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Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

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Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

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Lançado em:
Aug 13, 2013


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In this fascinating narrative nonfiction story about architecture and European History, Ross King details the construction of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy.

In the early 15th century, a competition about Florence's newest, grandest cathedral—the Santa Maria del Fiore—was announced. Anyone who wished to design a model for the final dome could submit one within a month.

The dome being considered at the moment was impossible to build. It would be enormous and couldn't be supported by the flying buttresses that were integral to European cathedrals. As plans were submitted, one stood out. It didn't come from an architect or carpenter, but from a goldsmith and clockmaker named Filippo Brunelleschi. A daring, unorthodox solution, he unwittingly reinvented the entire field of architecture.

Brunelleschi's Dome tells the story of how one man spent 28 years solving the puzzle of the dome, bent materials and logic, and created an architectural wonder that would stand the test of time. King's story tells this story among the backdrop of Renaissance-era Florence, complete with plagues, wars, and political feuds. The book is gripping, engaging, and dramatic, all while informing the audience of real-life events.

Lançado em:
Aug 13, 2013

Sobre o autor

Ross King is the award-winning and bestselling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, The Judgment of Paris, Mad Enchantment, Leonardo and the Last Supper, and Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, among other books. He and his wife live in Woodstock, Great Britain.

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Brunelleschi's Dome - Ross King


1 A More Beautiful and Honourable Temple

2 The Goldsmith of San Giovanni

3 The Treasure Hunters

4 An Ass and a Babbler

5 The Rivals

6 Men without Name or Family

7 Some Unheard-of Machine

8 The Chain of Stone

9 The Tale of the Fat Carpenter

10 The Pointed Fifth

11 Bricks and Mortar

12 Circle by Circle

13 The Monster of the Arno

14 Debacle at Lucca

15 From Bad to Worse

16 Consecration

17 The Lantern

18 Magni Ingenii Viri Philippi Brunelleschi

19 The Nest of Delights


List of Illustrations



Select Bibliography

A Note on the Author

Also by Ross King

Also Available by Ross King





A More Beautiful

and Honourable Temple

On August 19, 1418, a competition was announced in Florence, 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 the Cathedral 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. If the model be used he shall be entitled to a payment of 200 gold Florins.

Two hundred florins was a good deal of money—more than a skilled craftsman could earn in two years of work—and so the competition attracted the attention of carpenters, masons, and cabinetmakers from all across Tuscany. They had six weeks to build their models, draw their designs, or simply make suggestions how the dome of the cathedral might be built. Their proposals were intended to solve a variety of problems, including how a temporary wooden support network could be constructed to hold the dome’s masonry in place, and how sandstone and marble blocks each weighing several tons might be raised to its top. The Opera del Duomo—the office of works in charge of the cathedral—reassured all prospective competitors that their efforts would receive a friendly and trustworthy audience.

Already at work on the building site, which sprawled through the heart of Florence, were scores of other craftsmen: carters, bricklayers, leadbeaters, even cooks and men whose job it was to sell wine to the workers on their lunch breaks. From the piazza surrounding the cathedral the men could be seen carting bags of sand and lime, or else clambering about on wooden scaffolds and wickerwork platforms that rose above the neighboring rooftops like a great, untidy bird’s nest. Nearby, a forge for repairing their tools belched clouds of black smoke into the sky, and from dawn to dusk the air rang with the blows of the blacksmith’s hammer and with the rumble of oxcarts and the shouting of orders.

Florence in the early 1400s still retained a rural aspect. Wheat fields, orchards, and vineyards could be found inside its walls, while flocks of sheep were driven bleating through the streets to the market near the Baptistery of San Giovanni. But the city also had a population of 50,000, roughly the same as London’s, and the new cathedral was intended to reflect its importance as a large and powerful mercantile city. Florence had become one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. Much of its wealth came from the wool industry started by the Umiliati monks soon after their arrival in the city in 1239. Bales of English wool—the finest in the world—were brought from monasteries in the Cotswolds to be washed in the river Arno, combed, spun into yarn, woven on wooden looms, then dyed beautiful colors: vermilion, made from cinnabar gathered on the shores of the Red Sea, or a brilliant yellow procured from the crocuses growing in meadows near the hilltop town of San Gimignano. The result was the most expensive and most sought-after cloth in Europe.

