TV series — including episode descriptions, scripts, participating stations, travel information on destinations and more — visit

Precedent 1--Il Duomo

Description: First Precedent project on Brunelleschi's Duomo de la Basilica de Santa Maria del Fiore.

cupola del brunelleschi

Description: ricostruzione virtuale della cupola. (A virtual reconstruction of the dome.)

Duomo Brunelleschi Santa Maria del Fiore

Description: Animation of Santa Maria del Fiore created by Paul Groh.