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on July 2, 2004
I looked for this book after reading and enjoying Ross King's book on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling. Now, I just wish I had read this before visiting the Duomo in Florence some years ago. This is an excellent description of the raising of the dome over the cathedral in Florence at the beginning of the fifteenth century led by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi.
There are three things that I particularly like about this book: first, it is an excellent description of the tremendous work invested by literally entire communities to raise a structure like a mediaeval cathedral. Yes, Brunelleschi was the genius behind the dome but it took thousands of workers decades to make his vision a reality. Thinking of the skyscrapers we raise today with the help of modern machines, raising these churches was an incredible achievement.
Second, this book shows how scientific and engineering discoveries are often lost and rediscovered. The Roman methods of building aqueducts, arches and domes (like the Pantheon in Rome) had long been lost and many of their methods are still only vaguely understood. Still, Brunelleschi was able to study these structures (much as his work is studied now), rediscover old methods and invent even better ones to produce his work. This is something seen over and over again in the sciences: a discovery is made and, because it is not understood at the time or the explanation is lost somehow, it is forgotten, only to be rediscovered later.
Third, this book shows how difficult it is to understand some of the amazing achievements of antiquity. Even today, though the dome stands as a monument to his genius, we don't fully understand how Brunelleschi was able to make it work. Engineers and architects still make pilgrimages to Florence in an attempt to understand how this dome was built and remains standing after nearly six centuries. Still, a full understanding eludes us. Part of this is due to Brunelleschi own penchant for secrecy but that doesn't stop it from boggling the mind--how modern technology cannot unravel the mystery of this structure.
Having climbed up into the dome myself, I felt very close to what King described in this book and would recommend it as a must read to anyone who has visited Florence or is thinking of doing so. Even without a visit, however, this slim volume is worth reading for anyone with an interest in science or architecture.
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on December 13, 2000
You'd think it was scarcely possible to write yet another book on Renaissance Florence, and yet produce something fresh, original and illuminating. But Ross King has done exactly this - and what's more he's chosen as his subject one of the most familiar, most studied - and most visited - buildings in Europe, Florence cathedral. Every guidebook says that Brunelleschi designed the dome, or cupola, of the cathedral, and that it's the biggest masonry dome ever built. But to learn how it was built, you normally have to turn to some pretty specialised works of art history. Ross King has drawn on these. But he goes much further, and brings the Florence of the first half of the fifteenth century, and especially the people engaged in building the great cathedral, tremendously to life. Brunelleschi himself is portrayed as an argumentative and moody man, with no doubts of his own importance. But he also emerges as one of the most imaginative and daring architects and engineers of any era. His dome is shown to be not just an artistic triumph, and one of the defining structures of Western architecture, but also a technical masterpiece, studied by architects to this day. In many ways this book reminds one of Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter". The style is very different, and Ross King writes of Florence two hundred years before Galileo, but in taking such an original and captivating look at an apparently familiar subject, "Brunelleschi's Dome" stands comparison. Certainly if you enjoyed one, you'll like the other.
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on December 19, 2002
It took me several months to really get into this book. Usually I know right away whether a book will grip my imagination and draw me in. "Brunelleschi's Dome" did, however, turn out to be one of the true literary surprises of the year for me. I wrote a term paper about Brunelleschi and the Florence Cathedral waaay back in high school for a technical drafting class. It was that experience, many years ago, that led me to buy the book. Now an architect in private practice, I have the technical and artistic background to appreciate what then was bewildering and rather foreign to me. This book very slowly grew on me, until one evening I couldn't put it down. Once the initial history, setup and definitions were safely read and out of the way, this book really got interesting in a hurry. The portrayal of the unintentional designer who, 500 years later, has come to be one of the recognized geniuses of the Renaissance and a founding father of Western architectural thought is fascinating, surprising and at times downright strange. Brunelleschi's time half a millenium ago is brought to life vividly. The technical descriptions of what are still today considered amazing breakthroughs are well written, informative and enlightening without being unwieldy, self indulgent or too long. This alone is a skill many architectural writers are abysmally deficient in, preferring to fill pages with their own blather and pseudo-language ostensibly designed to make the "rest of us" hold them in awe. Ross King's departure from the language of architecture's current flirtation with trendy academia is refreshing, readable and understandable by those not in the professions of architecture, engineering or building. It is revealing that my 14 year old cousin, a young man with sharp interests in astronomy and rock music, enjoyed this book immensely.
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on April 14, 2002
A possible reason why reviews of this book are so divergent is that BRUNELLESCHI'S DOME is so much more than an architectural triumph that for some it seems unlikely that such a slim book by a journalist could do it full justice. Ross King however fully recognizes the significance of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral and the mastery of it's creator Filippo Brunelleschi. He pays tribute to how both the man and his creation were symbolic of the great creative genius that we have come to see as typifying the golden age of the Renaissance. King also clearly shows how such individuals and their work were a boon to the continuing growth and influence of the Renaissance as a whole. Not only is the dome a wonderful architectural triumph - at 143 feet in diameter it is still the largest dome in existence - the very act of creating it spurred other developments. Construction techniques, machines and tools, methods of organizing work, architectural design and drafting; all had to be modified, improved, and in some cases newly invented to accomplish the goal.
Any reading you do on the Renaissance will be sure to mention southern Italy and the pioneering role Florence had in the movement. With Florence you're dealing with the finest sculpture, painting, and architecture, and with Brunelleschi's dome you've got distilled into one creation all that the Renaissance stood for.
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on June 24, 2003
I read the book as part of an online book discussion group. For this purpose it is excellent. for it doesn't require a degree in engineering or architecture to understand, is a short and straightforward narrative where the author avoids the problems associated with trying to tell to large a tale in too small a space.
