by Cynthia Chung
To this day, over 550 years after its construction, the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral remains a proudly cherished national treasure of the Italians, attracting tourists from all over the world to gaze upon its magnificence in person. It is not only appreciated for its incredible beauty but also as the largest masonry dome ever to be built visible from any point within the city of Florence, almost as a second moon, which is fitting since it was in many ways likened to the Apollo Project of that time. However, many may not be aware of the incredible obstacles that stood in the way of its completion, and which many at the time thought made its success impossible. This is where the brilliant minds of Dante Alighieri, Filippo Brunelleschi and Leonardo Da Vinci come into play.
The Ushering In of the Dark Age
Before we can fully appreciate what was accomplished by the successful building of the dome, the state of not only Italy but most of Europe at the time needs to be understood. In 1345, the biggest financial crash in history hit Europe. The Venetian controlled Peruzzi and Bardi family banks had overextended themselves in loans, primarily to King Edward III in his cause against the French which would end up as the ‘Hundred Years War’, and already being neck high in the speculative financial bubble of the woollen industry, would be completely ruined after decades of bad gambles. With King Edward III repudiating his war debts in 1343 to all foreign banks, the already overly-extended Bardi and Peruzzi banks could not sustain themselves for much longer and in 1345 led Europe into what would become the peak period of the dark age.
Without a functioning banking system, the economy throughout Europe quickly decayed, closing down shops and trade. Food became increasingly harder to come by and water sanitation could not be maintained. It was not long after that the plague, carried by ships travelling from Asia, consumed a vulnerable Europe, at its climax from 1347 to 1351. During this time, many cities suffered up to a 50-70% mortality rate, killing much of the young and the old. With the spread of mass death, huge gaps in knowledge occurred, leaving untrained and under-educated youth responsible for overseeing European civilization’s survival into the future.
Boccaccio, in his Decameron, chillingly describes the desperate situation in which the Italians found themselves within, in just a matter of years, when he wrote:
“Thus, adhering ever to their inhuman determination to shun the sick, as far as possible, they ordered their life, in this extremity of our city’s suffering and tribulation, the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased, and all but totally dissolved for lack of those who should have administered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead, or sick, or so hard-bested for servants that they were unable to execute any office, whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes.”
Dante Alighieri launches a Vision of Exalted and Prodigal Magnificence
Dante was not only a great poet, who is credited with the founding of the modern Italian language and best known for his work The Divine Comedy, but also held public office in 1293, attaining the highest position in the city of Florence in 1300. In 1296, Dante took part in initiating the project to knock down the Santa Reparata for the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. It was already known in its early stages to be a massive project, which to top things off, there was no plan at the time for how the large dome was to be built. It should be noted that cathedrals during this time very much took the form of city science centers, in that the skills, ingenuity and creativity that were required in order to successfully build these massive cathedrals were paramount. There was no actual specialisation at the time for ‘architect’, ‘engineer’ and so forth but rather the focus was on learning the ‘basics’ through various apprenticeships and the majority of the time those chosen to head such projects would often have no previous direct training or experience in architecture. In addition to cathedrals being incredible scientific feats, they were also large hubs for trade and thus were seen as something that would increase the standard of living of the people residing around it. Therefore, although it might seem strange to us in our day in age to put so much effort into the building of a cathedral after a massive banking collapse and amidst the plague, the Florentines understood that it was just such a project that would allow for an exit out of the poverty and despair that had enveloped all of Europe.
Included in the Florentine public records was an official statement describing the aspiration of Florence in setting out to accomplish this incredible endeavour, “as something of the most exalted and prodigal of magnificence, so that the industry and power of man are unable to invent or ever attempt to gain anything that is larger or more beautiful.” It is clear from such a statement that the setting out on such a project was centered in something within the nature of man which participated in the divine, something truly remarkable and inspiring especially for what the Florentines would quickly find themselves in soon after , the ‘Bacchanalian revelry or some other form of looking out for number one’, as Boccaccio defined it, during the period of the plague. It is very fitting that Dante, a father to modern Italy’s culture, would participate in the birth of its conception, a project that would come to inspire a Renaissance.
As construction was underway on the cathedral, undeterred from the increasing devastation wreaked by the plague, and the catastrophes in cathedral construction occurring throughout Italy and France indicative of the pessimism and despair that was running rampant at the time, the Florentines decided to actually make their dome bigger- a diameter of 143 ft. and 6 in. to be exact. The reason for this being, that up until this point, the largest masonry dome ever built was by the Romans, known as the Pantheon, with a diameter of 142 ft. If the Florentines were serious about accomplishing ‘something that no industry or power of man would be able to invent anything larger or more beautiful’, they would have to beat not only their modern counterparts but the illustrious Roman accomplishments in dome construction as well. All of this, while in the midst of a dark age.
