My wonderful wife, Steph, and I went to Florence this year; above is my picture of the Duomo showing Brunelleschi's dome. Now that I have read the book I want to go back to see it again; now I understand what is so incredible about the construction. Mind you, now that I understand more about the unorthodox details of the construction and I know how heavy just the lantern on top of the dome is, I am not sure I want to clamber up into the roof space and stare out from the lantern at the rooftops of Florence. Scary!
There is a lot in the book that I didn't properly understand. There were a lot of technical challenges to overcome. Just hoisting massive blocks of stone to the required height was difficult with the technology of the day (the main system was powered by an ox trudging round and round and there was a complicated system of gears including a type of clutch so that stuff could also be lowered while the ox trudged in the same direction). It was difficult to understand how the mason's could reach the overhanging bricks they were building. The problem with a dome or an arch is that it isn't really stable until the keystone is put in at the end; this is why arches are usually built on top of a wooden construction which is then taken away when the arch is finished. Brunelleschi didn't do this (it would have taken too long to source all that wood). How did they build it without it falling down? The other problem is that a dome converts the downward weight of the roof into an outwards thrust which is usually countered using buttresses. Brunelleschi used no buttresses. Instead he used circular rings of stone like coopers use iron staves around barrels. I still didn't really understand.
Not only does the book fascinate with the details of the unprecedented construction but it also has brilliant vignettes of Florentine life. There is a wonderful story about Brunelleschi playing a practical joke on a carpenter to convince him that he had swapped identity for 24 hours with someone else. The bemused carpenter ended up leaving Florence and making his fortune in Hungary. Time and again, King provided wonderful details and I wanted to know how he could find out so much about a time so long ago.
In every way this book was brilliant. This year I have also read Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper which was also excellent. These two books are both among my top five non-fiction for 2014 and I shall definitely seek out more by this brilliant author.
December 2014; 167 pages
I have now also read the wonderful and brilliant The Judgement of Paris: as the Second Empire dies in the chaos of the Franco-Prussian war, the Siege of Paris and the Commune of Paris, Impressionism is born: Meissonier, Manet, Monet and many more.