Because of this prosperity, Florence had undergone a building boom during the 1300s the like of which had not been seen in Italy since the time of the ancient Romans. Quarries of golden-brown sandstone were opened inside the city walls; sand from the river Arno, dredged and filtered after every flood, was used in the making of mortar, and gravel was harvested from the riverbed to fill in the walls of the dozens of new buildings that had begun springing up all over the city. These included churches, monasteries, and private palaces, as well as monumental structures such as a new ring of defensive walls to protect the city from invaders. Standing 20 feet high and running five miles in circumference, these fortifications, not finished until 1340, took more than fifty years to build. An imposing new town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, had also been constructed, complete with a bell tower that stood more than 300 feet high. Another impressive tower was the cathedral’s 280-foot campanile, with its bas-reliefs and multicolored encrustations of marble. Designed by the painter Giotto, it had been completed in 1359, after more than two decades of work.

Yet by 1418 what was by far the grandest building project in Florence had still to be completed. A replacement for the ancient and dilapidated church of Santa Reparata, the new cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was intended to be one of the largest in Christendom. Entire forests had been requisitioned to provide timber for it, and huge slabs of marble were being transported along the Arno on flotillas of boats. From the outset its construction had as much to do with civic pride as religious faith: the cathedral was to be built, the Commune of Florence had stipulated, with the greatest lavishness and magnificence possible, and once completed it was to be a more beautiful and honourable temple than any in any other part of Tuscany. But it was clear that the builders faced major obstacles, and the closer the cathedral came to completion, the more difficult their task would become.

The way forward should have been clear enough. For the past fifty years the south aisle of the unfinished cathedral had housed a thirty-foot-long scale model of the structure, in effect an artist’s impression of what the cathedral should look like once finished. The problem was that the model included an enormous dome—a dome that, if built, would be the highest and widest vault ever raised. And for fifty years it had been obvious that no one in Florence—or anywhere in Italy, for that matter—had any clear idea how to construct it. The unbuilt dome of Santa Maria del Fiore had therefore become the greatest architectural puzzle of the age. Many experts considered its erection an impossible feat. Even the original planners of the dome had been unable to advise how their project might be completed: they merely expressed a touching faith that at some point in the future God might provide a solution, and architects with a more advanced knowledge would be found.

A section drawing of Santa Maria del Fiore, by Giovanni Battista Nelli.

A ground plan of the cathedral shows the three tribunes, with their chapels.

The foundation stone for the new cathedral had been laid in 1296. The designer and original architect was a master mason named Arnolfo di Cambio, the builder of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the city’s massive new fortifications. Although Arnolfo died soon after construction began, the masons forged on, and over the next few decades a whole section of Florence was razed to make way for the new building. Santa Reparata and another ancient church, San Michele Visdomini, were both demolished, and the inhabitants of the surrounding district were displaced from their homes. Not only the living were evicted: in order to open a piazza in front of the church, the bones of long-dead Florentines were exhumed from their graves surrounding the Baptistery of San Giovanni, which stood a few feet to the west of the building site. In 1339 one of the streets south of the cathedral, the Corso degli Adamari (now the Via dei Calzaiuoli) was lowered so that the cathedral’s height should appear even more impressive to anyone approaching from that direction.

But as Santa Maria del Fiore grew steadily larger, Florence was shrinking. In the autumn of 1347 the Genoese fleet returned to Italy, carrying in its holds not only spices from India but also the Asian black rat, carrier of the Black Death. As much as four-fifths of the population of Florence were to die over the next twelve months, so depopulating the city that Tartar and Circassian slaves were imported to ease the labor shortages. As late as 1355, therefore, nothing existed of the cathedral except for the facade and the walls of the nave. The interior of the church lay open to the elements, like a ruin, and the foundations for the unbuilt east end had been exposed for so long that one of the streets east of the cathedral was known as Lungo di Fondamenti, or Along the Foundations.

