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Treasure, Prison, Strikes, Turnips and Hard-boiled Eggs

The story of a Cathedral Dome and an Architect by Kevin Korpela (© 2003 observatorydrive.com)

Filippo Brunelleschi lived in Florence, Italy from 1377 to 1446 and was an architect and master builder in the city of Florence. He was an innovator and savored the freedom to do what he wanted. This lead him to Rome to study the ancient ruins where he rediscovered the Roman masters of 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. and he studied the techniques used by the Gothic builders of 1000 to 1200 A.D. He used both techniques in new ways in his own work, such as the design for the dome or cupola for the new Florence cathedral of Santa Marie del Fiore. The new cupola for the cathedral is a project where five different things overlapped: memories of treasure hunting in Rome, striking workers, jail time, turnips to explain architectural intent, and a competition concerning hard-boiled eggs. These things worked their way through his project for the cupola, yet the cupola was completed with high praise and admiration. High praise as suggested by one Florentine traveling abroad and lonely for his home, he said, “I am sick for the sight of the dome” (Rockwell, 79.)

The Early Years. Filippo was a sculptor before he was an architect and when he was in his twenties he was selected to compete in a competition. A church in Florence sought the best sculptors in the city to craft a pair of doors for the Baptistry. Their search concluded with two artisans, Filippo and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Each was asked to develop a model showing their ideas. The judges were astounded at the wonderful themes and high-quality craft of both proposals. The judges, however, couldn’t choose either as the best solution and asked that the two artist share the commission. Filippo and his independent mind did not like this idea and wanted the freedom to work alone. He would not participate in the project if he was to share the commission. The judges and the church suggested they wouldn’t permit a solo performance and said that they may issue the commission to Lorenzo alone. He would not back away from his desires and the commission was awarded to Lorenzo (Manetti, 48.)

Dismayed at the loss of the commission and the attitude of the judges, He moved to Rome and spent several years investigating the sculpture and architecture of ancient Rome. And he befriended the sculptor Donatello and they sketched, studied, and measured the details of the ancient Roman buildings and stylistic orders used by the Romans, these included the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. In years to come, Filippo would frequently adapt these orders into his own work (Manetti, 54.)

Treasure Hunting. While in Rome, Filippo and Donatello were called treasure hunters. The two would often hire locals to help excavate the ancient ruins. They excavated the ruins to better understand how each part of a Roman building was connected to other parts. The myth of their treasure hunting began during one of their excavations when gold coins and other trinkets were found. Stories spread among the hired laborers and nearby residents that they were hunting for ancient Roman treasures. The treasure that he actually discovered was the breath of knowledge and technique that the Romans used to build large structures with huge enclosed domed or arched spaces, such as the Pantheon or the Caracalla Baths. Construction techniques which he would later reconfigure into his own work (Manetti, 54.)

Return to Florence. After several years, Filippo returns to Florence where many people were excited to see his drawings of the ancient Roman buildings (Rockwell, 38.) People began to ask him to design and construct many buildings around Florence. In 1409, the Cathedral Works, the group responsible for the construction of the new Florence cathedral, asks his opinion on the future of the cathedral and in particular about what should be done with the cupola. The cathedral had been under construction since 1296 when the cornerstone was first laid (Rockwell, 2.) The majority of the walls had been constructed by the time he was born. Without telling anyone he had been thinking about the design and construction of the cupola since his adolescence and his thinking was enhanced with his study of the Roman work. The main problem was the cupola’s great size, a span of 140 feet located 170 feet above the ground (Rockwell, 52.) When the Cathedral Works asked Filippo his opinion of the not yet constructed dome, he offered a variety of ideas. The Cathedral appreciated his consul and there’s evidence that he was paid for his services (Prager, 21.) His ideas, however, were not implemented.

European Competition. Then in 1418 the Cathedral Works announced that they were solicting plans and models for more new ideas for the cupola. Again at the top of the list of artisans were Filippo and his past rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti. Filippo began work on a model for his submission to the Cathedral Works. However, a short time later, the Cathedral Works reconsidered the importance of the cupola to the church and deemed that ideas from architects across Europe would result in the best design. The Cathedral Works issued a second anouncement inviting architects in all of Europe to submit models for the cupola. Upon this announcement, he returns to Rome to study further the ancient Romans. He investigated and sketched the ruins, and waited patiently for a messenger to bring news that the Cathedral Works was interested in his submission. Eventually, the messenger arrives, he returns to Florence, and continues feverishly to complete his model (Rockwell, 42-46.)

Presentation day finally arrived and each architect presented their models to the judges and in front of other competitors. Filippo was the last to present but submitted no model. He was suspicious that the others would steal his ideas, so he only described his intent. The judges listened but could not believe Filippo’s ascertion that he could provide a cupola using inventive techniques with no armature during the construction to support the great dome, construct the dome at an economical cost, and that it would be as beautiful as described. The judges wanted to see the model but he refused. Although his description seemed convincing, the judges didn’t know want to do. After much deliberation, the judges decided to hold a second competition (Rockwell, 54.) Hard-boiled Egg. The judges asked each architect to develop a method to make a hard-boiled egg stand on end. The architect that succeeds at this task would be awarded the commission for the new cupola. The architects proceeded to present complicated contraptions, devices, and frameworks to support the egg on end, but each egg rolled from side to side or sometimes rolled off the table onto the floor. Filippo arrived with only the egg and no contrivences. He tapped the egg firmly on the table top and set the egg on the table, the egg was freestanding without support. Surprized, the other competitors said that any one of them could have also tapped the egg. But he replied that any one of you could have also built the cupola, as well, if you had seen my model. The judges were further intrigued and he let the judges see his model for the new cupola, the judges were impressed and awarded the commission to Filippo (Rockwell, 56.)

