In this issue:
Julia Sneden reveals two good reads: Ross King, author of Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, has again come up with a well-researched, fascinating story set in Renaissance Italy, Brunelleschi’s Dome. Mourning Ruby is Helen Dunmore’s tenth novel, but the first one that this reviewer has read. You may be sure I am going straight to the library to find the others.
The Art Institute of Chicago, in the first large retrospective since the early 1990s, reintroduces a popular artist and his world: Toulouse Lautrec and Montmartre
How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
By Ross King, ©2000, Penguin Books Paperback
Ross King, author of Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, has again come up with a well-researched, fascinating story set in Renaissance Italy. Anyone who has been to Florence (or for that matter seen pictures of Florence) will be familiar with the remarkable dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral that is central to the city. This book details the politics and determinations of its origin, design, and construction.
Filippo Brunelleschi was the son of a notary, which in the late 14 th and early 15 th century was a position of great importance in Florence. Filippo, however, showed no inclination to follow in his father’s footsteps, and at a young age was apprenticed to a goldsmith. He was successful in this trade early-on, but it was his love of machines and clock-making that made him stand out from the crowd. According to King, he was one of those divergent thinkers whose brilliance was accompanied by impatience and a fiery temperament that often caused him trouble.
He narrowly missed winning a competition for design of the doors of the Baptistry of San Giovanni, losing to the man who was to become his lifelong rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti. A few years later, when competition for design of the dome was announced, Brunelleschi again entered, and this time he won. His design was, however, highly controversial in that he claimed the dome could be built without using temporary, inside supports.
After many delays, he was finally allowed to begin building at least as far as the “drum” (the straight, vertical collar all domes are built on), with the caveat that the commission in charge of construction would then review the construction. Apparently, Brunelleschi, who so feared that others would steal his ideas that he was extremely secretive, managed to convince the commission – without showing them plans - that he could complete the dome without the internal supports. They agreed to let the project proceed, but would review the work at two more stages, to be sure there would be no disastrous collapse.
The book is full of drawings, sketches, and technical details, but it is above all a human story with parallels to modern times that remind the reader that human nature really hasn’t changed much. King brings his characters to a lively presence, and offers us believable scenarios for their motives and actions.
Brunelleschi’s many clever machines – hoists, levels, etc. – were as innovative as his carefully-figured design. His dome stands today, despite earthquakes, strong winds, and the ravages of time, a testament to genius, perseverance, and hard work.