Over the next decade, however, as the city gradually recovered, work on the cathedral accelerated, and by 1366 the nave had been vaulted and the east end of the church, which included the dome, was ready to be planned. Arnolfo di Cambio had undoubtedly envisioned a dome for the church, but there is no surviving evidence of his original design: sometime in the fourteenth century his model of the cathedral collapsed under its own weight—an ominous sign—and was subsequently lost or demolished. But excavations during the 1970s uncovered the foundations for a dome that was intended to have a span of 62 braccia, or 119 feet (a Florentine braccia being 23 inches, roughly the length of a man’s arm).¹ With this diameter the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore would have exceeded by some 12 feet the span of the dome of the world’s most spectacular church, Santa Sophia in Constantinople, which had been built 900 years earlier by the emperor Justinian.

Since the 1330s responsibility for building and funding the cathedral had been in the hands of Florence’s largest, wealthiest and most powerful guild, the Wool Merchants, who administered the Opera del Duomo. None of the wardens running the Opera knew the first thing about building churches: their business was wool, not architecture. It therefore fell to them to appoint someone who did understand the craft, an architect-in-chief, or capomaestro, who would create the models and designs for the cathedral and also deal with the masons and other builders involved in the actual construction. In 1366, as planning reached its crucial stage, the capomaestro of Santa Maria del Fiore was a man named Giovanni di Lapo Ghini. At the request of the Opera, Giovanni began building a model for the cathedral’s dome. But the wardens also ordered a second model from a group of artists and masons led by another master mason, Neri di Fioravanti.² The fate of Santa Maria del Fiore was about to undergo a radical change.

Competition between architects was an old and honored custom. Patrons had been making architects compete against one another for their commissions since at least 448 B.C., when the Council of Athens held a public competition for the war memorial it planned to build on the Acropolis. Under these circumstances, it was normal practice for architects to produce models as a means of convincing patrons or panels of judges of the virtues of their particular designs. Made from wood, stone, brick, or even clay or wax, such models allowed the patrons to visualize the dimensions and decorations of the end product much more easily than would a diagram executed on parchment. They were often large and highly detailed—so large, in fact, that in many cases patrons could walk inside to inspect the interior. The brick-and-plaster model for San Petronio in Bologna, for example, built in 1390, was 59 feet long and, therefore, a good deal larger than most houses.

Giovanni di Lapo Ghini set about building a model that was fairly traditional in style. He planned a typically Gothic structure with thin walls, tall windows, and, to support the dome, external buttresses of the sort adorning so many of the churches built in France during the previous century. Buttresses were one of the prime structural features of Gothic architecture: by accommodating the thrust of the vaults transferred to them from strategic points, they allowed for walls pierced by a multitude of windows to rise to spectacular heights, filling the church with heavenly light—the aspiration of all Gothic builders.

Neri di Fioravanti and his group rejected the external supports proposed by Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, however, and offered a different approach to the structure of the dome. Flying buttresses were rare in Italy, where architects regarded them as ugly and awkward makeshifts.³ But Neri’s reasons for rejecting them were probably political as much as aesthetic or structural, in that they smacked of the architecture of Florence’s traditional enemies: Germany, France, and Milan. How the German barbarians, the Goths, had covered Europe with their clumsy and disproportionate edifices would later become a popular theme with writers of the Italian Renaissance.

But if no flying buttresses were to be built, how was the dome to be supported? Neri di Fioravanti, the principal master mason in Florence, had extensive experience in vaulting, the most dangerous and difficult architectural maneuver. He was the man responsible for erecting the enormous 60-foot-wide vaults over the great hall of the Bargello as well as the arches of the new Ponte Vecchio after the old bridge was swept away by a flood in 1333. But his plan for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was far more ambitious and largely untested: he believed the dome could be prevented from buckling under its own weight not by means of external buttresses but by the incorporation of a series of stone or wooden chains that would run round the circumference, encircling the dome at the points of possible rupture in the same way that an iron hoop contains the staves of a barrel. All of the lines of stress would therefore be absorbed by the structure itself without being channeled to the ground by means of external buttresses. Unlike buttresses, moreover, these circumferential rings, buried in the dome’s masonry, would be invisible. And it was this vision of a massive dome that seemed to rise heavenward without any visible means of support that for the next half century would both inspire and frustrate everyone involved with the project.