The Puzzle that would last over a Century
The flourishing optimism of the Florentines was to hit a breaking point, however, when it finally came time to build the dome, its coronating piece, for which 44 years went by where a big gaping hole stood instead. The Florentines started to believe that they had embarked on an impossibility and pessimism ran amok. By the time Filippo Brunelleschi came onto the scene in 1420 (over 100 years after its first conception), with the effects of the dark age ongoing, there was not only a loss of faith that a solution could be found but a hostility to the very suggestion, as Antonio Manetti (a contemporary of Brunelleschi) accounts in his biography ‘Life of Brunelleschi’:
“From the words of Filippo [Brunelleschi], the wardens deduced the verdict that such a building so big and of such a nature could not be terminated and that it had been a naiveté, from those architects of the past and of those who conceived the whole project, to believe so. When Filippo said, contesting that wrong opinion, that it could be done, they all answered in choir: ‘How will the centering be done?’, but he insisted again that it could be built without such centering. Since they discussed the matter for several days, it was so that twice, the wardens had him thrown out by their people and the Wool guild, as if he was thinking stupidly and saying only ridiculous things; to the point that he often recalls that during that lapse of time, he didn’t dare to walk in the streets of Florence, having the impression that the people were telling behind his back: ‘Look that foul which has such pretensions!”
Despite this, Brunelleschi set out his plan for a dome within a dome, octagonal in shape, capped by a lantern to let in light, all of which would be constructed without scaffolding or a centering piece. This was something entirely unfathomable at the time and would be the only dome to be built not only without an internal or external support during its construction but would also stand on its own, without any form of buttressing or barrelling support. The magnitude of the project was behemoth, Brunelleschi was not only setting out to construct the largest masonry dome ever built, but it would be the only dome to be built with absolutely no support! It is for this, that even though Brunelleschi managed to win the competition propelling him to the helm of the project, the people of Florence thought him to be an absolute lunatic for what he was proposing to do. Antonio Manetti writes of the situation:
“To those who invoked that impossibility, Brunelleschi sharply answered that the dome was a sacred building and that God for whom nothing is impossible will not abandon us.”
Brunelleschi was not promoting blind faith, since the discovery was ultimately made by himself, but rather the faith that there is always a solution to a problem, and that most importantly, that solution can become known. The Florentines had known this to be true when first conceptualising the project but had lost faith in their ability to find a solution after years of despair within a dark age. Brunelleschi would solve the over 100 year old puzzle by not looking at the hole standing in place of the dome as an empty space that needed to be filled, as his counterparts made the mistake of doing, but rather as something that would actually be held in place and stabilised by external physical forces, otherwise known as, the catenary effect. This was a completely revolutionary idea in a field of science that had not even been discovered yet, and which would only be much further developed by Gottfried Leibniz over two centuries later, who in turn had to create a mathematical language to describe it- the calculus.
Brunelleschi successfully saw through the building of the dome in only 16 years, and lived to see its completion in 1436. To this day in Florence, no building can exceed a certain height, such that the magnificence of the dome can be appreciated no matter what part of the city you are in.
A Renaissance is Found
The placement of Verrochio’s bronze sphere on top of the lantern of the cathedral was to be the finishing touch in 1469 (Brunelleschi had passed away in 1446 at a ripe old age of 69). Da Vinci, 17 years old at the time, was an apprentice of Verrochio and likely participated in the design of the bronze sphere. Undoubtedly, Da Vinci studied how the dome was built, and Brunelleschi never leaving a full blueprint behind, had left a puzzle of his own for those great minds that would follow him, almost as if to say, ‘if I could solve it so can you!’ and it is clear that this must have had an immense influence on Da Vinci.
Da Vinci would be, it seems, the only one to study in detail the inventions of Brunelleschi that were made in order to fulfill the task of building the dome, and had been left in the basement of the cathedral to collect dust until a suitable mind would be able to appreciate them once again. There was no other account of their existence and for a certain period of time the mistake was made of giving Da Vinci the credit for those inventions which he sketched. It is clear now from notes found written by himself that Da Vinci clearly stated they were those of Brunelleschi. Looking on Da Vinci’s own work, it is very apparent that, especially in his formulations of gear systems, he had been very much influenced by his studies of Brunelleschi’s work, which he would advance significantly. It is interesting to think how Da Vinci’s life could possibly have been very different if the Santa Maria del Fiore never existed, and if he had not come across the inventions of Brunelleschi tucked away in the basement of the cathedral.
And there you have it! How the great minds of Dante, Brunelleschi and Da Vinci overlapped in one of the greatest projects ever to be embarked on, turning a dark age into a budding Renaissance. We will forever be eternally grateful to great minds such as these, who shine like a beacon of heavenly light no matter how dark the despair, a reminder to us all that however desperate or futile a situation might seem there is always a solution that will lead us towards a Paradiso.
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