Daily Dose: Brunelleschi’s Duomo

Add to TwitterThe “duomo” (dome) of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore is more than just a popular tourist attraction. It is also Filippo Brunelleschi’s (its designer’s) most lauded architectural achievement and was, until recent years and technologies, the largest dome in the world. At 143 feet in diameter and using over 4 million bricks, Brunelleschi’s duomo remains the largest masonry dome ever built.

Brunelleschi's Duomo

The above image shows the stunning red tiled duomo from the streets of Florence. As you can see, the rest of the cathedral’s façade is done in green and white marble, characteristic of Italian renaissance church architecture.

In 1418, the city of Florence held a competition for the design of the dome. Lorenzo Ghiberti (famed for his “Gates of Paradise” panels on the cathedral’s baptistry doors) and Filippo Brunelleschi were the primary contenders. Brunelleschi’s design triumphed and construction began. Since flying buttresses were not used in Florentinian architecture and all of the trees in Tuscany couldn’t provide an adequate amount of wood for traditional centring scaffolding, Brunelleschi had to invent a variety of techniques to make this enormous undertaking possible.

Duomo exterior

First, the dome rested on the drum and not the roof of the cathedral. Its double-shell design allowed it to support itself as construction progressed. The workers were able to sit on the inner shell while building the outer one, thus removing the problem of the dome supporting their weight. Brunelleschi had the bricks laid in the innovative herringbone pattern so that weight was redirected to the ribbed supports and not thrust directly downward to the ground. He also invented machines that were able to lift large stones during construction; these devices were valuable contributions to the masonry profession.

Today, visitors can hike up endless spiral staircases (I have never before – or since – experienced such vertigo!) and walk along the inside of the frescoed dome. They can also climb to the lantern at the top of the dome for a breathtaking view of the red roofs of Florence and the nearby campanile (bell tower). I highly recommend taking in this remarkable bit of history!

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