The wardens in the Opera del Duomo did not decide between the two models without a good deal of debate. At first Neri and his group seemed to win the day, but Giovanni succeeded in raising questions about the stability of their design. His doubts illustrate a fear that haunted architects in the Middle Ages. Today a patron who hires an engineer takes it for granted that the end product will stand, even through earthquakes and hurricanes. But in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, before the science of statics was developed, a patron enjoyed no such assurance, and it was not uncommon for buildings to fall down soon after completion, or even during the building process itself. The bell towers in both Pisa and Bologna began to lean while still under construction because of subsidence in the underlying soil, while the vaults in the cathedrals at both Beauvais and Troyes collapsed a relatively short time after being raised. The superstitious attributed these failures to supernatural causes, but to the more knowledgeable the real culprits were the architects and builders who had made fundamental (though imperfectly understood) errors in design.

In the end Giovanni’s concerns led the wardens to stipulate that, although Neri’s model would be adopted, the pillars that supported the dome should be enlarged. But enlarging the pillars would create perhaps even greater problems. Their dimensions were directly related to those of the octagonal tribune, whose perimeter they would form. The foundations for an octagon of 62 braccia had already been begun: would this groundwork have to be undone? Even more serious, the diameter of the tribune could not be enlarged without a corresponding increase in the span of the cupola. Was it possible to build a dome with a span even larger than 62 braccia, still without the use of any visible supports?

These questions were addressed at the meeting in August 1367, in which the wardens opted for a dome that would be 10 braccia wider than the one previously planned. Three months later, in keeping with Florentine democracy—and also, perhaps, with a desire on the part of the wardens to spread the responsibility as widely as possible—the plan was endorsed by a referendum of Florence’s citizens.

The decision to adopt Neri di Fioravanti’s design represents a remarkable leap of faith. No dome approaching this span had been built since antiquity, and with a mean diameter of 143 feet and 6 inches it would exceed that of even the Roman Pantheon, which for over a thousand years had been the world’s largest dome by far. And the cupola of Santa

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  • (4/5)
    There is something remarkable about an architect who designs a building without any idea of how to actually build it. Yet this is what happened when the original plans for a new Cathedral in Florence were drawn up in the late 1200s. What is even more incredible is that the foundation stones were laid, followed by 100 years of building without anyone having resolved the question of how to build the huge Cupola; a key part of the design. Brunelleschi’s Dome tells the story of Filippo Brunelleschi and how he overcame the issues inherent in the design until the huge Dome was built, inventing new approaches along the way. ThoughtsPhysics was my weakest link at school and this book, at times, contains a lot of mathematics and physics. This was not only in describing the building solutions for the Dome itself but also the myriad of challenges to provide the craftsmen with materials needed to build it hundreds of feet in the air. It is a credit to King’s writing in Brunelleschi’s Dome that I was fascinated by the descriptions of the cranes and levers that were invented, solving problem after problem to build the Dome. Even when the subject turned to the architectural design and principles I was able to follow (although perhaps am unlikely to retain) the information set out and never found it dry or dull. This is not however simply a story of architectural prowess. King sets the scene of life in pre-renaissance Italy wonderfully. He brings to life the sounds and smells of the city. Most compellingly, he shows the reader the unusual political structure of Florence and the intrigue, infighting and personal jealousies that had to be overcome in order to complete the great Cathedral. A strong recommend for anyone interested in architecture or the beginnings of the Renaissance or just planning a trip to Florence.
  • (4/5)
    This is the story of architect (actually a goldsmith and clockmaker) Filippo Brunselleschi's 15th century dome over the the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy. I was referred to this story by James Burke's "The Day the Universe Changed", who credited Brunelleschi and the mathematician, Paola Toscanelli, as being two of the people to introduce the Renaissance. Together they raised the dome over the cathedral, and then added another structure, the lantern, to the top of the dome. This reinvented the way architecture was viewed, and problems in construction were then resolved. A good book, and an interesting story.
  • (3/5)
    Knappe docufictie over de bouw van de koepel van de dom in Firenze. Ook mooie inleiding op Brunelleschi.
  • (4/5)
    If you have visited Florence, Italy, you have seen the dome of Il Duomo, the church which dominates the city. The dome is huge, and was built during the Renaissance, hundreds of years prior to modern engineering or machinery.This book details the story of the dome's builder, Filippo Brunelleschi, the genius that translated the architect's vision into reality, and the building of the dome. To complete the dome, Brunelleschi had to invent new cranes and construction techniques, both of which the book describes. Before Brunelleschi, people were unsure if the dome as designed could be built. Fittingly, the dome is now called "Brunelleschi's Dome."The book is a fun read, intended for a general (not scholarly) audience.
  • (3/5)
    Knappe docufictie over de bouw van de koepel van de dom in Firenze. Ook mooie inleiding op Brunelleschi.
  • (3/5)
    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)
  • (5/5)
    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.
  • (4/5)
    I am a fan of Art History and I felt that I was back in my college class again. All of the vocabulary was spread throughout this book and reignited my passion for not History but Architecture as well. Ross King wrote about roughly the 16 year period of Filippo Brunelleschi's life when he was elected Capomaestro during the building of the dome for the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral.

