National Geographic : 2014 Feb
94 national geographic • february 2014 the task to his rival. Ghiberti had installed only some of the beams when Brunelleschi, miracu- lously on the mend, returned to the work site and pronounced Ghiberti’s work so incompetent that it would have to be torn out and replaced. Brunelleschi directed these repairs himself, com- plaining all the while to the overseers that his co-superintendent was earning a salary he didn’t deserve. Though this account may be tinged by hero worship, archival records at year’s end do name Brunelleschi the sole “inventor and direc- tor of the cupola,” and later his salary rose to a hundred florins a year, while Ghiberti continued at 36 florins. Ghiberti didn’t give in. Around 1426 his as- sistant, the architect Giovanni da Prato, sent the overseers a large piece of vellum, still preserved in the National Archives of Florence, on which he’d penned a detailed criticism of Brunelleschi’s work, complete with illustrations. He claimed that Brunelleschi, through “ignorance and pre- sumption,” had deviated from the original plans for the cupola, which was therefore “spoiled and put in danger of ruin.” Giovanni also composed a violent personal attack on Brunelleschi in sonnet form. The poem calls Brunelleschi a “dark, deep wellspring of ig- norance” and a “miserable and imbecile beast” whose plans were doomed to failure. If they ever succeeded, Giovanni rather rashly promised, he would kill himself. Brunelleschi replied with a barbed sonnet of his own, warning Giovanni to destroy his poems, “lest they sound ridiculous when all the dancing starts, in celebration of that which he now thinks impossible.” Brunelleschi and his workmen eventually did their victory dance, though only after several more years of doubt and struggle. In 1429 cracks appeared in the east end of the cathedral nave beside the dome, forcing Brunelleschi to shore up the walls with iron tie bars. In 1434, perhaps at Ghiberti’s instigation, Brunelleschi was jailed on a technicality regarding unpaid union dues. But soon after, he was released, and the cupola continued skyward at the average rate of about one foot per month. On March 25, 1436, the Feast of the Annunciation, Pope Eugenius IV and an assembly of cardinals and bishops consecrated the finished cathedral, to the tolling of bells and cheering of proud Florentines. A decade later another illustrious group laid the cornerstone of the lantern, the decorative marble structure that Brunelleschi designed to crown his masterpiece. Soon after, on April 15, 1446, Brunelleschi died, apparently from a sudden illness. At his funeral he lay dressed in white linen on a bier ringed by candles, staring sightlessly into the dome he had built brick by brick, as the candle smoke and the notes of the funeral dirge spiraled into the void. He was buried in the crypt of the cathedral; a memorial plaque nearby celebrated his “divine intellect.” These were high honors. Before Brunelleschi’s time, very few people, among them a saint, were allowed burial in the crypt, and architects were mostly considered humble craftsmen. With genius, leadership, and grit, Filippo Brunelleschi raised true artists to the rank of sublime creators, worthy of eternal praise in the company of the saints, an image that would dominate the Renaissance. In fact, he paved the way for the cultural and social revolutions of the Renaissance itself, through his complex synthesis of inspiration and analysis, his bold reworking of the clas- sical past to the needs and aspirations of the present. Once complete, Santa Maria del Fiore was decorated by artists like Donatello, Paolo Uccello, and Luca Della Robbia, making it both the birthplace and the proving ground of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi’s dome still rises from the terra-cotta sea of Florence’s roof tiles, itself terra-cotta clad yet harmoniously proportioned, like a Greek goddess in homespun. It is moun- tainous yet strangely buoyant, as if the white marble ridges rising to its apex are ropes hold- ing a zeppelin to Earth. Somehow Brunelleschi captured freedom in stone, exalting the Floren- tine skyline ever after with an upward-yearning embodiment of the human spirit. j The original gilded copper orb on the dome was designed, cast, and set in place between 1466 and 1471. Lightning destroyed it around 1600. Today’s orb is protected by a modern system of lightning rods. how did he do it? A grand engineering experiment led by scholar Massimo ricci reveals how Brunel leschi built his dome, on Great Cathedral Mystery, february 12 on nOVA/PBs.