Without his studies in Rome, the master architect might never have built his famous dome
Santa Maria del Fiore remains, more than half a millennium after the topping of its dome, among Europe’s most arresting sights. And yet it suffers a fate familiar to all monuments that come to stand as an emblem of their city – over-exposure. The use of the cathedral as a shorthand on television and in film for Florence, for Italy or for the Renaissance, always runs the risk of blinding us to the scope of its achievement. Rarely do we pause to consider the engineering required to erect such an edifice in age of self-flagellation and weeping statues; we take for granted its giant scale, its cool marble panelling and enormous, but gently-curving, dome. The audacity of its construction becomes obscured in a surfeit of images. It is, in other words, too famous for its own good.
If we fail to see the church through fresh eyes, if it has been reproduced on too many postcards and uploaded too often to Instagram, then we would do well to emulate the man who erected its dome, Filippo Brunelleschi, and look, observe, and look again. Brunelleschi, the man famous for rediscovering ancient linear perspective, was awarded the task of building the dome of the most important building in Florence in 1418. This immensely prestigious commission he had been granted following his insistence that only he knew how to construct it. His was a confidence born of his unparalleled commitment to close observation, and it was in Rome, amid the fallen giants of antiquity, that these observational skills were nurtured when Brunelleschi was a young man.
Brunelleschi grew up within sight of the cathedral, in Florence’s San Giovanni district, and in his youth the church was one sprawling building site. On his birth in 1377, the cathedral’s nave had already been vaulted, and its monumental campanile, designed by Giotto, stood complete. Work on the church had begun some eighty years earlier in 1296, when Arnolfo di Cambio, the builder of the city’s fortification walls and the Palazzo Vecchio, laid the foundation stone. Arnolfo died not long after, but construction work continued intermittently until 1366, when the problem of the dome – namely, how to put it up – hove into view. Arnolfo’s model had collapsed under its own weight and a new model, and fresh conception of the dome, was required for what was the biggest vault since antiquity.
The city’s Arte della Lana – the powerful wool guild overseeing the cathedral’s construction – commissioned two architects to build models of their proposed domes. Giovanni di Lapo Ghini’s model was in the traditional Gothic style, with enormous flying buttresses to support the dome. The other model, by Neri di Fioravanti, dispersed with the buttresses and instead proposed the dome be constructed of layers of chains, made from stone and wood, clasping it together. Florentines considered buttresses not just ungainly but politically inexpedient, given their widespread use in Milan and in Germany, both enemies of Florence. The guild therefore opted for Neri’s design, and the pillars supporting the dome were enlarged as a consequence. Neri’s massive model sat in the unfinished cathedral. It represented a unique challenge: not only the world’s largest dome, but also its highest; not a hemispherical dome, but a pointed one on an octagonal platform; not a single dome but a double shell, or a dome within a dome. In 1418, all that was required was to find someone capable of building it.
In 1418, Brunelleschi was ensconced in middle age, but had lost none of his youthful vigour, nor his reputation as an impetuous, irascible hot-head. It was these traits that had driven his original departure for Rome almost twenty years earlier. In his early twenties, in 1401, he had competed against Lorenzo Ghiberti in the competition for the design of the famous bronze doors of the Baptistry of St. John, which sits in front of the cathedral. Depending on which source you believe, Ghiberti either won the competition outright, or was awarded the commission jointly with Brunelleschi, who, hating having to collaborate on any project, left Ghiberti to it and sulked off to Rome. Ghiberti’s success with the doors, dubbed the ‘gates of paradise’ by Michelangelo, reflected the prestige that awaited those capable of furnishing the city with beautiful works of art. And in 1418, Brunelleschi was all too aware of the fame that would attach to the name of the dome’s builder. The intense, often violent, rivalry that existed between artists in a city like Florence reflected how much was at stake: eternal glory. The other side of that coin, however, was a very public failure.
