In 1418 the town fathers of Florence finally addressed a monumental problem they’d been ignoring for decades: the enormous hole in the roof of their cathedral. Season after season, the winter rains and summer sun had streamed in over Santa Maria del Fiore’s high altar—or where the high altar should have been. Their predecessors had begun the church in 1296 to showcase the status of Florence as one of Europe’s economic and cultural capitals, grown rich on high finance and the wool and silk trades. It was later decided that the structure’s crowning glory would be the largest cupola on Earth, ensuring the church would be “more useful and beautiful, more powerful and honorable” than any other ever built, as the grandees of Florence decreed.
Still, many decades later, no one seemed to have a viable idea of how to build a dome nearly 150 feet across, especially as it would have to start 180 feet above the ground, atop the existing walls. Other questions plagued the cathedral overseers. Their building plans eschewed the flying buttresses and pointed arches of the traditional Gothic style then favored by rival northern cities like Milan, Florence’s archenemy. Yet these were the only architectural solutions known to work in such a vast structure. Could a dome weighing tens of thousands of tons stay up without them? Was there enough timber in Tuscany for the scaffolding and templates that would be needed to shape the dome’s masonry? And could a dome be built at all on the octagonal floor plan dictated by the existing walls—eight pie-shaped wedges—without collapsing inward as the masonry arced toward the apex? No one knew.
Why was the dome not yet built by 1418?
So in 1418 the worried Florentine fathers announced a contest for the ideal dome design, with a handsome prize of 200 gold florins—and a shot at eternal fame—for the winner. Leading architects of the age flocked to Florence and presented their ideas...
…[A] short, homely, and hot-tempered goldsmith named Filippo Brunelleschi, promised to build not one but two domes, one nested inside the other, without elaborate and expensive scaffolding. Yet he refused to explain how he’d achieve this, fearing that a competitor would steal his ideas. Brunelleschi’s stubbornness led to a shouting match with the overseers, who twice had him restrained and forcibly ejected from the assembly, denouncing him as “a buffoon and a babbler.”
Why did the Florentine city leaders have reason to want to hire Brunelleschi?
Why might they have not wanted to hire Brunelleschi?
Nonetheless, Brunelleschi’s mysterious design piqued their imagination—perhaps because they already knew this buffoon and babbler to be a genius. As a boy, during his goldsmith’s apprenticeship, he had mastered drawing and painting, wood carving, sculpture in silver and bronze, stone setting, niello, and enamel work. Later he studied optics and tinkered endlessly with wheels, gears, weights, and motion, building a number of ingenious clocks, including what may have been one of the first alarm clocks in history. Applying his theoretical and mechanical knowledge to observation of the natural world, he single-handedly worked out the rules of linear perspective. He’d just spent several years in Rome measuring and sketching the ancient monuments and noting, in cipher, their architectural secrets. Indeed, Brunelleschi’s life seemed to have been one long apprenticeship for building the dome of unequaled beauty, usefulness, honor, and power that Florence yearned for…
What skills did Brunelleschi have that would make him a candidate to build the dome?