Brunelleschi’s Dome
Renaissance Design Build Methods
There is the temptation to think that we in the “modern” era are best at everything and that, by definition, our ancestors were primitive by comparison.
This is a comforting fiction that holds up fairly well given the propaganda promoted by our primary schools until and unless scholarship intervenes.
This book by Ross King (published in 2000 by Penguin Books) tells the story of a remarkable architectural and engineering achievement and the method by which it was accomplished over a 140 year period.
The focus of the story is on the 16 years that the largest masonry dome in the world was built by Filippo Brunelleschi who was master of the project during this period.
There is much to learn about Design/Build from this story and how ValueWebs can do it. This is a story of how a people set out to do something and committed great resources before they knew how to do it; how they persevered through war, famine and plague for generations; remained true to a vision and learned as they went; finally achieving their vision. It is also the story of a remarkable man who solved problems decades, in some cases, hundreds of years ahead of his time by his own genius and by having studied thoroughly the work that came before him.
There are many virtues illustrated in this story few of which we practice in our society today. This is a tale worth reading and thinking deeply about. In my outline of it, I will focus on practices related to Design/Build/Use, FasTracking, Rapid Prototyping and how a ValueWeb functions. There is much to be gleaned, also, about the social/political climate and the effect this has on the making of art.
The Story

“The decision to adopt Neri di Fioravanti’s design represents a remarkable leap of faith. No dome approaching this span had been built since antiquity, and with a mean diameter of 143 feet and 6 inches it would exceed that of even the Roman Pantheon, which for over a thousand years had been the world’s largest dome by far. And the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore would not only be the the widest ever built: it would also be the highest.”

p. 9

“Neri’s model of the dome became an object of veneration in Florence. Standing 15 feet high and 30 feet long, it was displayed like a relquary or shine in one of the side aisles of the growing cathedral. Every year the cathedral’s architects and wardens were obliged to place their hands on a copy of the Bible and swear an oath that they would build the church exactly as the model portrayed.”

p. 10

“Thus when the competition to solve these difficulties was announced in the summer of 1418, more than a dozen models were submitted to the Opera by various hopefuls, some by craftsman from as far away a Pisa and siena.“

“However, of the many plans submitted, only one - a model that offered a magnificently daring and unorthodox solution to the problem of vaulting such a large space - appeared to show promise. This model, made of brick, was built not by a carpenter or mason but by a man who would make it his life’s work to solve the puzzles of the dome’s construction: a goldsmith and clockmaker named Filippo Brunelleschi.”

pp. 10 & 11

and how a
“Neri’s model
and how a
The project was approached as a WHOLE SYSTEM - the initial design - which created a problem which was then solved one increment at a time without compromise to the starting concept. this promoted learning, adapting to changing circumstances and innovation while holding to the vision of the end result.
and how a
and how a
Rapid Prototyping
and how a
ValueWeb Building
and how a
Then, Now and Tomorrow
It is impossible to know the touch and feel of another age. I cannot explain, today, what living in The US in the 1940s was like to anyone born in the late 50s or 60s. Filippo died in 1446, 556 years ago; not just a few decades. Think of the social economic changes that have taken place in this period of time.
We cannot know what Renaissance Florence was like; we can know the difference between our model of it and our sense of world we inhabit today.
I wonder if we could launch and sustain such an effort as the Santa Maria del Fiore; an effort so unrelated to war or commerce; an effort that represents such a high proportion of a city’s wealth; an effort so bold that it seems the doing of it was the primary motive; an effort so dedicated to art and craft without compromise or wavering.
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