There are two great domes in Italy, equally famous; the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence; and Saint Peter in Rome. The latter on a project by Michelangelo, but resumed after his death by two architects (Giacomo Della Porta (1533-1602) and Domenico Fontana (1543-1607).
Yet the ONE dome is the one in Florence, built by Filippo Brunelleschi.
As the story goes, there was an early competition for the doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the octagonal baptistery that stands in both the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza San Giovanni, across from the cathedral. Two goldsmiths submitted their drafts. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Both drawings had merits, but Ghiberti’s won the competition as his panels were much lighter than the Brunelleschi’s.
Brunelleschi, however, had a hot temper—actually they all did back then. When he got the news of the rejection he stormed off to Rome with his friend Donatello, another hot-tempered fellow.
In Rome Brunelleschi was fascinated with the architecture, but one building did impress him more than anything; the Pantheon.
Back in Florence, some years later, there was another competition; to build the cupola of the now almost finished cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower, isn’t it a pretty name for a church?)
Now Brunelleschi really wanted the job. Again there were two finalists: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi.
Brunelleschi won and received the commission, however, Ghiberti was appointed coadjutor, drew a salary equal to Brunelleschi’s and, was promised equal credit.
Brunelleschi was nothing to lay you eye on, short and thin, cantankerous, and worst of all secretive and suspicious. How he managed to convince the commissioners (guild of wool and silk) to award him the project is a mystery.
He managed to convince the commissioners to trust him on his word that he would build the greatest dome ever seen, even without the need for a wooden scaffolding. Ad all that without showing any project, and certainly sharing his ideas. Just his word!
The construction began, Brunelleschi overcame all (daily) obstacles with ingenuity, building his own devices to carry big weight to incredible heights. All along keeping his plans very secret. His primary goal was to get rid of Ghiberti.
Eventually, Brunelleschi became ill or pretended to be ill, and the project was briefly in the hands of Ghiberti. But Ghiberti soon had to admit that the whole project was beyond him. In 1423, Brunelleschi was back in charge and took over sole responsibility.
According to Brunelleschi’s fifteenth-century biographer, the “magnificent and swelling” dome appears to be suspended above the city, beyond the profiles of the roofs, without however being incorporated, thanks to its geometric arrangement which guarantees its necessary three-dimensional consistency. The clear profile gives an exceptional landscape value, a point of reference for the entire territory, the dome is, in fact, visible from 70 km away.
On 25 March 1436, the cathedral was inaugurated.
Brunelleschi’s body lies in the crypt of the Cathedral of Florence.
Next time you visit Florence reserve your space to walk all the way to the top. It is worth the view.