Brunelleschi the Builder

January 7, 2015

Massimo Ricci is an elderly Italian architect who has spent his life in Florence. Last year he did what generations of art historians, engineers, scientists and technicians failed to do: explain to the world how Filippo Brunelleschi built the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence without the aid of wood centering.

Architects and historians, who made endless drawings, models and guesses about the dome for several centuries, were puzzled by the intricate construction of the massive brick and stone vaults that Brunelleschi designed in the 1420s. Yet they failed to consider what Ricci, a relatively unschooled Florentine, saw as fundamental to the problem of understanding the building: to build as Brunelleschi did, using bricks laid in a similar way. Drawings, formulas, and mathematical theories proved to be of limited use when approaching the problem as Filippo did, with construction in mind, including the skills of his workers.

I read a brief essay a couple of years ago in my professional journal (of the Society of Architectural Historians) that outlined Ricci’s theory as if it were a slightly eccentric view of something that more intelligent people had already covered in detail. Rowland Mainstone, one of the world’s smartest engineers, had published on the dome, as did Howard Saalman and Giustina Scaglia, great art historians. Each had a complex theory that purported to solve the mystery. Scholars tend to think that when a lot of research is done, the results are generally conclusive.

This week I saw a special on PBS that was filmed during Ricci’s extensive examination of the Duomo over the past decade or so. In a narrative familiar to NOVA viewers, the mystery of the dome’s design and construction was presented as a scientific puzzle, with some necessary leaps and generalizations. However, it was absolutely clear that Ricci, with the aid of humble brick masons, had figured things out with exemplary logic and empirical investigation. Only by constructing at least two brick domes, and discovering another near the cathedral in an excavation, could he be sure he was correct. It turns out that the great Filippo, like his 21st century compatriot, had to build a sample of what he proposed before spending money and manpower on such a grand project.

Architecture is ultimately possible only when designers and builders share their knowledge, just as the Florentines did almost seven centuries ago. Without builders and craftsman, no architect proves his worth. Even geniuses need collaborators in this complex and fascinating art.

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