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The odd but extraordinary birth of Brunelleschi’s cupola

Posted by GLflorence on January 13, 2020

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The story of Florence symbol, the dome, is strange and interesting at the same time. Nobody knew how to build such a huge structure, until Brunelleschi solved this big deal. Here’s the story. 

The public bid and the egg's idea

When Arnoldo di Cambio started to build the Cathedral, he didn’t give any information about how to create the huge dome. The solution came after a public bid was held in town: many ideas came to Italians’ minds, such as the one to put soil mixed with coins in the tambour, to save money from the wooden scaffoldings (thanks to the soil) and to make citizens clean up the Cathedral afterwards (so they could have the coins). The idea was funny but obviously ridiculous. After a long list of odd solutions Brunelleschi and Ghiberti were the only ones still in the competition: the first brought a reduced scale dome made with wood, explaining his idea with an egg. 

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He asked the jury to try to put the egg on the table without making it fall. Nobody could make it stand. Brunelleschi took the egg and broke the base, making it flat. After that, the egg could stand with no problem. All the intellectuals who were there that day said they could have been able to do the same, and Brunelleschi replied: "yes, you can build a Cupola with no wooden supports, but first I have to tell you how".

Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, a never-ending discussion

The winner of the competition started to work together with Ghiberti because people were skeptic about his innovative solution. Ghiberti was, indeed, way more famous than Brunelleschi, and the citizens believed he could control better the works and the other artist too. That caused many discussions between the two, because they had different ideas on how to build the structure.The solution came when one day Brunelleschi didn’t show up, pretending he was ill, and left to his colleague all the responsibilities for that day. Ghiberti made some considerable mistakes during the day, and that’s why from 1426 to 1433 he coordinated the works just marginally.

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The realization of the dome

The first problem to be solved was purely technical: what tools would he use to lift the enormously heavy materials he had to work with? Brunelleschi invented a three-speed hoist with an intricate system of gears, pulleys, screws, and driveshafts, powered by a single yoke of oxen turning a wooden tiller. It used a special rope 182 meters long and weighing over 450 kg and featured a groundbreaking clutch system that could reverse direction without having to turn the oxen around. The artist didn’t explain his creations to anyone, all the projects and information came to us thanks to other artist’s sketchbooks, including Leonardo da Vinci’s one. Some of the tools used during the construction are still visible at Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Once the necessary tool kit was created, it was time for the dome to be built. Brunelleschi stated he could create it without using the “centring”, the scaffolding used to support the structure, which was impossible to create because of the huge diameter of the cupola. He managed to create a system for which the dome supported itself as the work progressed. 

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The main idea was to create an inner shell that would support the outer shell, building a dome within a dome. He used a series of internal scaffoldings and placed the bricks in a herringbone pattern in order to keep the bricks in place when the angle became more acute, giving the entire structure additional solidity. Some secrets of this technique are still hidden in the dome’s wall, though, because the artist refused to share them with the citizens. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1436 by Pope Eugenio IV, while the lantern that you can see on top of it was built afterwards, in 1466. 100 years later, Vasari painted the interior part, giving birth to a unique masterpiece which is still visible today. 

Santa Maria del Fiore receives over 600.000 visitors per year, and the entrance is often crowded and full of tourists waiting in line to admire this masterpiece. Join our Tour and get a dedicated and direct access to the Cathedral! You will have the opportunity to know all the secrets of the Duomo Complex with an official Guide at your side. 

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