The competition between the major cities during the Italian Renaissance resulted in some of the world’s most breathtaking architecture. Florence is chief among these cities for showcasing not only artistic talent but also innovation as well as daring.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, a masterpiece by Filippo Brunelleschi. Bold for its construction of what was then the largest dome in the world, the Santa Maria del Fiore was a clarion call to the worlds of art and architecture that the glories of the Roman past, one of the largest inspirations for the Italian Renaissance, could be achieved once again.
Serving as an inspiration, Roman ruins also acted as blueprints for ancient architectural forms. Two forms mastered by the Romans yet lost after the collapse of the imperial world were the arch and the dome. Essential components of Roman architecture, these structural forms confounded many medieval architects and designers.
This was until geniuses like Brunelleschi restored the ancient Roman forms through mathematical and design insights that endure even now. Of course, aiming for a different, more ancient architectural style also has its roots in Florence’s competition with Milan to be the preeminent city in northern Italy.
The signature cathedral in that city featured the Gothic style with flying buttresses. Herein was Brunelleschi’s challenge: Constructing a domed cathedral capable of supporting masonry without collapsing in Florence.
Whereas Gothic cathedrals could rely upon the strength of buttressing to achieve height, a dome would have to use other mechanisms to remain freestanding.
Construction of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore began on the 7th August 1420 after a public competition in which Brunelleschi and his rival Lorenzo Ghiberti were commissioned with the work. Immediately, the team was faced with a challenge and that was the construction of the scaffolding necessary to shape the masonry of the dome.
Unfortunately, timber supports were ruled impractical.
Instead, the dome would need to support itself during construction. He decided upon an octagonal structure with lightweight materials tapering as it reached the apex.
Exemplary of the ideal Golden Ratio, Brunelleschi and his team achieved what is considered a perfect balance of form and function with the structure’s own architecture supporting itself through its very layout.
The egg-shaped dome was so spectacular, in fact, that the people of Florence wondered among themselves about what sort of trick Brunelleschi employed to make it happen. While well known for his ability to transform illusions into reality, the dome on the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is more of a product of genius and mathematics than it is magic.