Jail Time. During the construction of the cupola, Filippo’s independence brought him time in jail. He was arrested during the cupola construction and spent time in prison because he did not pay the annual dues to the Guild of the Stonemasons and Woodworkers, the guild involved in the construction. The Guild felt dishonored, disgraced, and asked the police to imprison him for his mockery. He paid dues to another guild and didn’t see the benefit in belonging to a second guild. The Cathedral Works agreed with Filippo, supported his decision, and requested that the police magistrate also arrest and detain the Consul representing the Guild of the Stonemasons and Woodworkers with the instruction that the Consul not be released until the Guild rescinds the order and Filippo was set free. After eleven days Filippo was released and shortly thereafter the Consul was also let go. Then, he continued his supervision of the cupola construction (Hyman, 34.)

Labor Strikes. But the problem with the Guild of the Stonemasons and Woodworkers continued. The Guild went on strike. They were upset at the complexity and apparent danger of the project. Due to the eight sides of the cupola the Guild thought it best to allocate each side to a single master bricklayer, but because this method was unprecedented there was much complaining and discussion with Filippo. The masons unionized and went on strike for higher pay, while he challenged the Guild and suggested that they joined together only to harm the project. He surmised that the Guild thought that without the Guild the cupola could not be built. But Filippo did not agree and sought the assistance of eight masons from the neighboring region of Lombardy. Eventually, the Guild acquiesced, recognized their error and returned to work. The work moved forward by means of his creative thinking and dedication (Manetti, 90.)

Turnips. Despite the strike and the eventual return to work, the difficulty in the cupola construction was still evident. However, a turnip, not usually thought of as a building material, helped Filippo and the masons understand the solutions to the difficult project. The cupola was a double-shell dome with eight curved panels connected by stone ribs allowing the panels to be constructed without support from below (Kostof, 384.) An unusual construction method for the time. A cupola constructed of stone and brick has a significant weight and this weight is distributed to the stone walls. But the weight creates a thrust that wants to push outward against the walls and topple over the walls. These forces need to be controlled. The Romans controlled the outward pushing forces by placing a tension ring around the base of their cupolas to restrict the outward movement. The Gothic builders controlled the outward pushing forces by construction stone buttresses that delivered the forces through stone ribs in the roofs and out to buttresses, often called flying buttresses, and transferring the outward thrust down to the ground. For his cupola, he combined the Roman and the Gothic methods to create a series of ribbed vaults with stone and wood rings embedded in the base of the cupola to restrict the outward thrust and transfer the loads to the thick masonry walls and then down to the ground. Stone rings were made from stones interconnected by metal clamps (Prager, 57) while the wood rings were one foot square timbers twenty feet long linked together by iron bolts (Prager, 55.) Filippo used small models, models scaled to a fraction of the actual size, to explain these ideas to the masons. These models were made from soft clay, wax, wood, and of course, turnips. Turnips were available in the winter markets in Florence and the consistency and texture of the turnips provided a ready material for sculpting scaled models of the stone and wood details (Manetti, 92.)

Great beauty, strength, and satisfaction. Filippo’s use of models rather than drawings to plan his buildings suggests his emphasis on the whole organization rather than the individual members of a building (Hyman, 152.) He conceived of buildings as mass to be molded and hallowed out while maintaining simple plain surfaces and restrained sculpted ornamentation (Hyman, 128.) Filippo also thought freely by combining and transforming methods from several sources into a new style (Hyman, 122.) While his need for independence lead him to accept an incredible mass of work, all directed by him without helpers. He was reborn everyday working with his own hands continually deepening and broadening his vision (Human, 153.) The cathedral and its cupola were finally consecrated by Pope Eugene IV on March 25, 1436, and it was a design with great beauty, strength, and satisfaction to everyone (Rockwell, 72.) The people of Florence believed that only one person in the world could have accomplished it and that was the one who had done it, by which was meant that it truly was the work of God (Manetti, 94.)

Filippo Brunelleschi was an inventive architect in Florence, Italy, during the fifteenth century. He enjoyed the freedom to do what he wanted and combined ideas from many sources in new ways in his own work, such as the design for the cupola for the cathedral of Santa Marie del Fiore. This new cupola was a project where five different things overlapped: memories of treasure hunting in Rome, striking workers, jail time, turnips to explain architectural intent, and a competition concerning hard-boiled eggs.


Hyman, Isabelle, ed. Brunelleschi in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.

Kostof, Spiro. The History of Architecture - Settings and Rituals. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Manetti, Antonio di Tuccio. The Life of Brunelleschi. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970.

Prager, Frank D. and Gustina Scaglia. Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1970.

Rockwell, Anne. Filippo’s Dome. New York, NY: Antheneum, 1967.

© Kevin Korpela, www.observatorydrive.com™