Magnificent domes around the world.
By Rachel Siegel
The first night I arrived in Florence, my friends and I quickly dropped off our luggage at our new apartment and rushed across town to see the Duomo. We were in awe. The white marble gleamed in the fading light. I think my friend started to tear up. Crowning the cathedral was the best part, a magnificent dome that I stared at in wonder.
In each new city I’ve explored, I’m always drawn to its domes. They all share a simplicity and elegance, whatever the local architectural style. In Berlin and Vienna, the tall copper domes shine a dignified aged green. Domes adorn churches, synagogues and mosques across Eurasia. On a recent trip to Turkey, I admired the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Flat blue domes cascade from the grand center dome. It’s amazing how beloved the dome is across religions, continents, and centuries.
Since the days of Achaemenid in ancient Persia, rulers have built domes because of a deep symbolism. The circle represents the heavenly and divine. As an infinite form, with no end or beginning, it stands for the eternal. For centuries onward, people have found spirituality in geometry, with the circle considered the most perfect shape.
Great minds of history have dedicated their engineering creativity to make domes larger and grander. The dome of the Florence cathedral is the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. The merchants and bankers of Renaissance Florence wanted a dome to showcase the wealth and glory of the city. So they held a contest to find the best design for this difficult feat. The dome would have to attach to the octagonal hole built in the cathedral’s ceiling, 55 meters above the ground. If it was to be built with masonry like the famous Rome Pantheon, there might not have been enough timber in Tuscany for scaffolding and shaping. Artist Filippo Brunelleschi won the contest with a design of not only one, but two domes — one inside of the other.
While the dome we see today in Florence is a harmonious form, the lengthy building process was anything but peaceful. The patrons put Brunelleschi and his rival Lorenzo Ghiberti in charge of the project to spark a competitive spirit. They complained of the quality of each other’s work and even sabotaged each other. Ghiberti may have tipped off to the police that Brunelleschi hadn’t paid some union dues and was thus sent to jail for a short while. Brunelleschi also battled with his workers because of the perfection he demanded. He diluted the worker’s wine so they’d be more precise and safe, until they eventually fought back. But Brunelleschi’s determination paid off and he successfully built a monumental creation.
Though it’s a form with ancient roots, innovators continue to develop the dome. For most of history, the dome was viewed as the rotation of arches. In the 1950s, engineers discovered that it could be built from triangles to create the Geodesic dome. Full spheres have been built at record heights using this innovation, like the famous Epcot Center dome in Orlando, Florida.
The next time you see a dome, take a moment to think of the centuries of innovation that led to that harmonious masterpiece. And be sure to visit the newly reopened Florence cathedral museum for an in depth look at the sculptural art of the cathedral.
Rachel Siegel is a student at Studio Arts Centers International in Florence where she explores digital media arts and metalsmith jewelry. Back in the states, she studies economics and studio art at Macalester College. She’s excited to be volunteering at the Medici Dynasty Show this fall!