Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Dome of Brunelleschi
By Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908)
From ‘Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages’

IN the chapter-house—the so-called Spanish chapel—of Santa Maria Novella, is one of the most interesting pictures of the fourteenth century. It has been ascribed, rightly or wrongly is of little consequence, to the great Sienese master Simone Memmi. It represents, in a varied and crowded composition of many scenes, the services and the exaltation of St. Dominic and his order. The artist may well have had in his mind the splendid eulogy of the saint which Dante heard from St. Bonaventura in Paradise. As the type and image of the visible Church, the painter had depicted the Duomo of Florence—not unfinished, as it was at the time, but completed, and representing, we may believe, in its general features, the original project of Arnolfo, although the details are rather in the spirit of the delicate Gothic work of Orcagna’s school than in that of an earlier time. The central area of the church is covered by an octagonal dome that rises from a cornice on a level with a roof of the nave, and is adorned at each angle with the figure of an angel.  1
  When the church now, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was approaching completion, this original project of an octagonal dome still seemed the only plan practicable for the covering of the intersection of nave and transept; but the construction of such a work had been rendered vastly more difficult by the immense increase in the original dimensions. The area to be spanned was enormous, for the diameter of the octagon was now about one hundred and thirty-five feet. The difficulty was the greater from the height of the walls from which the dome must spring. No Gothic builder had vaulted such an area as this. Since the Pantheon was built, no architect had attempted a dome with such a span; and the dome of the Pantheon itself, with a diameter of one hundred and forty-three feet, rose from a wall that was but seventy-two feet in height. The dome of St. Sophia, the supreme work of the Byzantine builders, with the resources of the Empire at their command, had a diameter of but one hundred and four feet, and the height from the ground to its very summit was but one hundred and seventy-nine feet. The records of architecture could not show such a dome as this must be. Where was the architect to be found who would venture to undertake its construction? What were the means he could employ for its execution? Such were the questions that pressed upon those who had the work in charge, and which busied the thoughts of the builders of the time….  2
  It cannot now be determined, and it is of little importance, whether Brunelleschi’s object in going to Rome was as distinctly defined beforehand in his own mind as Vasari declares in the statement that he had two most grand designs: one to bring to light again good architecture; the other to find the means, if he could, of vaulting the cupola of St. Mary of the Flower, “an intention of which he said nothing to Donatello or any living soul;”—or whether, as the anonymous biographer implies, this object gradually took shape in his thought as he studied the remains of Roman antiquity, acquainting himself with the forms and proportions of classic buildings, and with the unsurpassed methods of Roman construction. But this journey of Brunelleschi and Donatello, that they might learn, and learning revive, “the good ancient art,” is one of the capital incidents in the modern Renaissance. These were the two men in all Florence, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, of deepest nature, of most various and original genius. They were in little sympathy with the temper of the Middle Ages. For them the charm of its finest moods was lost. The spirit that had given form to Gothic art had always been foreign to Tuscan artists. The traditions of an earlier time had never wholly failed to influence their work. And now the worth and significance of ancient art, first recognized by Niccola Pisano a century and a half earlier, were felt as never before. The work of the scholars of the fourteenth century, in the collection and study of the fragments of ancient culture, was bearing fruit. For a hundred years the progress in letters and the arts in Italy had been quickened by the increasing knowledge of the past; and with each step of advance men had not only felt deeper and more inspiring delight in the ideals of the classic world, but had found more and more instruction in the models which its works presented. Through the creations of the art of former days nature herself was revealed to them in new aspects. Their reverence for the teachings of the ancients was often uncritical and indiscriminate, but the zeal with which they sought them was sincere and invigorating. It was not till a later time, when the first eagerness of enthusiasm had given place to a dry pedantry of investigation, that the study of classic models allured a weaker generation from the paths of nature and independence into those of artificiality and imitation.  3
  Brunelleschi was the first artist to visit Rome with fully open modern eyes. From morning till night, day after day, he and Donatello were at work unearthing half-buried ruins, measuring columns and entablatures, digging up hidden fragments, searching for whatever might reveal the secrets of ancient time. The common people fancied them to be seekers for buried treasure; but the treasure for which they sought was visible only to one who had, like Brunelleschi, as his biographer says, “buono occhio mentale,”—a clear mental eye.  4
