Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore

Florence, Italy | C.1436

Photo Credit: Giorgia Caffagni

Amongst the sea of red-tiled roofs, the dome of Florence’s cathedral rises prominently above the rest of the city, reminding Florentines of the higher powers that be. Though the 463 steps to the top of the dome alone may remind a visitor of their mortality, the structure also symbolizes the genius of the human mind thanks to a Renaissance engineer who created this massive dome and left no trace on how it was done – thus maddening scholars ever since.

When Neri di Fioravante designed a cathedral without supporting buttresses and a dome that spanned almost 150 ft in the 14th Century, no one knew how to actually build it. Normally this kind of construction would require scaffolding and wooden supports, or the equivalent of a whole European forest. Impossible to complete, the dome remained unbuilt for decades.

In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith with no prior architectural experience (not even an unpaid internship), won a competition with the task of completing the dome. In a stroke of genius, Brunelleschi designed a dome with an outer & inner shell on top of each other, using lightweight brick in a herringbone pattern.

Inventing cranes and vehicles to haul materials without the exorbitant amount of scaffolding once needed, Brunelleschi was able to fill the crater in the soul of Florence.

What these machines and techniques looked like were unfortunately lost with Brunelleschi, as he was famously secretive about his designs as a means of job security – leaving modern engineers unable solve the mystery behind his techniques.

In 1989, to better understand its construction a small scale replica of the dome was built in a park near the cathedral. Massimo Ricci, a Florentine architect who has led the study of the replica, speaks for all modern Brunelleschi students stating, “Sometimes I’m filled with gratitude for what he accomplished, what he left us. Other times he frustrates me so much, I tell him to go to hell.”

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