    Brunelleschi's innovative architectural design was chosen above all others including Lorenzo Ghiberti. The two would share an intense animosity toward one another always erupting into a insulting sonnet about one another. I think King did a great job in creating the aesthetic of Florence in 1420. I felt that I was immersed in that world every time I read.

    I liked that the people of Florence had certain rules regarding battling in war. In no rain or snor or steep surfaces. I liked the architectural inventions that Brunellesch came up with such as the ox-hoist and the herringbone brickwork design. The latter was the real genius and is the reason why the dome is still standing today.

    My only real complaint is that I wish some of the photos were in color.
  • (3/5)
    While I found the subject matter interesting, I found this book rather frustrating to read, in part due to my own lack of architectural knowledge, and the book's lack of illustration for some of the more technical aspects of the dome's construction. I would have liked more drawings and diagrams and less tales of Brunelleschi's many rivalries and the author's meandering narrative.
  • (4/5)
    What a delightful and fascinating little book - it made me want to go to Florence to see this marvel of human engineering. It offers insight into life in the Middle Ages as well as the story of Fillip Brunelleschi and his innovative (and unequaled) design for the dome of the Cathedral of Sante Maria del Fiore in Florence. It's not exactly a page-turner, but I really enjoyed this book.
  • (3/5)
    A good book on historical context about Santa Maria Del Fiore and Brunelleschi. My favourite chapter was the second chapter, where Brunelleschi went to Rome.

    Architects Leon Battista Alberti, Michaelango, Antonio Filarete followed Filippo's footsteps.

    I would recommend this book if you are bored reading technical, complex books for a break

