Book review: “Brunelleschi’s dome” (by Ross King)

Santa Maria del FioreI’m so glad to have stumbled across this great book (for some reason, the Amazon.com store does not carry the Kindle edition, while the .it store does – find it here).

The story of Filippo Brunelleschi’s amazing architectural skills is told with a thriller-like tension that makes this a true page turner.

Of course, having seen the Santa Maria del Fiore church (privileges of living in Italy, I guess…) and having seen with your own eyes the immensity of what is still today the largest brick and mortar dome ever built by man adds to the awesomeness: man, this thing is BIG (45.6 m in diameter or almost-twice-the-span-of-the-Capitol-big for my US-bound readers)!

From an architecture history point of view, you may argue the Pantheon in Rome is perhaps even more stunning, having being built to a similar span (“only” 43.3mt) fifteen centuries before, using concrete technology long forgotten, but the perfectly spherical shape of the Pantheon means the oculus at the summit is exactly 43.3m high, while the lantern crowning Brunelleschi’s dome starts at around 100m !!

Even more awesome is the fact that the Great Man had to invent all the devices to haul the massive stones and other element to those dizzying heights (remember, no cranes, no electric motors…), the ingenious herringbone pattern of bricklaying to leverage the previous ring to support the next one, the remarkable safety track record of the century-long building site and – perhaps the most frigging’ awesome of all – the fact that the massive octagonal cupola was built WITHOUT the use of wood centring. Enough spoilers, go read the book!

All of this is told in a light, yet never superficial style: the Quattrocento was a century ridden with strife, wars and rivalry among kings and geniuses, but in reality Filippo Brunelleschi was the first architect to elevate the profession above that of a glorified mason: the story of his rivalry with other architects and designers seems pathetic now (for the others) but it must have been every inch as bitter as we would have today between star experts in any field.

<ISOC mode on> In reading this book I cannot help thinking what a much better book this would have been to include e.g. an interactive 3D model the reader could navigate as the story progresses, or video clips of where the stones were cut, or pictures of scaled model of the many devices invented and built to complete this monumental (appropriate, eh?) feat of human ingenuity. This book just begs being re-written in Un-book format </ISOC mode off>

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