Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm so embarrassed about this, but I recently discovered that I'd completely forgotten to include a book that I love within the recommendations in my Tuscany and Umbria book. It's embarrassing because this isn't the first time this has happened. Last year I embarked on a major project, which was the reorganization of my bookshelves; yet even though I (with great difficulty) donated bags and bags of books to my local library, I'm afraid books are still housed two and three-deep on my shelves. As a result, sometimes titles are hidden and hard to see. Such is the case with the paperback edition of Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King (Penguin, 2001).

As I wrote in the Introduction to my book, I will never forget the day I first saw Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence's Duomo (seen here in these four photos taken by Peggy Harrison). "As I walked down a narrow street, the name of which I no longer remember, I saw a sliver of it suddenly; as I approached it and discerned the different colors and patterns of marble, I was filled with a warmth and a happiness to be alive I've rarely felt again. Over the years, no matter how crowded Florence becomes, the Duomo will never fail to impress." I still love how you can see that fabulous dome from practically any spot in Firenze, and if you're a little lost, you can always find your way by locating the dome.

Ross King tells the compelling and fascinating story of the building of Santa Maria del Fiore's dome -- which began with an announcement on August 19, 1418 in Florence, where the cathedral had already been under construction for more than a century -- and ended twenty-eight years later. Filippo Brunelleschi "engineered the perfect placement of brick and stone" and defied all who believed his dome would collapse, and "in the proceess, he did nothing less than reinvent the field of architecture."

Santa Maria del Fiore was meant to replace the former church of Santa Reparata, by 1418 quite dilapidated, and it was intended to be one of the largest in Christendom. King tells us that entire forests provided timber for the church and huge slabs of marble were transported along the Arno on flotillas of boats. Santa Maria del Fiore "had as much to do with civic pride as religious faith: the cathedral was to be built, the Commune of Florence had stipulated, with the greatest lavishness and magnificence possible." The designer and original architect of the new cathedral was Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the stone fortifications of the city. Though he died after construction began, his plans were continued, and King informs us that a whole section of the city was razed to make way for the cathedral (and, in order to create a piazza in front of the church, not only were the inhabitants of the surrounding district displaced but even the bones of long-dead Florentines were exhumed from their graves surrounding the Baptistery of San Giovanni, which was just a few feet from the building site).

The Wool Merchants guild -- Florence's largest, wealthiest, and most powerful -- oversaw the Opera del Duomo and therefore had the responsibility for building and funding the cathedral. However, since their business was wool, none of the guild members knew anything about architecture, so they appointed a capomaestro (an architect-in-chief) to create the cathedral models and designs as well as coordinate the actual construction. Santa Maria's capomaestro was Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, who built a model for the cathedral's dome. The guild members also requested a second model, from a group led by a master mason named Neri di Fioravanti. While Ghini's model was Gothic, Fioravanti's group rejected the Gothic use of flying buttresses (which were at any rate rare in Italy) and proposed a plan that incorporated a series of stone or wooden chains around the circumference of the dome. Fioravanti had experience with vaulting -- he was responsible for the vaults over the great hall in the Bargello and the arches in the Ponte Vecchio after the old bridge was swept away in the flood of 1333 -- but this plan for the Duomo was far more ambitious. "It was this vision of a massive dome that seemed to rise heavenward without any visible means of support that for the next half century would both inspire and frustrate everyone involved with the project."

At a meeting in August 1367 the plan for the dome was approved by the guild wardens and later endosed by a referendum of Florentine citizens. I find it fascinating that, as King relates, approving Fioravanti's design was a remarkable leap of faith. "No dome approaching this span had been built since antiquity, and with a mean diameter of 143 feet and inches it would exceed that of even the Roman Pantheon, which for over a thousand years had been the world's largest dome by far."

I could go on, but suffice it to say that this book will surprise you, even if you know quite a bit about Santa Maria del Fiore. Of all the trivia I could continue to ramble on about, perhaps the most fitting footnote is that Michelangelo, in the late 1540s after he'd been named architect in chief of St. Peter's, was given three passes into Santa Maria's cupola so he and two assistants could inspect Brunellschi's methods of construction. King writes that Michelangelo was a proud Florentine, and that he claimed he could "equal Filippo's dome but never surpass it. In fact he did not even equal it, for the cupola of St. Peter's, completed in 1590, is almost ten feet narrower and, arguably, much less graceful and striking"

No comments:

Post a Comment