    Deus Vult,

  • (4/5)
    This was a fascinating read about the construction of the famed dome over the the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence. I was amazed at Brunelleschi's ingenuity and ability to overcome, what seemed like, insurmountable challenges along the way. The sheer size of the dome is impressive and to think that it was built in the 1400s without the help of modern tools or technology is astounding. Although the book does get bogged down a bit with technical detail at times, I loved how it gave an interesting portrait of life at the time and how Brunellischi combined science, architecture and art to create an enduring masterpiece. The photos and diagrams that were included enhanced the book and I found myself studying them in detail. My only regret is that I hadn't read this book before I visited Florence earlier this year. I stood in front of this cathedral admiring its wonderful dome, knowing very little of the history behind it. "Brunelleschi's Dome" provides that insight. Now I want to go back and revisit the cathedral, climb the steps to the lantern on top of the dome, see the panoramic views of Florence and once again admire the beauty of Bruelleschi's dome.
  • (4/5)
    An absorbing book about how Filippo Brunelleschi designed and oversaw the construction of Florence’s iconic dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. Full of interesting tidbits and historical facts, the crisp prose and light tone will be sure to enthrall even those with no understanding of engineering or architecture. I wish I had read this before we visited the cathedral so that I would have been even more in awe of the gigantic structure and the amazing feats involved in its building.
  • (4/5)
    Brunelleschi's Dome is the story of how the dome on the Duomo in Florence (Santa Maria del Fiore) was raised. It's one of the largest masonry domes in the world and Brunelleschi raised it without centered (using wooden supports). He mainly used a double shell, several "chains" (sandstone, iron and wood) as well as a herringbone brick pattern to raise the dome. In addition to his building techniques, he also built various machines and cranes to lift and place the blocks of stone. King also discusses the politics of the time - rivalries, etc. - in a very absorbing way. An excellent read overall, if a little slow at times.
  • (4/5)
    Brunelleschi's Dome offers a short, engaging architectural history of the building of the great dome over the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, from 1418 on. The primary architect and overseer of the dome's construction, Fillipo Brunelleschi, figures prominently. The writing is excellent. The author wisely does not try to use the story as an armature on which to which great tangents of historical discussion - he keeps the focus tightly on the story of the dome and its architects. Nonetheless, beyond explaining how the dome's construction was such a marvel, Ross gives a fine feel for the local social structure, the temper of Italian politics in the Renaissance, and the ongoing cultural ferment generated by the rediscovery of lost texts from antiquity.
  • (4/5)
    I'm no engineer and I only vaguely understand the basic tenets of architecture. But I'm a great admirer of history and have tremendous appreciation for the significance of milestone art and architecture. So in advance of an upcoming trip to Florence, I picked up Ross King's "Brunelleschi's Dome", assuming that King would do as good a job with this seminal Renaissance creation as he did with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in "Michelangelo & The Pope's Ceiling". The book is thorough and enjoyable and scores its highest marks on fleshing out the personality of Filippo Brunelleschi and connecting the building's construction to the greater context of the burgeoning Renaissance.The Dome, of course, refers the famed Santa Maria del Fiore in the heart of Florence, Italy. The book is fascinating in it's detail of the monumental effort that went into creating such an enormous structure. Filippo Brunelleschi was a goldsmith and clockmaker, and by the time he was given the commission to build the Dome, he'd had very little experience in large-scale construction (and this was one of the most large-scale ever conceived at the time).Work on the dome began after Brunelleschi won one of the ubiquitous Florentine architectural/design contests, and 50 years after construction on the rest of the church began. King writes, "even the original planners of the dome had been unable to advise how their project might be completed: they merely expressed a touching father that at some point in the future God might provide a solution, and architects with a more advanced knowledge would be found." The core problem Brunelleschi faced was the sheer scope of what the leaders of Florence were asking for. Specifically, King writes, "An architect must design a structure that will counteract (push and pull) pressures...a game of action and reaction-- and channeling them safely to the ground." This had been traditionally handled through the use of flying buttresses, which can be seen throughout gothic architecture in Europe, but the Florentine leaders had previously accepted a design with no external buttresses. After losing the "da uomo a uomo" battle of the bronze doors to Lorenzo Ghiberti, the intense Brunelleschi spent a few years traveling, including significant time in Rome. It's documented that he extensively explored the ancient Roman ruins, none of which would have been in the clean and, sometimes, rebuilt state that they are today. He undoubtedly visited the one monument, which is in, in fact, a comparable state to when it was originally built almost two thousand years ago: the Pantheon. The largest dome in the world clearly was built to handle the 'push and pull' pressures and Brunelleschi was sure to translate his learnings into his efforts back home in Florence.I had some trouble conceptualizing some of the more nuanced engineering hurdles that Brunelleschi overcame. King incorporates drawings and images and writes very plainly, but I think my architectural and construction vocabulary is simply too small. Throughout the long and protracted construction of the Duomo, Brunelleschi battled against supply issues, war-related interference (he was also Florence's Military Engineer), logistical concerns, as well as internecine battles from within the Florentine artistic and engineering community. In creating numerous novel mechanisms to aid in his construction, Brunelleschi clearly gained the trust and financial assurances from the Florentine leaders and was able to knock down just about every obstacle thrown his way.This read was a worthwhile investment ahead of my trip to Florence. At only 150 pages, this is the perfect introduction to a surprisingly complex set of problems faced at the forefront of the European Renaissance. While a terrific primer on the specifics of the Duomo, the books' even greater value is it's explorations, however shallow, into the culture and context of the time in which it was built.
