Posts Tagged ‘Touching the Mind of Brunneleschi’

Touching the Mind of Brunelleschi Thursday, June 25th, 2009

P8080726I had left my bike at Chiesina. My Tuscan month ride was over. As great as it had been, now I wished to see two items in Florence-Brunelleshi’s Dome and Vasari’s Corridor. I had left instructions with the concierge at the Croce di Malta some weeks ago to obtain tickets for the corridor but, alas, tickets were for groups of ten or more, so the corridor would have to wait till next time.

My day began with a comfortable breakfast at the Croce di Malta Hotel’s dining room consisting of cereal, yogurt, fruit, a croissant and strong black coffee. I love these European breakfasts. They’re done with some delicacy, the service is good and the atmosphere is casual amidst the din and excitement of tourists preparing for their day’s adventure in this exciting city. Like many of the other groups I spread out my maps and journal as I rhythmically munch on the breakfast dishes all the while visualizing the highlights of my day’s adventure.

I exit the hotel noting the marble maltese cross well worn but yet regal marking the entrance on the sidewalk just beyond the revolving glass doors. My gaze picks up the simple stationery window across the narrow street, a window that I remember as a nine year old child visiting Florence with my mother. I walk gingerly across the cobbles of Piazza Santa Maria Novella and note the cloister at the noP8060663rth end. It’s all under restoration this year. A few more blocks and Via Dei Calzaiouli opens onto the large square revealing  Brunelleshi’ Duomo. The scale amazes me. It has each and every time I’ve first viewed it. Then I lapse into historical reflection. I look at the cobbles, at the Baptistery, Ghiberti’s Doors, the Cupola….I think of the characters who gazed upon these same scenes, walked upon these same cobbles….strip out the trappings of modernity like electrical wires, signals, cars, buses and the scene is the same as it had been in Lorenzo’s prime in 1480. Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Leonardo, Macchiavelli….all walked these same streets. Perhaps this is the magic of travel as you are immersed in an antique culture.

P8060684I walked between the main entrance and the baptistery. All were awing at Ghiberti’s door, ‘The Doors of Paradise’. I cast a quick glance but I never have appreciated their elevated reputation. Around the corner at the base of the rotunda a short line of folks awaited the opening of a small door leading to the hundreds of stone steps to the top of the Cupola. My knee was fragile but was determined to make it. As I waited I gazed up at the roof-line and saw the steep curvature of the ribs and roof tiles and imgined the workmen all about with ropes and pulleys hoisting stones, bricks, mortar, work animals and carts and piles of building materials in every direction. The scene must have been a cacophany of construction sounds, loud orders, chatter, wheels on stone, braying of work animals, hammers and chisels, all echoing throughout city neighborhoods.

Filippo Brunelleschi was an irascible, arrogant and accentric luminary. He was reputed to be seen about Florence in a black soiled and wrinkled smock with tussled hair, rarely bathed and always with an elevated air of occupation. The Duomo had been unfinished for a century and florentines referred to the domeless rotunda as il tamburo, the drum. As the story gooes, la signoria, Florence’s ruling body, under the influence of Cosimo, Father of the Italian Renaissance, set out to commission an architect to complete the dome. The largest dome in Christendom and fitting for the stature and opulence of the richest city-state in Europe, Florence. Ghiberti was in the competition but the nod was eventually given to the accentric Filippo who when asked to submit his plan, merely cracked the dull end of a simple egg leaving the concept of a spherical dome on the table before a bewildered Signoria. There must have been a confidence diffused to the Signoria by the accentric’s arrogance for they awarded Filippo the commission.

The door opened and we began our climb from ground level to the base of the cupola. By now the line had lengthened so we formed a long queu climbing the antique stone steps with graffitti defaced walls….what a shame. Who cares if Dieter was from Stuttgart or that Angela loves Chuck from Omaha…. priceless piece of history defaced by twitless barbarians. The climbing continued, my knee hurt but I was a trooper and marched on.

All went well till we reached the base of the Cupola. Through a small door we filed onto a narrow shelf lined to the inside with a three foot high glass parapet. We were lined to the inside wall like single filed flies some two hundred feet above the cathedral floor. I began to feel uncomfortable. A dozen or so people were ahead of me and scores behind. I thought what if there is an earthquake. Can’t go forward or backwards. Here we are stuck on this narrow ledge with glass partition. Wonderful. The line edged forward ever so slowly. Ahead of me was a family oblivious to my recently discovered perils; they were germans and as jolly as could be; they were kooken sie this and ausghetzeiknet that and wunderbar alles…as they were admiring the artworks decorating the interior of the cupola. They were not moving and I was incresingly sure that an earthquake was to come. There had not been one since the thirteenth century and we were definitely due.

P8060693Eventually….we reached the narrow corridors and stairways within the double shells of the cupola. This is what I had wished to see. The genius of Brunelleschi. His mind at work. Walls at a slant. Bricks fabricated to order at odd angles. The curvature of the outer and innner dome. The oak ribs emanating from the exterior dome to the interrior suppurt structure. And more bricks….all defying the laws of gravity. Herringbone patterns curving at seemingly unstable angles and terminating at odd slants forming an aperture for yet another stairway tunnel. I walked slowly and became oblivious as to the people before and after me. There were narrow windows revealing splotches of Florence’s skyline and the thick structure of the outer cupola and terracotta tiles. It was magnificent. I was in awe!





Above is the space between the inner and outer cupola. Connecting oak ribs and well worn stairway along with variety of windows showing Florence’s skyline.

The “drum’, the rotunda, had to support a dome of many tons. And…the Signoria wanted an elegant dome, a dome without bruttresses. They wished a state of the art dome, like the one in Rome, the Pantheon. Brunelleschi spent much time in Rome taking measurements  and studying the secrets of the Pantheon now lost to the world. His answer was a series of anchors and chains at the base of the Cupola. The base of each rib terminated in an anchor and was connected by chains to adjacent anchors to support the outward force of the dome.  The anchors and chains were subcontracted to ironwokers of Pistoia. He designed special bricks which he also subcontracted to fabricators in the environs. He brought meals to his workers to save time and energy from the ascent and descent of the great height. He invented, designed and built hoisting machines with innovative reversing gears…state of the art at the time. He worked out brick patterns to absorb the inward weight and angle of the cupola. It seems that every facet of his project was an extension of the envelope.

The last dimly lit corridor yielded to another door and the bright morning light, blue sky and the breathtaking skyline of Florence from the Lantern atop the Cupola. I carefully noted details in every direction, being careful to focus in one direction and take fotos of notable sights. Looked notheast toward Prato, the famous silk and textile center and Pistoia; the Arno River disappearing in the west; the steeply curved, tiled roof line with adjoining ribs, Giotto’s tower, Piazza Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio, the top of Vasari’s Corridor from the Ufizzi atop Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace, Piazza Michelangelo nesled above the Arno to the south adjacent to Fort Belvedere and the other great cathedral of Florence, Santa Croce to the east. The Appenines to the east and north and the Arno Valley to the west and south. It was all a feast to the eyes…except perhaps for the ever present graffitti defacing the marvelous marble lantern.




The trip down was less eventful and much easier although there was some congestion in areas as groups were still ascending.  At the base of the Cupola a landing appeared with wonderful desplays of repair and hoisting equipment…all terribly midieval and interesting.


Soon, I hobbled on the last step and exited the rustic door to the cobbles of the piazza, delighted to be once again on ‘terra firma’.

Luciano J. Ercolini

‘The Cycling Tuscan’

Silicon Valley Real Estate….. Luciano…..  Broker/Owner….