Ah, Florence! For centuries travelers have been coming here to gaze at its architectural wonders. And if there was only one thing they would all remember, it would definitely be the Florence Cathedral Dome.
A Church Without a Dome
To the people of Florence in the 1400s the most important building in the world was their Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. After all, it was about time they had serious Duomo, like the ones in Siena or in Pisa. There was only one problem though: their beloved cathedral was missing the dome.
The church construction had begun back in 1296, but a hundred years later it was still not finished! At the time nobody had any idea how to build a dome for an octagonal floor plan nearly 150 feet wide. As such, the summer sun and winter rains were streaming down through the enormous hole in the roof of Florence Cathedral.
A Brief History of the Florence Cathedral Dome
In 1418 a contest for the ideal dome design was announced, with a prize of 200 gold florins. The design competition attracted many prominent Italian artists and architects. After many debates and arguments however, the project was assigned to Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith with no architectural training or experience.
When the dome was finally built, it was an absolute marvel! A perfect structure that seemed like the work of God. But what looked like the work of God was actually the work of a man who had the courage to take on an impossible task.
Brunelleschi’s Unique Project
The dome is in the shape of a pointed arch with eight sides rising to a central point and crowned by a marble lantern. The exterior tiles conceal walls containing over 4 million bricks and what appears to be a single solid structure is actually two domes, one inside of the other.
The interior dome covers a space nearly half the length of a football field, while the exterior wall raises up 10 stories high above the cathedral wall.
By using a double-shell design, Brunelleschi made the structure far lighter than a solid dome of this size. He wove the bricks into a herringbone pattern to give the dome additional solidity.
Built without the use of freestanding scaffolding or modern machines, the Florence Cathedral Dome is still the largest of its kind in the world. There are many unanswered questions that surround the construction of Brunelleschi’s Dome. How could builders work at these great heights? How could 40,000 tons of masonry hold together without collapsing?
The Ceiling of Florence Cathedral Dome
The painting of the Florence Cathedral Dome ceiling began in 1572. Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici commissioned Giorgio Vasari –a famous Italian artist– to fulfill the task. A great admirer of Michelangelo, Vasari drew his inspiration from the Sistine Chapel. He painted the dome ceiling with frescos depicting the Last Judgement.
The ceiling was divided into concentric rows placed one above the other. Inside each row you can see groups of figures from the Apocalypse. Around the cupola there are the twenty-four elders; below are groups of saints and choirs of angels with musical instruments. Finally, at the very bottom, are the regions of hell and the various deadly sins.
A Marvel of Engineering
The construction of Florence Cathedral Dome was so important that it helped start a whole new era of art and engineering. Many believe that Renaissance was ignited by the completion of the dome on the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Brunelleschi was a very suspicious and secretive man. He left behind no notes, no pictures, no blue prints. Fearing competition, he even refused to explain how he would achieve his goal and nearly six hundred years later nobody knows exactly how he did it. The precision of the construction would be difficult to re-create today, even with the most modern devices.
Climbing the 348-foot-high dome (la cupola del Duomo) is worth doing not only for the great panorama across the city, but also to admire from the inside Brunelleschi’s architectural marvel.
Brunelleschi lived to see his masterpiece, but died soon after, on April 15, 1446. His tomb is in the crypt of the cathedral. The inscription on his grave reads: “Here lies the body of the great ingenious man Filippo Brunelleschi of Florence”.
Florence’s greatest pride –the Dome of Brunelleschi– remains to this day an architectural mystery.
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