the cupola of brunelleschi - filippo brunelleschi biography

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  The Cupola of Brunelleschi  

The Cupola of Filippo Brunelleschi - FlorenceWhen, in 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi was nominated superintendent of the construction of the cupola of the Florentine cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the lines along which the construction was to be carried out had already been determined by what had been done previously (Arnolfo, Talenti). The diameter of the inner span (m. 41.50) is close to the maximum limit for any kind of masonry dome. From the times of the Pantheon there had been no examples of cupolas of such size. Faith in these structures had been seriously undermined by the collapse, in 1346, of the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In 1400 the Florentines had had to reinforce the structures of the Baptistery which had shown signs of giving way.

Instead of recuperating precedent techniques, Brunelleschi invented a technique based on his knowledge of the "way of building" of the Romans as well as medieval (eastern) examples which he put at the service of a new concept and new kinds of technical, cultural, aesthetic problems, involved in the realization of the cupola. Basically the construction of the dome depended on the use of a building technique capable of avoiding any dangerous discontinuity in the masonry (27,000 tons) and which would be able to circumvent the enormous problems involved in constructing a traditional wooden armature of the necessary dimensions. Brunelleschi's structure of bricks laid in herringbone courses consisted of raising the wall in rings, each containing vertical elements for bonding the successive ring. The cupola was thus built as a self supporting growing form.

The dome is surprisingly modern: in this double shell, the lighter exterior cupola protects the inner cupola from the elements, while the two work together thanks to the powerful connecting ribs. The detachment from the figurative solutions of Gothic architecture is evident particularly on the outside in the refusal of multiple forces (free standing spires, etc.), in the rigor with which the convergence of the forces upwards is pursued, entrusting the formal solution to a formidable synthesis of continuous lines and accessory surfaces resulting in unity and free from any need to adapt to the more articulated and minute design of the structure underneath.

The first powerful expression of a conscious synthesis of two cultural worlds, Greek and Gothic, the cupola can in the end be defined as a sensitive diaphragm stretched between an external and an internal space, a diaphragm between one space and another. In their internal tension, the thrust and dynamic form (pointed arch and elliptical sector) engender a calculated equilibrium, a cupola that hovers and is suspended over the city, the result of the balance of all the forces. The city is no longer a framework marked by the emergence of vertical points of reference (towers and campanili): the cupola, in its size and form, stands out and dominates everything else. The towers and the campanili (including Giotto's) all now relate to each other as a result of their relationship to the cupola which hovers between rooftops and sky at the center of the urban system and automatically become subordinate elements in a general plan.

The full meaning of this urban masterpiece, the cupola is beautifully expressed in Leon Battista Alberti's splendid, synthetic definition in the context of the dedication of his treatise Della Pittura to Brunelleschi: "rising above the skies, ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people". "Rising above" on the one hand expresses the meaning of the tension in the generating line chosen for the ribs, on the other the fact that the cupola is not dominated by the universal space but creates a space of its own which establishes all rapports and measures with respect to itself. "Ample" expresses the fundamental qualification of distension and circularity of the hovering cupola, while on the other hand with "ample to" it immediately leads to the concept in which the size of this urban structure is seen in relation to the territory. Moreover, the contrast established between the two terms ("rising above" - "ample to") expresses with marvelous conciseness the solution of all the forces, all the structures, all the equilibriums, of all the proportions both within itself and in relationship to the city, all the technical and structural problems, in the absolute abstraction and in the tension of the line of its cross section, etc. Lastly, Alberti's words stress the fact that the new formal dimensions also correspond to the new political dimension of the city.

The cupola is large but the sense of size differs from that of the Gothic cathedral which from close up "ravishes", aspires, and from far off becomes an atmospheric mass and blends with nature. It is an exact dynamic form which from close up implicates and collects the forces and the viewpoints which converge on and depart from it; and from a distance, thanks to its outline and the solution of the relationship of white ribs - red webs, it maintains its capacity of measure and continuously constitutes a figure that can be perfectly identified and verified thus establishing a sense of proportion between the various elements seen. As long as the cupola is visible, whatever the distance may be: it reproposes the same exact figure definited by lines and surfaces.