  • (3/5)
    Ross King's biography of Filippo Brunelleschi and the building of the dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore was fun and interesting. It's a short book, but packed nonetheless. It was veyr enlightening to see that Renaissance architects had to design and build not only the edifices, but also the mechanisms that helped to accomplish the task. You'd be hard pressed to see someone today like that.
  • (4/5)
    It's been two years now since I've been to Florence, and did the touristy thing by climbing Santa Maria del Fiore's dome. There were a lot of questions that came to my mind as I climbed those unending steps encased between two bent stone and brick walls. "Bunelleschi's Dome" has answered most of them. Not only that, but Ross King makes a very technical subject fun and enjoyable by inserting pieces about Brunelleschi's life, and life in Florence at the time.And then, towards the end, King makes a description of that very ascent for the benefit of those who haven't had the luck to do it. Pretty soon I was feeling that I was back climbing those steps and wondering about the windows in the cupola and all those doors that seemed to go nowhere.If you have any interest at all in Renaissance architecture, "Brunelleschi's Dome" is the book for you.
  • (4/5)
    Excellent, with a few reservations. First, King has the annoying habit of referring to principals by their first names. A little too casual, even for a work directed toward the interested reader. Second, there are places where King deviates, not without interest, seemingly to provide filler for a slim 167 pages. The episode on Toscanelli comes to mind. As usual the subtitle is overblown. Brunelleschi did not reinvent architeture but raised it intellectually and socially.
  • (4/5)
    Having read some truly awful popular histories over the past few years, I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. It was certainly better than I expected. King writes fluidly and engagingly, and happily not watered down to to a seventh grade reading level. Although not much is known historically about Brunelleschi, I came away from the book both with a sense of what an inventive mind he must have had, and how very different Italy was from Northern Europe in the 15th century. My sole complaint is that he neglected to explain many (even most) of the technical terms he uses, which is perhaps fine in an academic treatise but not excusable in a popular history. A glossary of terms could have gone a long way here, as would have more drawings and diagrams to illustrate the building details that at times were incomprehensible to someone without an engineering background. At other times he discusses some of Brunelleschi's innovations without fully explaining why or how they work. A good example of this would be the sandstone "chains" built into the dome; that they mitigate certain forces was clear, but he failed to elaborate how. At times it made me wonder if he himself understood the points he was making, or if he rather was just repackaging the technical bits he read elsewhere.
  • (4/5)
    Really interesting story. If you're going to Florence, definitely read this book before going as it gives you a good bit of history without being boring.
  • (4/5)
    A truly fascinating account of the daring construction of the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Remaining to this day a marvel of architectural achievement, built without central support and in a size surpassing any other brick and mortar dome construction ever accomplished, in many ways it shouldn't have been possible. The genius of Brunelleschi in not only designing and overseeing the construction of the dome, but also constructing many new machines to aid in the construction, cannot be overstated. The perfection with which the dome was constructed is startling, as is the fact that in the decades he was in charge of the project, only one worker died in an on-site accident, a safety record virtually unheard of at that time in history. Though it can be a bit dry at times if you don't have a strong interest in architecture, it still remains a very good read if you have an interest in great historical achievements.
  • (4/5)
    In interesting look at the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi. A man who was known for his temper, holding grudges, and his wonderful and imaginative designs not only in architecture but ways to make the building of them easier. It was interesting to read how designs were selected and plans carried out "way back then". I can't fully comprehend how anything ever got done. The storyline tended to meaner a bit, which through me off a bit and made it a bit more difficult to follow.
  • (5/5)
    Essential book for architectural buffs and Arts students: it does explain how the Duomo in Florence was built, in depth, written like a novel, whilst retaining its factual narrative.
  • (5/5)
    Excellent! This book really dropped me into the era and i found out alot about architecture that I never thought would interest me. I never would have picked this up if i had not read King's book on Michelangelo and enjoyed that so much.
  • (4/5)
    What an incredible story. Possibly if I were an architect I might have felt talked down to, but as it was, it was an excellent explanation of the structural stuff. And a plot you just couldn't make up...
  • (4/5)
    Really fascinating and very easy to read. I got through it so quickly, I wished it was a bit more detailed. Getting to climb the dome of the Duomo in Florence right after I finished reading about its construction was a real treat, too.
  • (4/5)
    Entertaining history of this "Renaissance Genius" known for his both his mechanical and architectural skills.
  • (5/5)
    Can I give a book 100 stars instead of 5? This is my all-time favorite book although I must admit that I now (having read it about 10 times) prefer the audiobook abridged version -- it takes some of the excess military details out.Readers should not start with this book if they are interested in reading Clancy's Jack Ryan series. They should start with "Hunt for Red October" and move forward. The development of Ryan's character throughout the series is brilliant.
  • (5/5)
    wonderful journey into the world of the crow. I have a much higher appreciation for the bird now. The artwork in the book was extraordinary too!