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The Duomo - Florence

( Originally Published 1915 )

The spirit in which the Florentines undertook this great work of architecture is shown in the noble sentiment embodied in the official document by which the council of the city decreed the erection of their cathedral:

" A government should undertake nothing unless in response to the desire of a heart more than generous, which expresses in its beatings the heart of all its citizens united in one common wish; it is from this point of view that the architect charged with the building of our cathedral must be regarded."

The baptistery of the Florence cathedral had been built in an earlier age (in the Romanesque style), and was used for some time as a cathedral. It is really the first cathedral. Then came the cathedral proper which is Gothic. The campanile, although not round like the one at Pisa, was built for the same purpose, and is also Gothic.

We have glanced at this while studying Gothic architecture.

Now a whole age later we come to the dome, which was the first great work in architecture of the Renaissance in Italy.

Let us notice one contrast in the building of this dome and the building of the cathedral at Pisa. At Pisa, as was the case with most of the great Romanesque and Gothic buildings, the work was all done along the same general lines, and by the labor of the guilds. At Florence we find one great master mind taking a new bent and laying the foundation of a great new style in the dome of the cathedral. This mind was Brunelleschi's and the work of individual men was so influential that we see a few such men as Brunelleschi, Bramante, and Michaelangelo shaping a new style. The story of these few men is the story of Renaissance building in Italy.

At the age of twenty-two, the sculptor Ghiberti had won in a contest with Brunelleschi with his design for the bronze doors of the baptistery. With his friend Donatello, Brunelleschi then left Florence and made his way to Rome as a goldsmith. All his spare time he gave to studying the architecture of the Old Roman Empire, taking measurements of the finest buildings as students do still. When he came back to Florence his head was full of a scheme for completing the cathedral which . had been under way for 110 years and was still unfinished.

There were many schemes in Florence of how the dome should be built and in 1417 the council, to settle the question, received many different proposals. One suggested a central pillar; another that the space under the dome should be filled up with earth in which gold coins should be placed so that after the dome was completed the poor would remove the soil to get the money, but no one believed it could be built without support from within. Brunelleschi alone felt confident, and was given the work, but the commission also appointed Ghiberti, his successful rival on the doors, to be his colleague. Ghiberti was not an architect, and was not fitted for his task. Vasari tells us how Brunelleschi got rid of him.

" One morning," he says, " Brunelleschi, instead of appearing at work, stayed in bed, tied up his head, and calling for hot fomentations, pretended to have a severe pain in his side. This lasted for several days and, as Ghiberti did not know how to direct the work, it all came to a standstill. When the leading men came to his bedside he asked them why they did not ask Ghiberti. ` He will do nothing without you,' they said. ` But I could do well enough without him,' said Brunelleschi. However, Ghiberti continued to draw his salary.

" Finally, Brunelleschi suggested that, as the salary was divided, the work should be also. He presented himself to the commissioners, and told them that there were two difficult things the bridges upon which the masons were to stand and the chain to bind together the sides of the cupola. ' Let Ghiberti take one and I will take the other.' This plan being adopted, Ghiberti took the chain which he was unable to manage; and was at last removed."

The great dome at Florence was built on newly applied principles. The previous domes, such as that of the Pantheon, did not give much external effect. The great dome, which Brunelleschi succeeded in erecting, far exceeded in grandeur and beauty anything of its kind that had been executed before. It is octagonal in form, and painted. It springs from the top of an octagonal drum and there are two separate shells of masonry, with space between. Eight vast ribs, and walls of masonry, rise and converge towards the opening at the top, and between each of the eight major ribs are two smaller ribs. The dome is capped by a lantern after Brunelleschi's design, but it was built after his death.

Vasari says of the Dome: " Heaven willed, after the earth had been for so many years without an excellent soul or a divine spirit, that Filippo should leave to the world from himself, the greatest, the most lofty, and the most beautiful construction of all those made in the time of the moderns, and even in that of the ancients."

Michaelangelo turning back to gaze upon Filippo's work, as he rode away from Florence, declared that he could not do anything more beautiful.

The beauty of the past in Florence is like the beauty of the great Duomo. Contrast Ouida's description with the isolation of Pisa's pile:

" About the Duomo there is stir and strife at all times; crowds come and go; men buy and sell ; lads laugh and fight; piles of fruit blaze gold and crimson; metal pails clash down on the stone with shrillest clangor ; on the steps, boys play at dominoes, and women give their children food, and merry-makers join in carnival fooleries; but there in the midst is the Duomo all unharmed and undegraded, a poem and a prayer in one, its marbles shining in the upper air, a thing so majestic in its strength, and yet so human in its tenderness, that nothing can assail and nothing equal it."

In the piazza: On the stone called Dante's, a plain flat stone scarce discerned From others in the pavement, where upon He used to bring his quiet chair out, turned To Brunelleschi's church, and pour alone. The lava of his spirit when it burned:it is not cold today. 0 passionate Poor Dante, who, a banished Florentine, Didst sit austere at banquets of the great and muse on this far-off stone of thine, And think how oft a passer used to wait A moment in the golden day's decline, With " good night, dearest Dante " .. .


Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, says of Brunelleschi, a good friend who always had time to bestow help:

There are many men who, though formed by nature with small persons and insignificant features, are yet endowed with so much greatness of soul and force of character, that unless they can occupy themselves with difficult nay, almost impossible undertakings, and carry these enterprises to perfection to the admiration of others, they are incapable of finding place for their lives. And, however mean or unpromising may be the occasion presented to such persons, however trifling the object to be attained, they find means to make it important, and to give it elevation.

Therefore, it is that none should look with contemptuous glance upon those who lack grace and beauty, since it is beyond doubt that beneath the clods of earth the veins of gold lie hidden.

Hawthorne says that the interior, lighted as it is almost exclusively by painted windows, seems to him worth all the variegated marbles and rich cabinet work of St. Peter's.

We recall the preaching of Savonarola in the fifteenth century. In the middle of the night crowds came to await the opening of the cathedral when they might hear the words of the great preacher who was destined afterwards to be burned alive nearby.

And some one has said that even the heavens seemed envious of the dome, for their lightnings perpetually strike it.

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