  For many years the greater part of Brunelleschi’s life was spent in Rome. He had sold a little farm that he owned at Settignano, near Florence, to obtain the means of living; but falling short of money after a while, he turned to the art in which he had served his apprenticeship, and gained his livelihood by work as a goldsmith. The condition of Rome at this time was wretched in the extreme. Nothing was left of the dignity of the ancient city but its ruins. There was no settled civic order, no regular administration of law or justice. Life and property were insecure. The people were poor, suffering, and turbulent. Rome was the least civilized city of Italy. Its aspect was as wretched as its condition. Large tracts within its walls were vacant. Its inhabited portions were a labyrinth of filthy lanes. Many churches, built in earlier centuries, were neglected and falling to ruin. There was no respect for the monuments of former times. Many were buried under heaps of the foulest rubbish; many were used as quarries of stone for common walls; many were cumbered by mean buildings, or occupied as strongholds. The portico of the Pantheon was filled with stalls and booths; the arcades of the Colosseum were blocked up with rude structures used for the most various purposes; the Forum was crowded with a confused mass of low dwellings. Ancient marbles, fragments of splendid sculpture, were often calcined for lime. The reawakening interest in antiquity which was inspiring the scholars and artists of Florence, and which was beginning to modify profoundly the culture and the life of Europe, was not yet shared by those who dwelt within the city which was its chief source, and reverence for Rome was nowhere less felt than in Rome itself.  5
  But the example and the labors of Brunelleschi were opening the way to change. He was the pioneer along a path leading to modern times. In the midst of conditions that must have weighed heavily upon him, he continued the diligent study of the remains of ancient art, investigating especially such structures as the Pantheon and the Baths, for the purpose of learning the methods adopted in their construction.  6
  Meantime his repute was slowly advancing at home; and when at intervals he visited Florence, he was consulted in respect to the public and private buildings with which the flourishing city was adorning herself. The work on the Duomo was steadily proceeding. The eastern tribune was finished in 1407; the others were approaching completion. The original plan of a dome springing from the level of the roof of the nave had been recognized as unfit for the larger church. Such a dome would have had too heavy and too low a look. It had been decided that the dome must be lifted above the level of the roof upon a massive octagonal drum; and already in 1417 the occhi, or round lights, of the drum were constructing, and the time was close at hand when the structure would be ready for the beginning of the dome itself. The overseers of the work were embarrassed by the difficulty of the task by which they were confronted, and knew not how to proceed. If a framework for the centring of the dome were to be built up from the ground, they stood aghast at the quantity of timber required for it, and at the enormous cost; so that it seemed to them well-nigh an impossibility, or to speak more truly, absolutely impossible.  7
  The Board of Works sought advice from Brunelleschi. “But if the master builders had seen difficulties, Philip showed them far more. And some one asking, Is there, then, no mode of erecting it? Philip, who was ingenious also in discourse, replied that if the thing were really impossible, it could not be done: but that if it were not so, there ought to be some one in the world who could do the work; and seeing that it was a religious edifice, the Lord God, to whom nothing was impossible, would surely not abandon it.” Further consultations were held; and on May 19th, 1417, the Opera voted to give Philip di Ser Brunellesco “pro bona gratuitate”—for his labors in making drawings and employing himself concerning the cupola—ten golden florins…. No more characteristic or remarkable design was produced during the whole period of the Renaissance than this with which its great architectural achievements began. It was the manifesto of a revolution in architecture. It marks an epoch in the art. Such a dome as Brunelleschi proposed to erect had never been built. The great domes of former times—the dome of the Pantheon, the dome of Santa Sophia—had been designed solely for their interior effect: they were not impressive or noble structures from without. But Brunelleschi had conceived a dome which, grand in its interior aspect, should be even more superb from without than from within, and which in its stately dimensions and proportions, in its magnificent lift above all the other edifices of the city of which it formed the centre, should give the fullest satisfaction to the desire common in the Italian cities for a monumental expression of the political unity and the religious faith of their people. His work fulfilled the highest aim of architecture as a civic art, in being a political symbol, an image of the life of the State itself. As such no other of the ultimate forms of architecture was so appropriate as the dome. Its absolute unity and symmetry, the beautiful shape and proportions of its broad divisions, the strong and simple energy of its upwardly converging lines, all satisfied the sentiment of Florence, compounded as it was of the most varied elements,—civic, political, religious, and æsthetic….  8
  At last, in 1420, all these masters from beyond the mountains were assembled in Florence, together with those of Tuscany, and all the ingenious architects of the city, among them Brunelleschi himself. On a certain day they all met at the works of S. Maria del Fiore, together with the consuls and the Board of Works and a choice of the most intelligent citizens; and then one after another spoke his mind as to the mode in which the dome might be built. “It was a fine thing to hear the strange and diverse opinions on the matter.” Some advised to build up a structure from the ground to support the cupola while it was in process of building. Others, for the same end, proposed heaping up a high mound of earth, in which pieces of money should be buried, so that when the work was done the common people would carry away the earth for the sake of what they might find in it. Others again urged that the cupola be built of pumice-stone, for the sake of lightness. Only Philip said that the dome could be built without any such support of timber or masonry or earth, and was laughed at by all for such a wild and impracticable