The cathedral is the 4th largest in the world, only St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London and the Duomo in Milan are bigger

Visible from afar it rises like a beacon lit by the Tuscan sun. Built almost 600 years ago it is still the tallest building in the city. Filippo Brunelleschi’s ingeniously constructed cupola defines the city of Florence and her skyline.

Santa Maria del Fiore was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style to the design of Arnolfo di Cambio and completed in 1436 with Filippo Brunelleschi’s cupola. The work on the dome itself started around 1418, when the Arte della Lana, the wool merchants’ guild, held a competition in order to find the best possible design and solution for the construction of a dome of this size. Needless to say Brunelleschi won.

At that time no one knew how to build such a large dome, larger even than the Pantheon in Rome. The use of buttresses to support tall structures were forbidden by the city of Florence so he had to come up with new solutions.

Santa Maria del Fiore interior
Santa Maria del Fiore interior

The size of the cupola

Brunelleschi spent more than a decade in Rome where he learned a great deal about Roman architecture. He must have taken special interest in the methods used for vaulting, knowing that a dome was planned for the cathedral in Florence. Emperor Hadrian’s Pantheon with its colossal dome would have given him ample proof that it was indeed possible to build a cupola that spans a space even larger than the one in Rome.

When building vaults in particular, “the architect must design a structure that will counteract pressures (forces) by playing them off against each other – a game of action and reaction – and channelling them safely to the ground”

The cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore is the biggest masonry dome ever built that has no centring; the two shells of the dome are supported by ribbed reinforcements but there is no (inner) wood or iron structure to support it, that is. The outer diameter of the octagonal cupola is about 45 meters at the base (drum), 2.1 meters thick, tapering to 1.5 meters at the top. It is made of a total of 4 million bricks.

Santa Maria del Fiore - Inside the dome
Inside the dome, literally speaking

The work of a genius

Filippo Brunelleschi was a very secretive person, he kept his plans and solutions to himself as long as possible. Perhaps he knew that many of his designs were ahead of its time. Building a church and a dome took decades and so many people were involved that internal strife and rivalry would have been avoidable at some point. On one occasion Brunelleschi apparently pretended to be seriously ill in order to expose what he considered incompetence of a rival. Only he seemed to know the solutions to the complex constructions of the dome and when his rival was unable instruct the workers on how to proceed with their job, Brunelleschi soon recovered from his feigned illness and returned to work.

Brunelleschi was trained as a goldsmith and he was also an excellent clockmaker, an important fact which partially explains his brilliant designs of various hoisting machines that were required for the constructions of a dome of this magnitude. In fact, the Arte della Lana governing group (“the Opera”) held a competition in order to find the best possible hoisting machines, and again, Brunelleschi won with his highly advanced devices.

Detail of “The Last Judgement” by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari
Detail of “The Last Judgement” by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari

Brunelleschi lived to see his cupola completed, but he died a few weeks after the first stone on the lantern was consecrated and according to his biographer Vasari, his sudden death brought tremendous grief to the people of Florence. He is buried in a rather modest and plainly decorated tomb in the crypt under the south aisle of the cathedral. The inscription reads: “Here lies the body of the great ingenious man Filippo (Philippo) Brunelleschi of Florence”.

It is worth mentioning that few if any European architect or engineer earned such renown as did Brunelleschi both during his lifetime or in the years after his death. Before Brunelleschi the work of an architect was considered manual labour and as such not esteemed or considered work for an educated man. Brunelleschi changed all that.

For more about Brunelleschi’s dome see: Cathedral of Florence

All photos by Asgeir Pedersen, Spots France
This article was first published in 2014.