Florence's Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral)

Almost six centuries after its construction, the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence still rules the city’s skyline and remains its greatest pride.

Florence's Duomo

Master-crafted without the use of flying buttresses or freestanding scaffolding, the 150-foot-wide (46-meter-wide) dome is the most relevant example of the medieval Italian style and early Renaissance architecture.

Its architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, an ordinary goldsmith with no formal architectural training, became a hero to his fellow townsmen—and to one ultramodern architect in particular. But did you know that Brunelleschi’s plan for building the dome was seen as an architectural impossibility at that time?

However, he didn’t give in! His fresh ideas helped him overcome the many challenges he faced during the construction. In fact, some of the secrets of its construction that Brunelleschi pioneered are still an enigma today.

How Brunelleschi’s Cupola in Florence’s Duomo was designed and made

Since Florentines wanted a tall, soaring dome for the cathedral, it was important to reduce the weight of the dome so lesser reinforcements were required to be lifted to a difficult height of 114 meters. Brunelleschi shaped the dome with a technically innovative double-shell design, consisting of one interior and one exterior dome with an empty space between them. This yielded a much lighter structure, making its construction far easier. What’s more; He wove even courses of herringbone brickwork into the texture of the dome, adding additional solidity to the entire structure.
Innovative use of tools for the construction process

At a time when the city was growing anxious that there wouldn’t be enough timber in Tuscany to construct the scaffolding for a dome so high, Brunelleschi’s innovative design eliminated the need for bulky scaffolding. Moreover, in order to bolster the process of lifting tons of construction material, Brunelleschi master-crafted a three-speed hoisting machine with an intricate system of gears, screws, pulleys, and driveshafts, driven by a single yoke of oxen. And that’s not all; later on, he made another far-ahead-of-time innovative lifting machines including castello, a 65-foot-tall crane with chains of counterweights and hand screws to help maneuver loads laterally once they’re raised to the right height.

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