Friday, October 12, 2007

Brunelleschi's Dome

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about domes and mentioned Brunelleschi's Dome as one example. At the time, I had been reading Ross King's book by the same title as this entry. But the book left me wanting a cleared picture of how the dome was built. What was clear was how he didn't build it: with centering scaffolding. The space enclosed by the dome was just too big to use wooden supports (as was conventionally done to build smaller arches and domes).

This remained something of an abstract curiosity for me until a few weeks ago when I was back in Florence. Once again, I was confronted...overwhelmed the shear size of this magnificent structure. Most everyone has seen pictures of the Duomo but until you are in it's presence you don't have a good idea of the scale of this structure. And it was all built without a scaffold.

Since getting home, I have been doing some more digging about how Brunelleschi actually built his masterpiece. Almost 600 years later, architects and structural engineers still do not know for sure how he did it and they still get into strong arguments about one theory or another. One Florentine architect, Massimo Ricci has spent 30 years trying to figure this out and thinks he has the answer: Brunelleschi built the dome with an interlocking set of herring-bone patterned bricks that would keep the bricks in place while the mortar dried, even on the steeply sloped surface as the dome rose. Ricci is even building a smaller model of the dome (without scaffolding) in a park in Florence to prove his point.

Frankly, I like the idea that the best minds today with all of the tools at their disposal cannot figure out how a goldsmith in 1420 built the dome without leaving any plans or instructions for future generations to ponder. We have a tendency to think of anyone in the past as "disadvantaged" and perhaps a little less capable than we are ourselves. Brunelleschi punctures that balloon and leaves us feeling a little more humble. I also like the fact that Brunelleschi did not feel the need to leave any plans or writings about what he did. To him, the Dome itself was all the record that was needed. When I stand in the square looking at his accomplishment, I have to agree.


jmbredeck said...

Ricci's theory was the most convincing to me in 1995 when I wrote my Master's on the topic. have you heard of anything recently?
Jim Bredeck

Gregg McPherson said...

Jim, Thanks for your comment. I did a quick search and saw that the National Geographic Channel had a broadcast a program featuring Ricci's theory. You can see the trailer here:

Was your thesis on the method of construction or some other aspect of the work?