But this was far in the future. In 1401, having either been defeated by Ghiberti or refusing to cooperate with him on the doors, Brunelleschi left Florence for Rome. With him went the equally short-fused Donatello. Like Brunelleschi, the teenage Donatello had lost to Ghiberti on the commission for the baptistry doors. But his reasons for going to Rome differed from Brunelleschi’s. Donatello, Vasari tells us, was in Rome to study sculpture. Brunelleschi, meanwhile, was there for the architecture, ‘believing that architecture was more necessary for man’s needs than sculpture or painting’. On arrival, ‘upon seeing the grandeur of the buildings and the perfection of the remains of the temples, [Brunelleschi] stood there so engrossed in thought that he seemed beside himself with amazement’.
Despite Brunelleschi’s rapture, Rome was in a sorry state when he and Donatello entered through the Porta del Popolo around 1401. This was not the Rome of the Renaissance popes, the new St. Peter’s basilica or the Palazzo Farnese. Popes had in fact resided in Avignon in the south of France from 1309 to 1376. Petrarch, in a letter sent from Avignon in 1334, described the Eternal City as ‘deserted, and a mere shadow of its former self’. The population had plummeted, and those that remained had cocooned themselves into a botch of streets near the Tiber. The Roman Forum, once the heart of Roman civic life, was now dilapidated and largely abandoned, its once busy thoroughfares buried under the soil; the area’s new name, Campo Vaccino, ‘the field of cows’, reflects the extent of the city’s contraction, and how far it had fell. Though we like to think of the Middle Ages as backward and ignorant, it was during this time of neglect that the Forum and its monuments were inadvertently preserved; it is painful to contemplate that the most thorough destruction of the ancient structures in the Forum actually took place when interest in antiquity had revived – during the Renaissance.
To these youngsters from the energetic republic in the north, Rome was literally a foreign country, a backward, violent city with a ‘hucksterish atmosphere’. It would have resembled a long-abandoned theme park: giant edifices overgrown with moss and greenery, barely decipherable inscriptions and signs, toppled statues and broken masonry. Far from wishing to emulate these antique forms, the medieval world, particularly in the new capital of Christendom, had held the remnants of their Roman past in something approaching contempt. After all, the ancient monuments that littered Rome were the work of non-Christian hands; worse, they were the same pagan hands that had gathered Christians for torture, punishment and death. Some structures, like the Baths of Diocletian, had even been built on the back of Christian slave labour. In pre-Renaissance Rome, ancient buildings were either abandoned and left to crumble, converted to new use or demolished so that the materials could be used elsewhere.
Still, there was plenty left for Brunelleschi and Donatello to feast upon. The Colosseum, though quarried for its stone, retained its ancient grandeur, even if its original purpose had long been forgotten. More pertinently for Brunelleschi, the Pantheon, now functioning as a church, remained intact. The Pantheon and its massive dome was of obvious importance for Brunelleschi. Despite the competition for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore being years away, he would of been acutely aware of the challenge that building the cathedral’s dome represented, and it must have been on his mind as he surveyed Rome. In the Pantheon, he found a fine exemplar of a Roman dome which he could scrutinise for its secrets.
The knowledge required to create a vault like that of the Pantheon had by Brunelleschi’s day been lost for centuries. Medieval Romans looked on its suspended ceiling as something demonic and otherworldly. How the dome managed to stay up without visible support, and how the Romans had constructed it, were questions unanswered when Brunelleschi surveyed it as a young man. No documents or plans survived from the Pantheon’s instruction, so Brunelleschi relied only on close observation, which he went about with his usual diligence. According to Vasari, Brunelleschi did not stop working in Rome ‘until he had pondered all the problems related to the Pantheon and how it might have been vaulted’. Along with the obligatory dig at the Gothic aesthetic, Vasari also stresses the scope of Brunelleschi and Donatello’s studies:
They left no spot unvisited, either within Rome or out in the countryside and, in so far as they could, they took the measurements of everything of any worth…[Brunelleschi’s] only concern was the architecture, which was already in ruins, that is, the good ancient orders and not the barbarous German style which was frequently employed in his times.
