When my husband Frank and I were in Florence, we stayed
at a hotel called the Brunelleschi. From the rooftop, you
could turn one direction and see the great dome and tower of
the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. If you turned around,
you could see the tall, thin tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, the
seat of municipal government since the time of the Medici.
The hotel was surrounded by a maze of narrow streets
bordered by tall and ancient buildings. It was like walking
through a deep canyon to walk them, but from time to time,
they would open up to a square or piazza--a wonderful
space of urban gathering, generally in front of some notable
The square might contain sculpture, a fountain, a cluster of
tables and chairs in front of a restaurant, or pungent displays
of fresh produce or Florentine leather for sale.
Every morning the hotel was serviced by tiny trucks that
looked like a cross between a pickup and a golf cart. They
had canvas covers on the back and could just make it down
the narrow streets.
One night we were heading back to the hotel across the
square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio after a long day of
exploring museums, churches and wonderful eating places,
when we saw a light in an upper corner window. It was
probably some civil servant working overtime on a project
due the next day, and I could imagine various windows,
illuminated by the glow of gaslights or the earlier flicker of
candles, as similar people worked late on similar projects
over the centuries.
Our hotel was named for the great architect and structural
engineer of the early Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi. His
design for the cathedral dome won the competition in 1420,
and he worked on it for the next sixteen years.
Brunelleschi, a goldsmith and clockmaker, had grown up
near the construction site for the cathedral. As a young man,
he spent time in Rome, digging among the ruins of the Forum,
measuring and drawing pictures of them to see how these
earlier buildings had been constructed.
But he developed his own concepts, using bricks laid in a
herringbone pattern for the stability of the massive
egg-shaped dome and a double shell and rib structure with
chains of lighter rock running around the dome to support its
He designed his own mechanical devices to lift the bricks into
place. His ox-hoist was "centuries ahead of the technical
understanding of the time," according to Frank D. Prager. It
would be like my having to invent a computer before I could
do my job.
Rather than just copying the architectural advances of the
ancients, Brunelleschi improved on them by building the
dome with no centering and with very little wood. The ribs of
the dome were of white Carrara marble and the dome's
exterior was tiled with terra cotta.
The ceremony for the laying of the first stone of the lantern,
the white structure at the top of the dome, was held in March
1446. Brunelleschi died a month later and was entombed in
the cathedral he had spent so much time and effort
Brunelleschi's inventive genius had a profound impact on
painting as well as architecture. Working with mirrors, he
rediscovered linear perspective with a single vanishing point.
When we call someone today a Renaissance man--or
woman--we mean they're like Brunelleschi, a multitalented
Frank (left) before Palazzo Vecchio and me (above) before
the cathedral dome. We photographed each other from the
roof of the Hotel Brunelleschi. Top, the statue of Brunelleschi
(over his burial place in the cathedral) looks up at the dome.
Get to know Brunelleschi and
the engineering challenges he
overcame in Ross King's
Brunelleschi's Dome: How A
Renaissance Genius Reinvented
Brunelleschi's single vanishing point in theory (left)
and in practice (below).