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Fillippo Brunelleschi: Engineer and Architect

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    Florence began its rise to pre-eminence in the thirteenth century. Its banks provided the credit and financial infrastructure for the emerging mercantile system and the Florentine currency; the florin became the international currency of commerce. Giotto began the artistic experimentation that was to make him the first of many Florentine artists to achieve international fame. Also, Dante's Inferno, a classic account of man's search for redemption, was first published during this period.

    This commercial influence and affluence, coupled with artistic and intellectual development culminated in the Renaissance. Florence was to become one of the leading centres of the Renaissance, and it was during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that Florence exercised its greatest cultural, political and economic influence. Presently, it retains a degree of prominence within Italy and globally it remains a centre of couture. However, its importance today is far less than it was five hundred years ago.

    Fillippo Brunelleschi was born in Florence in 1377 as the city was gaining ascendancy. As a youth he trained as a goldsmith, silversmith and bronze caster (an essential step in sculpture). Importantly, for the future, he was also trained as a clockmaker. Understandably, considering his initial training, he entered the competition to design the bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery in 1401 (the same year he was admitted to the Guild of Goldsmiths). He finished second and although the work was commissioned from Lorenzo Ghiberti the panels Brunelleschi created for the competition can still be seen in the Bargello Museum.

    Subsequently, Brunelleschi spent three years in Rome studying sculpture and architecture. When he returned to Florence in 1404 he was elected as a Master of the Guild of Goldsmiths. His continuing interest in mathematics increasingly moved him towards architecture and engineering. In 1404 he was an adviser, in modern parlance a consulting structural engineer, during construction of the Santa Maria Novella. As Ross King notes this was his first introduction to the construction problems surrounding a dome.

    Construction of a dome, particularly in the technological context of the fourteenth century involved two separate, but intimately related, sets of problems. The proposed design had to be structurally sound. That is to say, the loads represented by the dome had to be successfully transferred to the ground. Generally this was accomplished by arraying arches beneath each side of the dome’s base that transferred the loads to columns in the corners. The prevailing architectural style, Gothic, was characterized by repeated use of this construction method. This problem increased exponentially as the size of the dome increased.

    The second set of problems related to construction. A means had to be available to construct any proposed dome. Typically this involved earth ramps against the walls of the building and/or wooden scaffolding erected on the exterior of the dome. Inevitably there was endless hauling and winching with teams of oxen and manpower.

    At the heart of Florence, in the first decades of the fifteenth century there stood a building, a cathedral, with, remarkably, no roof. Construction had commenced in 1296, over a century earlier. It had halted in the 1360s. The central area was 45.5 meters in diameter and plans called for a dome to be constructed above it with no centering or vertical supports within the perimeter. It was a technical impossibility at the time. Fifty years later it still stretched the limits of technology and engineering. However, its completion had become a focal point of Florentine pride, a fifteenth century equivalent of the American effort to take a man to the moon during the 1960s.

    In 1418, on the basis of a juried competition, Brunelleschi was selected to construct the dome and complete Santa Maria del Fiore. He refused to reveal his planned methods claiming that rivals, notably his nemesis Ghiberti, would simply steal them. Consequently, although Brunelleschi won the commission Ghiberti, as overseer and a host of other Florentine architects and engineers were also involved in the project. Consequently, Brunelleschi withdrew from the project and refused to contribute until in 1420, when Ghiberti and the others conceded that they were unable to proceed. At that point Brunelleschi returned to the project, completing it in 1434.

    The resultant design featured a dual dome. The interior dome was the structural section while the expanded exterior dome was purely aesthetic, between the two walkways permitted construction of the later and maintenance of both. As Brunelleschi had predicted no external scaffolding was required. Alternately, the scaffolding was only constructed from within the cathedral. It was actually a temporary frame for the structural members that also provided access for the labourers. Thus, the dome did not need to be structurally sound during construction as it was resting on a frame. It only needed to be structurally sound once it was completed and the frame was removed.

    Architecturally, the result was astonishing, Its size, particularly the inflated exterior dome was monumental while visitors to this day get vertigo as they stare at the apex of the dome from the floor of the cathedral. Aesthetically, the focus on facades and blocks exhibited the Roman influence on Brunelleschi and his willingness to move away from the predominate Gothic style.

    In engineering terms it was an unparalleled achievement and Brunelleschi had proven to be the only individual capable of completing it. Its size speaks for itself. However, Brunelleschi’s true genius as an engineer is revealed in the details. The dome was constructed with iron rings embedded in the structural members so temporary scaffolding could be installed to paint the frescoes. The exterior dome contained vents to reduce stresses from wind. To demonstrate his desired technique to masons Brunelleschi would carve turnips into the required interlocking shapes. He designed a winch that permitted one ox to do work that had previously required the work of a dozen (a practical application of his watch making skills on a grand scale). In construction of the "Cupolone" Brunelleschi was architect and engineer, innovator and artisan. This combination captures the essence of the merging Renaissance. Buy quality dissertations from Ph.D. writers

    Brunelleschi’s career and his local fame were also indicative of the new social role of the engineer and artist in Florence. According to Paolo Galluzzi the artist-engineer became "a socially prominent and respected figure, commissioned by powerful and wealthy patrons, well paid, and often regarded as one of the brightest ornaments in sovereign courts" in the first half of the fifteenth century. Brunelleschi was one of the first of a long line of Florentine Renaissance artist-engineers whose skills earned them also fame and fortune.

    Italian architect Renzo Piano, winner of the 1998 Pritzker Architecture Prize captures the multi-faceted essence of Brunelleschi:

    Brunelleschi? Yes, he is a mythical figure for me. Because he was also an inventor. Moreover, he created machines and was a mechanic. He was all of these things. But at the same time he also was a sculptor. You know much of the machinery used to raise the beams of the cupola of the Duomo in Florence came from clock mechanisms. When Brunelleschi was young, he was a very good clock maker.


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