The various phases of this extraordinary experience come alive in Manetti's biography, presented with an intensity that goes beyond the author's desire to create a myth, all the more significant in a writer who does all he can to define all biographical aspects in terms of humanistic canons: Brunelleschi is in Florence (1417); he is called in by the Operai dell'Opera and explains his ideas for vaulting the cupola, arouses interest, but also many doubts; he then asks permission to leave Florence and returns to Rome and once more sets about studying the ways of vaulting of the ancients without bothering about expense "having always in mind the building of the above-named church in Florence"; in 1419 he is in Florence and is called in to take part in the Council for the cupola; he is the only one to maintain that it can be vaulted without centering and the discussion lasts several days; the Operai, faced with his obstination in upholding an idea that seems absurd, have him taken out bodily several times, as if he were reasoning foolishly and his words were laughable; he builds the Ridolfi chapel in S. Jacopo sopr'Arno to prove his technical thesis; he prepares a program for the construction; he is nominated capomastro; he accepts lower pay and the limit of the level of fourteen braccia (cubits) as trial just to put an end to the discussion and the opposition; he accepts dividing the commission with Lorenzo Ghiberti; he makes a wooden model of the cupola; he is called "ghovernatore della cupola magiore" like Ghiberti; he alone is called "inventore"; vaulting is begun under his direction; fears and opposition increase; then feigning illness he displays the incompetence of Lorenzo and that his presence is indispensable; in this way he obtains a division of tasks between himself and Ghiberti; he builds new models; he is always surrounded by onlookers and he complains, they play tricks on him; when the construction arrives at seven braccia he is commissioned to complete the entire cupola including the lantern; he is asked that his each of the eight faces of the cupola be assigned to a "maestro di cazzuola"; he ends the strike of the workman who refuse to be completely subordinate to him by showing that he is capable of continuing with new workers trained and directed by him; he invents various "provedimenti e industrie" for various problems in the construction (winds, earthquakes, the weight itself); he continuously makes models of details with wet earth, with wax, with wood, or with large turnips cut with a knife and shows them to the workers; he takes care of the danger involved for the workers, "not so much the dangers but the fears and terrors of the masons and their helpers", and "that there were venders of wine and bread and cooks" on the cupola in construction to gain time; he personally chooses and controls all the materials and every detail; the organization is by now perfect and the work is accomplished. Even this synthetic chronicle of how the cupola was made clearly reveals that Brunelleschi was no longer the architect delegated by or representative of the community but rather the interpreter who gives expression to the collective moment in his own personal vision.

The Cupola was inaugurated on March 25, 1436, to the four-voice motet Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume Du Fay, who had come expressly from France for the occasion.

While Brunelleschi was working on that extraordinary undertaking, other great early fifteenth- century artists were doing their part in bringing the cathedral square to completion, in line with the fourteenth-century concept of the piazza in which a series of symbolic decorative cycles were to visualize their rich culture for the people: themes from the Old and New Testaments on the doors of the Baptistery, in the niches of the bell tower and on Arnolfo's facade of the cathedral; reliefs with the Arts and Trades on the first tier of the Campanile. Donatello, Nanni di Banco, Nanni di Bartolo, Niccolò Lamberti all played a role in completing and enhancing the complex. Ghiberti worked for more than a quarter of a century (1425-1452) on the doors of the Baptistery which Michelangelo says "were so beautiful that they would be fitting for the gates of Paradise". In 1425 Masaccio frescoed the Crucifixion on the left wall in Santa Maria Novella, a mural in which the collaboration of Brunelleschi has been hypothesized in designing the architectural perspective. "But the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures", wrote Vasari, "is the barrel vaulted ceiling drawn in perspective, and divided into square compartments containing rosettes foreshortened and made to recede so skilfully that the wall seems to be hollowed out".

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