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The 15th Century Florentine Genius We Borrow From to This Very Day

If you ask any seasoned world traveler to name the most beautiful place they have ever visited, they will most certainly include the Italian city of Florence at the very top of their list. Florence is one of the most desirable travel destinations in the world. The city, like most of Italy, is a veritable living museum of culture, art, architecture, cuisine and style. To wander the streets, bridges, churches and museums of this glowing city is one of life’s great treats.

Viewed from the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence, the ancient city hugs the banks of the River Arno, and the endless blanket of tiled rooftops of the old town seem to flow as one single undulating layer of colored matting. Conspicuously, the horizontal center of the city is stunningly pierced by the soaring dome of the Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome dominates the surrounding warren of streets densely packed with shops, churches, homes and public venues. It is one of the most famous visages in the world.

The construction of the dome was one of the great architectural, mathematical and engineering accomplishments of the Middle-Ages. The techniques perfected to achieve the perfect symmetry of the Basilica’s dome are the basis of modern construction engineering. We owe much to the design entrepreneur who gifted the Florentine’s and us, with the famous cupola.

Filippo Brunelleschi was initially a master goldsmith. How he developed the unique architectural skills he is most famous for is still a mystery. He was revered in the Florentine region for his metal works, sculpture and relief pieces. He had also built several mechanical clocks, one of which was said to include an alarm.

The nave and the sacristy of the Basilica Santa Maria di Fiore had been completed for years. However, the center of the edifice was vacant, essentially a doughnut hole. The plan was always to cover the space with a soaring dome. Massive construction was not unknown in the Middle-Ages. The ancient Romans had created the Forum, the Pantheon and the Coliseum among many examples of grand scale building. The knowledge and technical skills that the Romans had perfected 15 centuries earlier had somehow been lost as the Great Plague and the Dark Ages had descended upon the developed world.

Brunelleschi and his close friend, the great artist Donatello, had travelled to Rome and studied the many ancient ruins and buildings crafted when the Empire was at its zenith. Upon returning to Florence in 1418, he learned that there was a competition underway to reward the inventor of a novel mechanical hoist with a large cash prize. The hoist would be utilized to complete the dome of the Basilica by accelerating the lifting of great tonnage of building materials to heights of hundreds of feet.

Brunelleschi submitted a detailed drawing of his hoist machine. His work in building mechanical clocks had immersed him in the study of gears and bearings. The mechanical hoist that the inventor had designed was powered by two oxen. Ingeniously, Brunelleschi had invented a reversible gear so that the oxen could continue to walk in the same direction, and a simple levered gear could be engaged to lift or lower the hoist. This made it possible to reload the carry platform, and raise it, and lower it in about 10 minutes. He won the prize and the commission to build the hoist that would be instrumental in completing the dome of the Basilica.

The mystery of how to support the great weight of the dome, especially at such great height, was still to be solved. Brunelleschi’s ingenious solution required no centering construction, buttresses or support walls. He used a herringbone pattern of laying stone, thus dispersing pressure and diminishing the weight the lower levels of the building would have to support. In addition, rather than supporting the curvature of the dome with an internal skeleton and a hidden barrier wall, he created a girdle of rings to hold the construction with much less weight. The result is the soaring open cupola that from inside the Basilica seems to rise like a majestic gateway to the heavens.

In 1423 the eminences of Florence staged another contest to encourage the invention of a lateral mechanical hoist. This device was deemed essential to completing the work on the dome as once construction materials were lifted to the high work platforms they had to be offloaded and moved to specific work areas. Brunelleschi submitted the winning design for a device that was called the “castello”. This invention included an ingenious series of gears and rails and is considered the progenitor of the modern “tower crane” used in building skyscrapers today.

It is estimated that the Brunelleschi inventions handled the movement of 70 million pounds of construction materials in the 15th century creation of the dome of the Basilica Santa Maria di Fiore. The lost Roman tradition of building on the grandest of scales was rediscovered by this son of Florence. Modern business and construction projects have benefitted in other ways from the management skills perfected by Filippo Brunelleschi.

For instance, Brunelleschi was the first architect known to precisely draw to scale the detail of his project specifications. He was the uncrowned father of the blueprint. Before his utilization of precisely plotted plans construction was undertaken using lines of sight, plumbs and stakes.

Brunelleschi also was the first documented project manager known to write specific business plans detailing the assumptions he based his budgets upon. Today no serious manager would start or expand an enterprise without crafting a detailed plan for use as a roadmap.

Filippo Brunelleschi filed the first known patent for his mechanical hoist. He was intent on protecting his invention and fully intended to enjoy maximum commercial benefits from its deployment and use by others. This man was the model for the modern inventor.

Brunelleschi is credited with many other inventions. He created the artistic concept of linear perspective. His military fortifications and shipbuilding improvements were considered unique. The world he left behind at death in 1446 was a much more progressive, beautiful place because of the contributions of this self-made genius.

Entrepreneurs, inventors, business people and artists can learn much from the life and work of Filippo Brunelleschi. His curiosity led him to Rome and the study of lost, ancient construction techniques. The ability to apply advanced mathematical, engineering and architectural techniques to seemingly intractable construction problems has gifted the world with the crowning glory of Florence, the Dome of the Basilica Santa Maria di Fiore. Modern management tools such as the protection of intellectual property by filing for patent protection and writing customized business plans were pioneered by this great Florentine and are utilized to this day. The perfection of engineering plans by using plotting and blueprints enabled builders to project, budget and design more advanced intricate construction.

We tend to think that modern ideas are always the most advanced. Studying history often reveals that there is really not a lot that is truly new, just refined and improved at the margins. Grand building projects are undertaken in modern times. However, a visit to Florence and study of the great buildings of the Renaissance provide proof that great vision and craftsmanship of the past stand up well to anything modern man can construct, even allowing for the great leaps in technology we enjoy today. Men like Filippo Brunelleschi were the visionaries of their time and I believe that he would be on the cutting edge of creativity if alive and working today.

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