Magazine article The Spectator

A Triumph over Gravity and Vertigo

Magazine article The Spectator

A Triumph over Gravity and Vertigo

Article excerpt


by Ross King

Chano, L15.99, pp. 184

It remains one of the great Renaissance experiences. Jamming your head back, focussing your gaze way above the buzz of the other tourists, you lose your bearings in the echoing altitude where 1000 millenarians are plastered against the inner skin of the dome, some smugly robed and seated, the rest naked and desperate and doomed. These are Giorgio Vasari's hordes. And it was Vasari who said of the mastermind behind the completion of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, `He was sent by heaven to renew the art of architecture.'

Filippo `Pippo' Brunelleschi is highly rated in Vasari's Lives of the Artists for being a Florentine, for devising and building the mighty dome and (considerate genius that he was) for having the forethought to fit it with iron rings from which scaffolding could be slung, enabling Vasari and his crew to undertake the Last Judgment fresco with confidence.

Ross King has discovered in the story of the dome the standard ingredients of compelling niche history: professional jealousies, committee intrigue, feats of bluff and fascinating scraps of obsolete lore. Happily for him, Vasari left iron rings in place from which to stretch the necessary scaffolding and technical tips. From Vasari come the best details: how Brunelleschi carved turnips to get the right shape for interlocking blocks of stone and how he dealt with labour disputes by bringing in cheap Lombards, thereby persuading his Florentine masons to return to work for even less pay than before.

Where Longitude had ocean wastes, Brunelleschi's Dome has vertigo. It is a tale of hoists and toil, of daily climbs, 463 steps eventually, from duomo floor to summit. It is a short history of architectural aspiration, a giddying ascent from goldsmithying jobs to responsibility for (Vasari again) `the greatest, tallest and the finest edifice of ancient and modern times, demonstrating that Tuscan genius was not yet dead'.

Construction of Santa Maria del Fiore began in 1296 and stopped in the 1360s when the builders reached the point where a decision had to be taken on the dome. The wool merchants who ran the project were determined to have one: a dome to cap Florence, a dome to rival the Pantheon in Rome, a dome such as had never been attempted since Roman times. A competition was announced and various proposals were entertained for defying gravity by raising sandstone and marble slabs hundreds of feet into the air and fixing them in position at up to 45 degrees from the vertical without any centring to keep them in place. …

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