One of the most famous domes in the world is the dome of the Duomo (the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore) that dominates Florence, Italy. This brick red and white dome is the shining achievement of Early Renaissance architecture. It’s not an ordinary dome that you might see in any historic city— the ingenuity behind it paved the way for the creativity of Renaissance architecture and therefore the architecture of the modern age.
A bit of understanding of this dome’s fascinating history will make any visit to Florence much richer. These 4 tips to understanding the dome will enrich your visit to Florence’s most famous church.
1) This was something almost entirely new.
This was the largest dome built since the Pantheon in Rome about 1300 years earlier and one of very few domes built since that time. It was also the tallest dome built until that time. The size and newness of the project made it a seemingly impossible feat.
When the basilica was finished in the late 1300s, it stood open, without a dome. It was agreed that the basilica would not use buttresses, which had been used in Gothic architecture in much of Europe. Florence’s decision not to use buttresses to support the ceiling and dome of the church was an important break from tradition to the new thinking of the Renaissance.
However, how such an enormous dome would be supported was a mystery. The size of the hole in the basilica that it was meant to cover presented a huge architectural challenge. This was heightened by the collapse of part of the cathedral being built in neighboring Siena—all of Florence knew of this embarrassing failure, making the success of this dome even more important.
2) The architect who designed the dome became the leading architect of the Early Renaissance.
Filippo Brunelleschi won the competition to become the architect of the dome. His vision to emulate the structures of Ancient Rome while introducing new techniques and inventions made him the foremost architect of the first half of the Renaissance. His designs can be seen all around Florence and celebrate the shapes and proportions of Renaissance aesthetics.
Behind Brunelleschi’s achievements is a genius whose vision during these early years of the Renaissance helped lay the foundation that so many artists would build on.
3) The design and construction of the dome involved much more than what we see with our eyes.
Brunelleschi’s design for the dome involved risky new techniques, including the invention of a “double-dome” and machines for lifting the huge stones and other materials more than 300 feet in the air. He created a criss-crossing method of laying bricks that distributed the weight and therefore allowed the dome to support itself without the use of what would have been an entire forest of timber to support it. His method of interlocking bricks and using both an inner and outer dome was revolutionary. Walking up to the top of the dome allows you to see this double shell up close.
4) The dome symbolized the spirit of human potential and the hope for a brighter future.
Construction of the dome began in 1420 and was finished 16 years later in 1436. The 1300s and early 1400s were tumultuous times, including wars, devastating plagues, and political instability. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the people living in Florence, having survived the Black Death of the 14th century and now seeing this beautiful dome being erected over their city. The resourcefulness and creativity required of this enormous project symbolized the beginning of a new era for Florence, not just for art but also for its people.
Tip: For great views of the dome, climb Giotto’s Campanile and look directly onto the dome.
If you’d like to know more: PBS produced a 4-part documentary series about the Medici, and Part 1 covers the dome’s construction in fascinating detail. You can watch it on Netflix Instant or for free on Hulu.com. Netflix just started streaming a new series, “Medici: Masters of Florence,” which puts the dome in historical perspective.
Source for some facts: History of Italian Renaissance Art by Frederick Hart. Photos 2, 3, 4 are from Wikipedia Commons.