notion; and growing hot in the explanation and defense of his plan of construction, and being told to go but not consenting, he was at last carried by main force from the assembly, “fu portato di peso fuori,”—all men holding him stark mad. And Philip was accustomed to say afterwards that he was ashamed at this time to go about Florence, for fear of hearing it said, “See that fool there, who talks so wildly.” The overseers of the work were distracted by the bewildering diversity of counsels; and “Philip, who had spent so many years in studies for the sake of having this work, knew not what to do, and was oftentimes tempted to depart from Florence. Yet, wishing to win his object, he armed himself with patience, as was needful, having so much to endure; for he knew the brains of that city never stood long fixed on one resolve. Philip might have shown a little model which he had below, but he did not wish to show it; being aware of the small understanding of the consuls, the envy of the workmen, and the little stability of the citizens, who favored now this, now that, according to their pleasure. What, then, Philip had not been able to do in the assembly he began to try with individuals; and speaking now to this consul, now to this member of the Board of Works, and in like wise to many citizens, showing them part of his design, he brought them to determine to assign the work either to him or to one of the foreigners. Whereby the consuls and the Board of Works and the citizens being encouraged, they caused a new assembly to be held, and the architects disputed of the matter; but they were all beaten down and overcome by Philip with abundant reasons. And here it is said that the dispute about the egg arose in this manner.” The other architects urged him to explain his scheme in detail, and to show them the model he had made of the structure; but this he refused, and finally proposed to them that the man who could prove his capacity by making an egg stand on end on a smooth bit of marble should build the cupola. To this they assented. All tried in vain; and then Philip, taking the egg and striking it upon the marble, made it stand. The others, offended, declared they could have done as much. “Ay,” said Philip, “and so, after seeing my model, you could build the cupola.”  9
  It was accordingly resolved that he should have charge of the conduct of the work; and he was directed to give fuller information concerning his plans to the consuls and Board of Works.
*        *        *        *        *
  Towards the end of the year 1425, in January (it is to be remembered that the Florentine year began in March), Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, together with one of the Officials of the Cupola and the head-master of the works, united in an important report to the Board, as to the work in progress and that which was to be next undertaken. It is plain from it that the difficulties of building such a vault without centring were increasing as the curve ascended. On the inner side of the vault a parapet of planks was to be made, to protect the scaffolding and to cut off the sight of the masters from the void beneath them, for their greater security. “We say nothing of centring,” say the builders: “not that it might not have given greater strength and beauty to the work,” which may well be doubted; “but not having been started with, a centring would now be undesirable, and could hardly be made without armature, for the sake of avoiding which the centring was dispensed with at the beginning.” Brunelleschi’s genius was sufficient to overcome all the difficulties met with in accomplishing the bold experiment which he had devised, and which in its kind still remains without parallel.  11
  Many entries in the records afford a lively impression of scenes and incidents connected with the building. With all the precautions that could be taken, the exposure of the workmen to the risk of falling was great. Two men were thus killed in the first year of the work. As the dome rose, the danger increased; and a provision was made that any of the masters or laborers who preferred to work below might do so, but at wages one quarter less. Brunelleschi, finding that owing to the vast height of the edifice, the builders lost much time in going down for food and drink, arranged a cook-shop and stalls for the sale of bread and wine, in the cupola itself. Thenceforth no one was allowed to go down from his work oftener than once a day. But the supply of wine in the cupola caused a new danger; and an order was issued by the Board, that “considering the risks which may daily threaten the master masons who are employed on the wall of the cupola, on account of the wine that is necessarily kept in the cupola, from this time forth the clerk of the works shall not allow any wine to be brought up which has not been diluted with at least one third of water.” But the workmen were reckless; and amused themselves, among other ways, in letting themselves and each other down on the outside of the dome in mere sport, or to take young birds from their nests, till at length the practice was forbidden by an order of the Board.  12
  So year by year the work went on; the walls slowly rounding upwards….  13
  The work on the Duomo was now actively pushed forward. The second chain to resist the thrust of the inner cupola was constructed; and in 1432 the dome had reached such a height that Brunelleschi was ordered to make a model of the closing of its summit, and also a model of the lantern that was to stand on it, in order that full consideration might be given to the work, and due provision for it made in advance. Two years more passed, years in which the city was busied with public affairs of great concern both at home and abroad; when at length, on the 12th of June, 1434, just fourteen years from its beginning, the cupola closed over the central space of the Duomo. It had grown slowly, marvelous in the eyes of all beholders, who saw its walls rise, curving over the void without apparent support, held suspended in the air as if by miracle. Brunelleschi’s fame was secure; henceforth his work was chief part of Florence.  14

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.