It is a quick biography of the man responsible for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. There were several fact filled sentences i read to my wife but other than these few it was a quick breeze, painless read to acquire a simple knowledge of the times and tribulations involved in building what is still the large masonary dome in the world(according to the book).
I would have appreciated more diagrams of the dome as the text describes it. More sketches of the equipment and physical maps as the character travels. The word pictures at these points are not sufficent to fully disclose to the Italian-free unknowledgable among the readers what he is talking about.
A mildly interesting book although if i didn't already have an interest in architecture i don't believe it would have particularly stimulated one.
So overall a C+ book, but a rather good choice for a book group for dynamics of the group, not for the material.
thanks for reading this review
richard williams
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on December 15, 2001
Not many can lay claim to creating a result that is not only a first, proves that which was thought to be impossible was not, and to have their accomplishment remain as awe inspiring today as it was centuries ago. I read the soft cover version of this book so I don't know whether the hardcover offers the same photograph. The inside of the back cover shows the dome as it looks today, even after I had read the book and all the dimensions of the dome it described, the photograph still took me by surprise. The sheer scale of what was built is as breathtaking, as it is beautiful and audacious.
The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in many ways remains unmatched in the engineering feats that were accomplished with its construction. Modern technology and materials have created domes for sports parks that dwarf the span of the dome in this book, but none match it in beauty and none will stand for the almost 600 years this dome has stood.
This is a fascinating story that does not require that the reader be an engineer. There are illustrations that show some of the methods used, and while the book would benefit from having many more, the layperson can grasp the immensity of the undertaking. Vastly oversimplifying what Brunelleschi accomplished was the construction of the largest span of open space with no interior support while it was being built, and a building that did not require the giant flying buttress appendages of cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris. A dome traditionally was prevented from destroying the building it rose upon by the use of massive exterior supports. A dome by its nature pushes down and outward, no one have ever conceived a dome of this magnitude that could be constructed, much less be completed and remain standing for centuries.
In addition, since none of the traditional scaffolding was in place Brunelleschi had to invent methods for raising countless tons of stone to the dome's starting point 170 feet above the ground, or approximately the equivalent of a 17 story building today. When the dome was completed a lantern that would require the raising of one million pounds of stone was to be raised over the opening, or oculus at the dome's highest point. The story of the dome is worth the book, however the author includes the history that took place while it was built, the politics, the wars, and the rivalries. A read most anyone would enjoy.
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on October 21, 2000
Like Longitude, one of my most favorite books, Brunelleschi's Dome is a small gem. Author Ross King tells the story of the building of the dome atop Santa Marie del Fiore in Florence and along the way, treats you to a rich slice of Renaissance history. Much more than a great story (filled with details about everyday life in 15th century Italy, i.e. what they were eating, how they shopped, how bricks were made) this is a story of a man who used his intuition, faith and genius to propose a revolutionary method of building this famous dome. He used no wooden centering or flying buttresses which was totally radical for the time and he really had no way of predicting whether his plan would work or not. But it did and beautifully. If you're planning on visiting Florence, climb the steps to the top of the dome to see Brunelleschi's handiwork first hand. For example, he and his bricklayers used a unique herringbone pattern when laying the bricks that is clearly visible today. The story is also a human story. All the naysayers, competitiors, political enemies are here along with backbiting, and plotting. Brunelleschi himself had a wily streak and wasn't above lashing out at his competitors. One of the joys of this book is you actually feel like you're getting up each morning to see a day's work on the dome. And it's a very enjoyable way to spend some time. If you're interested, you can visit [...] and get a live view from atop the dome in Florence. A fascinating book.
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on October 15, 2000
Anyone who has been to the ancient Italian city of Florence recognizes the big dome that dominates the city. It is atop the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, and is larger than the dome of the US Capitol, St. Paul's in London, or even St. Peter's in Rome. It was built before any of them, in 1436. The architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, solved many problems to produce the wonder. He did away with any central scaffold on which to build the dome, and his design for such machines as an ox-powered hoist were innovative and useful. 70 million pounds of brick, mortar, marble, and more were hoisted into the air. The dome gradually rose, while below it were plagues, wars, jealous arguments against Brunelleschi, and financial problems. The book is exciting as it traces the progress of the dome, and it brings out the personality of Brunelleschi well. It gives details of Renaissance life, such as guilds, food, transportation, and brickmaking. Fascinating.
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on February 14, 2002
This is the story of genius, sweat, and emotion that went into the construction of the dome of Il Duomo, Florence's most visible landmark. If you've been to Florence, you will especially enjoy this history of the construction of and the creative genius behind the building of one of the architectural triumphs of the world. King brings the reader back to the time of its construction, with vivid details of the design, the political intrigue over the commissioning of the design, the technical skills of then artisans, and the lifestyles of the common workers. Using primitive raw materials and more artistry than science, Brunelleschi demonstrated a capacity to improvise, adapt, and break through old methods to solve an almost impossible physical challenge.
If you've not been to Florence, reading "Dome" might just convince you that it is time to go and well worth the visit.
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on March 24, 2002
Ross King can take the story of a small, seemingly insurmountable problem and turn it into an intriguing bit of drama: how to build a dome without a frame to lean it on? How to lift huge blocks of marble for the lantern off the ground, up into the sky, and over to the precise spot they are needed? He moves easily back and forth from the intriguing rivalry between Brunelleschi and Alberti to the details of the dome's engineering.
It's even a nice reflection of the book's theme that the book itself is well designed.
Brunelleschi's Dome will have broad appeal to a lot of non-fiction readers: history buffs, archaeology, biography, engineering. Based on the other reviews, the only folks who were disappointed are those expecting a highly academic, detailed account. This is more of a charming, scientific and artistic fable....but true.
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