idea how to construct it. The unbuilt dome of Santa Maria del Fiore had therefore become the greatest architectural puzzle of the age. Many experts considered its erection an impossible feat. Even the original planners of the dome had been unable to advise how their project might be completed: they merely expressed a touching faith that at some point in the future God might provide a solution, and architects with a more advanced knowledge would be found.
The foundation stone for the new cathedral had been laid in 1296. The designer and original architect was a master mason named Arnolfo di Cambio, the builder of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the city's massive new fortifications. Although Arnolfo died soon after construction began, the masons forged on, and over the next few decades a whole section of Florence was razed to make way for the new building. Santa Reparata and another ancient church, San Michele Visdomini, were both demolished, and the inhabitants of the surrounding district were displaced from their homes. Not only the living were evicted: in order to open a piazza in front of the church, the bones of long-dead Florentines were exhumed from their graves surrounding the Baptistery of San Giovanni, which stood a few feet to the west of the building site. In 1339 one of the streets south of the cathedral, the Corso degli Adamari (now the Via del Calzaiuoli) was lowered so that the cathedral's height should appear even more impressive to anyone approaching from that direction.
But as Santa Maria del Fiore grew steadily larger, Florence was shrinking. In the autumn of 1347 the Genoese fleet returned to Italy, carrying in its holds not only spices from India but also the Asian black rat, carrier of the Black Death. As much as four-fifths of the population of Florence were to die over the next twelve months, so depopulating the city that Tartar and Circassian slaves were imported to ease the labor shortages. As late as 1355, therefore, nothing existed of the cathedral except for the facade and the walls of the nave. The interior of the church lay open to the elements, like a ruin, and the foundations for the unbuilt east end had been exposed for so long that one of the streets east of the cathedral was known as Lungo di Fondamenti, or "Along the Foundations."