A committee had come up with the ambitious plans and ideas to build the entire grand cathedral had been conceived in 1293, before the Renaissance period, including the domed rooftop even though no technology to complete the dome existed at the time. They started building the cathedral anyway, but had left the part of the dome’s roof exposed for years which is why, from conception to completion, the process took over 140 years.
With over 4 million bricks, weighing over 40,000 tons, almost the size of half a football field across at the base, and standing over 10 stories high, it is the largest masonry structure in the world. If it’s still a big deal today, imagine what it must have been like to see back then, before the technology even existed.
There is still remains of the original church that was built on the same ground, now under Santa Maria del Fiore, called Santa Reparata. This church was a much smaller and more modest church built between the 4th-6th centuries, well before the Middle Ages and Renaissance period. There is now an underground museum where you can see the artefacts and important cultural and religious history.
Years before the dome itself was constructed, a committee in Florence held a competition to decorate the east doors of the baptistery. They gave each contestant the same materials and amount of bronze and allowed them to submit their ideas within the guidelines. The two finalists were young 23-year-olds Fillippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who were both trained metalworkers and goldsmiths. In the end, after submitting the same biblical scene of Abraham killing his son, Ghiberti won due to the judges favouring his classical style over Brunelleschi’s forward and humanist depiction. Many years after the doors had been on display, Michelangelo had commented that the doors seemed like the gates of paradise, thereby giving them the name we call them now. It has been said that Brunelleschi’s depiction was ahead of its time, using humanism in his depiction, and showing the early blooming of the Renaissance period.
Fillipo Brunelleschi was a trained goldsmith and had never built anything in his life before building the masterpiece that astonishingly still stands today. Although that may sound crazy, gold smithery does marry aesthetics and practicality, which Brunelleschi used, among his other studies, to find the solution for the construction of the dome.
As the building of the cathedral continued and had grown larger and grander than the original plans, the question still remained how they would build the dome-shaped roof. No one had any idea how it would or could be done, including the artists who conceptualised it, but Florentines were determined to outdo the other cities in Tuscany, no matter how long it took.
Although no architectural plans had been discovered for the building of The Pantheon, the Florentines were determined to have something similar even if they didn’t know how to do it. They did not like the Gothic style of all the major monuments around Europe at the time with the distraction of the flying buttresses surrounding them, and the similar look they all had, so they looked to the ancient Romans for inspiration. They idolised their innovative building and technology and wanted to be held in the same esteem by their competing surrounding cities in Tuscany who were also erecting grand monuments for prestige. Ironically, after losing the baptistery door competition, Brunelleschi went to study ancient Roman structures, not to be heard of in history again before returning to Florence years later.
After being under construction for over 100 years, the city of Florence was risking looking like fools to their competitors in surrounding areas with an unfinished cathedral and a seemingly insane and impossible task of building the largest dome structure Europe had ever seen. They finally offered the challenge to the public seeking someone to find a solution that would be cost effective and possible. Of course, there was the possibility of building the dome with a wooden structure to support it, but that would end up being costly requiring over 4oo trees, lots of manpower and time. When Brunelleschi entered the competition, he was the only one with an idea that did not involve wood, which caught the attention of the judges.
Florence was so desperate for a solution, Brunelleschi won the competition without ever showing his plans. Although his forward thinking lost him the competition years before with the baptistery doors, it was exactly what Florence needed in this time of panic. He had to persuade the judges, of course, and did so after concealing his plans for so long, that a simple egg was what finally convinced the judges. He told them that he would reveal his plans if any one of them could make the egg stand upright on the table. After they all failed, he took the egg and smashed the bottom of it on the table’s surface, causing the egg to stand upright. Although the judges protested that they themselves could have done the same, he slyly responded saying that if they knew what he knew, they could also build the dome. Essentially, they hired the guy with a secret plan and no experience. Using his wit and secret design of the dome, which he himself was unsure of since he would need to build it to be certain that a few potential flaws could work, he won the competition and was allowed to move forward, being appointed two other designers, including his past rival, Ghiberti. They started April 1420.
The larger ones being St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London of today. In the 15th century, when it was completed, it was the largest cathedral in Europe. It is 153 metres (502 ft) long, 90 metres (295 ft) wide at the crossing, and 90 metres high from the floor to the bottom of the dome.
Not only did he come up with an ingenious masonry idea for how to build a freestanding brick structure with curved walls without the use of a wooden frame, he also invented the tools he needed to do so. The technology at the time for lifting heavy objects was similar to a wooden gerbil exercise wheel, powered by a human, but only reached a limited height. Brunelleschi used oxen walking in a circle for the first time and created a type of mechanism that precedented anything they had seen at the time using a three cogged wheel system to control the lifting or lowering of heavy objects without moving the walking direction of the oxen, now known as the Reverse Gear.
Always known as a secretive person, he didn’t leave a single building plan, drawing, or even a letter behind on how he managed to come up with such an amazing design. For years, the structure was a huge mystery to scholars who needed to find the missing pieces to their theories on how the dome was built.
It was something never tried before. Brunelleschi had nothing but critics and had to convince even his building team to trust him, who were putting their lives in his hands working at 51 meters (170 feet) in the air on a structure seemingly doomed to cave in. After years of scholars studying his methods, one man from the University of Florence finally found the secret hidden in a critic’s extremely detailed drawing meant to discredit Brunelleschi. The secret was the rope patterns he used during building to guide the structure’s brick layout. Remember, there were no lasers or levels during this time, so the ingenious rope system was all they had. At the base of the interior of the dome was the shape of a flower, which was the base to guide the ropes themselves, forcing the bricks to create a series of inverted arches as the walls grew higher. The inverted arches were the key reason that the structure has lasted all these years. Instead of gravity pulling the heavy bricks down causing them to cave in from the top as everyone had assumed, the herringbone layout of the bricks and the inverted arches actually use gravity to reinforce the structure. Absolutely genius. The name of the cathedral translates to Saint Mary of the flower, which ironically has no connection to the flower used by Brunelleschi in his design, but is completely serendipitous. The cathedral gets its name from the lily flower, the symbol of Florence.
In the age when designers almost never got to see their work completed since it took many years to build anything, Brunelleschi finished his project and was able to see his amazing work and the reactions of the people. Started in 1420 and finished in 1436, sixteen years was shockingly fast for such a feat.
The cathedral was originally designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1294, including the facade. The design and outer facade went through many drafts of changes and drawings over the years as you can see in the Grande Museo del Duomo, which is dedicated to the entire history of the construction of the cathedral. By 1418 the cathedral was built; only the dome remained incomplete. The facade, however, would not be complete until 1887 to what we see today. It was a collective design from many architects and artists over many years. The facade of the cathedral has a long history of dismantling, redesigning, and even a competition to finish it, which turned into a huge corruption scandal during that time and was never followed through with. The facade had been left bare until the 19th century. Emilio de Fabris designed the neo-gothic facade we see now, which was also decided by competition in 1871. He worked on it from 1876 to its completion in 1887 and sourced different coloured marble from all over Tuscany and parts of Italy.
What you see on the outside is just the roof tiles, the shell of the internal structure. Between the shell and the ingenious brick structure is the staircase that allows you to climb all 436 stairs to the top. On your journey as you ascend the dome, you can catch glimpses of the original brick layout and see the actual herringbone pattern of the bricks, just as Brunelleschi had done it so many centuries ago.
It is still considered one of the greatest architectural masonry feats that still stands for us to see in awe today.