Secret of Cupola of Florence Uncovered

Santa María del Fiore Cupola, 15th Century
The dome of the Santa María del Fiore cathedral in Florence, a work of Brunelleschi from the 15th century.

Secret of Cupola of Florence Uncovered
Italian architect Massimo Ricci discovers the technique used by Filippo Brunelleschi.
El País: Desvelado el secreto de la cúpula de Florencia
Lucia Magi reporting from Bologna November 10, 2011

It took almost forty years for Italian architect Massimo Ricci to discover what has been a mystery to his colleagues for six centuries: the technique Filippo Brunelleschi used to construct the cupola of Santa María del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), the Cathedral of Florence. The Renaissance genius not only took care to raise a robust and spectacular monument, a symbol of renewed humanist confidence after the medieval terrors; he also successfully hid the secret of how the structure is supported. “Playing tricks, throwing others off the scent, and confounding ideas were typical features of Brunelleschi’s personality,” Ricci commented last night while presenting his discovery to citizens assembled in the Palazzo Vecchio – Florence’s town hall – and to those following online on the National Geographic Society‘s website.

“Brunelleschi thought it was funny that no one could crack his secret.” ‘Twas a secret well guarded, under a skin of red bricks and ribs of ivory. From the beginning of Brunelleschi’s work in 1425, he guarded the mystery with a trick: the workers placed the visible bricks in a different way than the bricks in the internal dome which actually supports the weight of the structure to trick those who thought they could master the architectural technique by only viewing the outside. The internal bricks “are laid diagonally, like the spine of a fish,” explained Ricci, “without using any metal, contrary to proposals of previous scholars. It was achieved thanks to a system of ropes which allowed him to calculate the exact position and angle in which to place each brick.” In order to further confuse potential imitators, Brunelleschi ordered “that the bricks on the outside be marked with grooves to make people believe they were placed lengthwise rather than sideways. It’s a unique system never repeated in all of history.”

Ricci and his team successfully unraveled the mystery thanks to very refined technological advances and a crack that opened in the vault. Into this fissure they inserted a probe which opened and walked between one brick and another while recording what it saw. Ricci directed the minuscule camera and, as if he were a doctor performing an endoscopy on a patient, drew an outline of the core of the monument. He saw what no one ever had the chance to admire before.

In the lounge of the Florence City Hall, there were also models of the three cranes used to raise the cupola and the boat Brunelleschi invented to bring materials from the sea to the city over the Arno river. “This craft is another example of his genius,” Ricci said in closing. “It’s the first example in history of a boat with a propeller, like the airplanes of today. And it’s also the first case of a creator receiving intellectual property rights: Brunelleschi constructed this boat for himself alone and paid for it out of his own pocket. He received permission from the Palazzo Vecchio to rent it out and demanded that any imitation of it be burned.” Quite a character, that Brunelleschi.

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