By Vicki Shelter, Lower School Teacher
Magnifico is the only word to describe the Duomo. The Duomo caps the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore which is the main church in Florence, Italy. Its construction was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style following the architectural plans of Arnolfo di Cambio and was completed in 1436 with the dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi.The Duomo is a part of the “Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore”, otherwise known as The Opera. The Opera is an institution that was founded in 1296 to oversee the construction of the new cathedral and Giotto’s Campanile. The three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Site.
The Opera was run by the different guilds of the city and city leaders. It was formed as a way for the different builders, artists and designers to listen to each other and exchange ideas. Today the Opera is the museum that houses and oversees the care of all the art and the buildings. Everything about it oozes the spectacular, but I particularly love the story behind it. It is a tale of ancient technology and community cooperation.
I was very fortunate, thanks to Teacher Hilary, to be connected with Margaret (Peggy) Haines. Peggy is the Senior Research Associate and art historian at The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. She is currently directing and curating the online edition of the Archive of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. She is a visionary woman who conceived the idea of digitizing the historical archive. I was quite taken by her beauty, intelligence and warmth. She is so knowledgeable and loves Filippo Brunelleschi as much as I do. She is glad that kids are learning about the Renaissance, the people from the era, and its wonders.
I walked around the entire Duomo listening to her lecture about how it was constructed. The things that she emphasized were that there was a huge amount of collaboration that went into the building and designing of the Duomo, as well as the fact that the planners made sure that they left enough space around the Duomo so it could be appreciated and visited. She talked about how the city, which at the time was the largest city in Europe, was run by groups of wealthy and intellectual talent. They sponsored contests so ideas could be shared and prizes awarded. If you won a contract, everything you created was public with the agreed upon acceptance that you would listen to each other’s ideas. She talked about how easy it was to build the Campanile, because it just went straight up, whereas the Duomo has many different shapes which made it immensely difficult to conceptualize and build. Filippo Brunelleschi was the genius who won the contest to design and build the Duomo.
Brunelleschi was a man of many talents. His idea for the design of the Duomo was controversial, but geometrically correct. His ability to perceive and understand visual perspective was way ahead of its time and it was helpful when he described his design to the judges of the contest. Once he won the contest, he had to figure out how to build the Duomo. Brunelleschi had the brilliant idea of creating a crane. He invented a couple of them, but one that was really important in hoisting up the stones had gears and was powered by oxen. It had three forward gears and one reverse gear. The reverse gear was genius because it allowed the oxen to keep moving forward without having to have them turned around. Brunelleschi kept having to prove himself to the guild, but he consistently had their trust because he could explain his plans well. Peggy described him as “cagey”, meaning that he wanted to keep his brilliant ideas to himself for fear that other people might steal them (a common occurrence in those days), but he was able to explain enough of his design to accumulate trust. He was also one of the first people to attempt to patent one of his inventions. Brunelleschi was great friends with Donatello, another genius of the Renaissance, and Donatello helped him create his model which he presented to the guild. I was impressed with the brilliance of all the collaborations that occurred during the building. Like our American Constitution, it was all about checks and balances.
The Duomo was built in stages. They would leave the inner sanctuary intact while they worked on the newer outer shell. The town would pay different well-regarded priests to come and preach and when that happened all construction would stop so that the people of Florence could come and hear the sermons. From the outside, you can see how the Cathedral was built in three different steps, with the crowning achievement being the Duomo. It is simply amazing. It took sixteen years to complete and only one worker died.
Every day during my stay in Florence, I had a spectacular view of the Duomo as I walked into Florence. I walked by it every day filled with awe. I am impressed that some third graders always have the intrinsic sense to recognize the beauty and intelligence of Filippo Brunelleschi and want to learn more about him. I feel thankful to be in the presence of such amazing historical significance. When near the Duomo I feel dwarfed by such brilliance and ability.