Florence is a city that I will always remember for many reasons, namely for its architecture, for its history and culture, and for its gelato. But what will live on in my memory the longest will actually be the story of Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect, designer and sculptor of the dome of the Florence Cathedral.
We were told the story of Brunelleschi while on a walking tour we had signed up for. Our tour guide was taking us from one tourist attraction to the other, and did an amazing job in adding lots of colour to what we were seeing, all in the form of stories. It can be easy to pass a building, a statue or a cathedral, snap a picture of it, and move on. Storytelling, on the other hand, can make a place or a thing come alive, and she helped us to see Florence in a whole new light. We walked past a building and she pointed out to us that it was where Leonardo da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa. She went into a detailed story about all that transpired after that – his departure from Florence, the theft of the painting, etc. We would walk past a statue carved into a church and she’d tell us about how what we were seeing was the first artistic use of perspective, as shown by how the columns carved into the stone would appear to get smaller as they grew more distant. She told stories about Dante’s Inferno, about Michelangelo, about Galileo and his moons.
Brunelleschi’s story, however, was one that left me with a newfound admiration for the Florence Cathedral, simply because of how inspiring his story was. According to the story she told us (and I don’t know what is embellished, and what is the truth), Brunelleschi was a master goldsmith that worked primarily with cast bronze. Around the end of 1400, the city of Florence decided to host a competition to choose the designer of the new sculpted and gilded bronze doors for the Florence Baptistry, directly opposite the cathedral. The jury ended up choosing Brunelleschi for the task, along with another young sculptor by the name of Lorenzo Ghiberti. The twist? They were rivals, so the last thing Brunelleschi wanted was to collaborate on the project with Lorenzo. Rather, he insisted that the project be solely awarded to Lorenzo. He had something bigger on his mind.
Brunelleschi wanted to finish the dome of the Florence Cathedral, also known as Santa Maria del Fiore. At the time, it had not been finished due to the death of the first architect which halted construction for 50 years, but the plans – incredibly ambitious in nature – had already been drawn up for it. The proposed dome would be larger than any other dome in Europe and no dome of that size had been built since antiquity. In 1418, the city was again holding another competition, this time to select the builder of the dome. Brunelleschi declared that he was the person for the job, but everybody thought he was a crazy. They laughed in his face. “You’re just a goldsmith!”, they said. “How can you be the one to build something that has never been built before?”
Instead of shying away from the project, he travelled to Rome with his friend, the sculptor Donatello. He wanted inspiration from Rome, specifically the Pantheon (which had one of the largest domes at the time). I don’t know if this is true or not, but our tour guide said that he literally broke open a piece of the Pantheon to see how it had been built, and what he found was a herringbone brick-laying pattern which undoubtedly allowed for the Pantheon to sustain its weight. Brunelleschi went back to the city of Florence, excited to tell everybody about what he had discovered. But when he did, instead of granting him the project, they just laughed in his face. “How can you pull off what they did for the Pantheon?”, they asked him. “You’re just a goldsmith.”
And yet, Brunelleschi still did not stop there. He used their laughter as motivation and spent two years literally building his own crane to prove his worth as an architect and as a builder. He showed the city councillors the crane and it was only then that he was officially awarded the project. The dome took 16 years to build (1420-1436), and used up more than 4 million bricks. Brunelleschi forever changed the game and was hailed as a genius – his architectural design for the Florence Cathedral dome would later be followed by all the successive major domes built in Europe and across the world. In 1421, he became the first person to receive a patent in the Western World.
Now, while people are still going to Rome to see the Pantheon or the Colosseum to experience a sense of wonder, there is certainly no shortage of visitors to Florence who come all the way to see the Cathedral, all thanks to Brunelleschi’s bold and empowering vision.