Today (25 March) marks the anniversary of the consecration of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence by Pope Eugene IV in 1436. Il Duomo, as the Basilica is better known, is as much a symbol of the Florentine Renaissance as Michelangelo’s David, but the church could never have been completed without the vision and genius of one man, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi.
Born in Florence in 1377, little is known about Brunelleschi’s early life. We do know he was the son of a lawyer and that by trade he was a goldsmith. Having failed to win a commission in his early 20s to design the gilded bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry to Lorenzo Ghiberti, Brunelleschi turned his attentions to architecture.
The movement against gothic medieval architectural styles was already well underway in Florence, with the city fathers having gone so far as to ban architects from using that signifier of the medieval building, the flying buttress, when building new churches in the city. There was a great thirst for something new. Enter Brunelleschi.
Lacking formal training in architecture, Brunelleschi was an outsider, and perhaps it was his ignorance of the architectural orthodoxies that allowed him to be such an innovative force. He was to turn to the distant past for inspiration. Between 1402 and 1404, he travelled to Rome with his friend, sculptor Donatello. Together, they studied the ruins of the once great city. They were among the first of their era to seek to learn about architecture from the physical remains of the ancient world, a practice that was to become central to all later Renaissance architects. Brunelleschi’s experiences in Rome were to have a profound effect on his work, especially on Il Duomo.
Building work on Il Duomo began in 1296 and it was meant to showcase the magnificence of Florence. Florence was to be the city of the future, and Santa Maria del Fiore would represent its breaking away from the darkness of the Middle Ages. The dome was to be the largest built since antiquity, and would come close to matching the span of the great concrete cupola of the Pantheon in Rome. The problem was that knowledge of how to build large free-standing domes had been lost, and no one could agree on how the project was to be completed. As a result, the cathedral stood unfinished for 120 years. What was once meant to display the greatness of Florence had become a major embarrassment.