He and Donatello had very little money, and went around dressed unkempt and with a total disregard to their appearance. Their strange behaviour attracted the attention of the locals, who thought they were hunting for treasure, or worse, performing geomancy, a form of divination based on reading the formation of earth tossed to the ground. Despite arousing suspicions, Brunelleschi and Donatello continued their autodidactic education, with Brunelleschi documenting, sketching and measuring the forms of ancient buildings.
He did not rest until there was no sort of building he had no sketched: round, square, octagonal temples, basilicas, aqueducts, baths, arches, coliseums, amphitheaters…as well as all the means of joining stones by hinging and dovetailing.
This last remark of Vasari’s is significant. Herringbone brick pattern would be used extensively in the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Indeed, its application was central to the success of erecting the dome. Without it, ‘centring’ would have been required – temporary wooden structured supports to stop the dome from falling whilst being built. As centring would have necessitated an unfeasible amount of timber for such an enormous dome, it wasn’t an option available to the cathedral’s builders, and thus a novel way of building the dome without wooden supports was needed. This was the key puzzle that needed solving in 1418, and Brunelleschi responded with herringbone brick work, which he first seen almost twenty years earlier in Rome.
It is highly probable that Brunelleschi was inspired by the use of this pattern in the structures he studied in Rome. The main difference, however, was that the herringbone pattern (opus spicatum) used in ancient Rome was a decorative, not structural, feature, and was usually applied as a pavement. Brunelleschi’s elevation of herringbone to the dome, and its specific function of holding the dome together whilst being built, was a vital solution that Brunelleschi concocted to solve the riddle of the dome’s construction. Without his Roman education, Brunelleschi would have been ill-equipped to provide such a novel answer.
Brunelleschi flitted between Rome and Florence until around 1418. In August of that year, the committee overseeing the cathedral announced a competition, calling architects from all across Tuscany, Italy and Europe to demonstrate how they would build the dome of the model designed by Neri that sat in the incomplete cathedral. Initially unimpressed by what seemed to them the absurdity of Brunelleschi’s plan of vaulting without supports, as well as put off by the architect’s arrogance and aloofness, the committee wavered on selecting Brunelleschi as capomaestro.
Part of the reason for the committee’s hesitation was Brunelleschi’s coyness when it came to details. His tight-lips were a consequence of that very Florentine suspicion of having one’s ideas nicked by a rival. The memory of having lost out to Ghiberti on the baptistry doors clearly still lingered and Brunelleschi was taking no chances. The committee’s lack of faith drove Brunelleschi to such a frenzy that on one occasion he had to be physically removed from a committee meeting, shouting and remonstrating as he was carried off. Eventually, however, he won them over, but on one, vital condition: Brunelleschi would be given responsibility for erecting the dome, but it would be a shared responsibility with another man: Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Their collaboration on the dome would last for years, and involved much disagreement and chicanery. Yet it was Brunelleschi who was acknowledged the superior architect, and as he was the only man who knew how to build the dome, Ghiberti’s responsibilities were eventually diluted by the works committee. Brunelleschi faced monumental obstacles in constructing the dome, including sourcing enough materials, getting them to Florence and then hoisting them up to the dome itself, but in 1436, the cathedral was finally consecrated. It is Brunelleschi’s crowning achievement, and rightly is he considered the father of Renaissance architecture. Brunelleschi’s journey to Rome in the early fifteenth century and the studies he conducted there were central to the next 150 years of building, both in his hometown of Florence and in Rome itself, ushering in a new age of confident, bold architecture which always kept one eye on the past.
 Vasari The Lives of the Artists, p. 116
 Vasari The Lives of the Artists, p. 117
 King 2008: 24
 Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, p. 117
 Vasari The Lives of the Artists, p. 117
 Vasari The Lives of the Artists, p. 118
King, R. 2008. Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence. London.
Hibbert, C. 1985. Rome: The Biography of a City. London.
Vasari, G. (trans. Conway Bondanella, J and Bondanella, P.) 1991. The Lives of the Artists. New York.