Florence: Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome
I made an impromptu visit to Florence last weekend, and in my typical travel style, didn't really plan anything ahead of time. Florence is both perfect and terrible for this type of approach. On the one hand, there are so many things to do in Florence, you can easily just show up, wander around, and see plenty without giving it much advance thought. On the other hand, many of the attractions are pretty important, like the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the world's best collection of Renaissance art, or Michaleangelo's David at Accademia. Both of these require reservations ahead of time, so if you don't plan for that, your chances of getting in are slim to none.
Since I'll be returning to Florence in December with my family, I just wanted to get a feel for the city in an attempt to avoid a "blind leading the blind" scenario come December. There was only one thing I absolutely had to make sure I saw: the Duomo di Sanda Maria del Fiore and la cupola di Brunelleschi.
Florence's cathedral (duomo) and its dome (cupola) is the most recognizable landmark in the city. The cathedral, began in 1296, has a distinctive look thanks to its colorful marble, and its dome, began in 1418, is a feat of engineering. Prior to its construction, the only other dome in the world was Rome's Pantheon. Somewhere between the Pantheon and 1418, the knowledge of how to build such a structure was forgotten.
For 10 Euros, you can climb to the top of the cathedral's bell tower and dome. Like other towers I've climbed, this one has a few levels to stop at, catch your breath, and admire the view.
Climbing the dome is another story altogether, and it's not for the faint of heart. Think you can do it? Alright, follow me...
You will take the first of 467 steps right after scanning your ticket at the side entrance to the cathedral. These steep, concrete steps run up interior of the cathedral wall and are original to the building. This means they're not exactly conducive to thousands of tourists heading up and down each and every day. As you begin to trudge up, you'll find yourself wondering why the dome is so popular. Plenty of cathedrals have domes, don't they? What makes this one so important?
I mentioned earlier that nobody knew how to actually build such a thing. Yet the masterminds behind the cathedral wanted to top it off with a dome, so a competition was announced to find an architect who could figure out how to build one. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi (who is pictured below and whose patron was none other than Cosimo de Medici) were the two frontrunners.
Both had competed against each other to decorate Florence in the past; Ghiberti had beat out Brunelleschi to carve the bronze doors of the baptistery, pictured below. In Ghiberti vs. Brunelleschi round two, Brunelleschi won. Work began on the dome in 1418 and was finished by 1436 - the first octagonal dome in history to be built following the Pantheon.
Attempting to design the dome must have been a daunting task for Brunelleschi - nearly as daunting as the 400 more steps you have before you reach the top. It's starting to get crowded now; there's a large group of tourists in front of and behind you. The ones in front are moving slowly and those behind are trying to quicken the pace, leaving you in a rather annoying position. Frustrated, those behind you attempt to brush past, but the passageway is so narrow you find yourself in uncomfortably close contact with a complete stranger. He and his friends squish past, but not before you're practically smothered into the stone wall.
No matter, it's just a slight setback. Persevere, as Brunelleschi did when confronted with a major architectural puzzle. He faced two problems in designing such a large dome: support and weight, both of which, if executed incorrectly, would result in the collapse of the dome. Its proposed size was far too large to use stone to build, like the Pantheon, and there wasn't enough timber in the region to build the support scaffolding that would keep it up while construction took place. To solve these problems, Brunelleschi built with brick instead of stone, since it was lighter, and carried out construction over 16 concealed ribs - a sort of permanent scaffolding. To keep the dome from collapsing in on itself from sheer size, he created a double shell and incorporated internal stone buttressing and iron chains which, without going into the confusing detail of it all, spread the weight of the dome to its eight corners rather than the center. He also laid the inner bricks in a herringbone pattern which further assisted in transferring the weight to the ribs.
You can see some of these innovations, like the herringbone bricks and the internal stone supports, as you continue to climb your way up. You'll have plenty of time to ponder Brunelleschi's ingenuity, because all movement has come to a complete stop. There's some sort of jam up ahead where the people who are ascending are trying to get past a mass of people descending. As you wait to start moving again, you notice some anxious looking people glancing around. This journey is not for claustrophobics, you think to yourself, feeling grateful that cramped spaces don't cause you any emotional distress. All the same, that miniscule little window letting in a ray of light and molecule of fresh oxygen is a welcome sight right now...
If two people can't even walk through side by side, how on earth did builders transport materials to the top? Brunelleschi had an answer for that, too. He invented various machinery to hoist pieces up the side of the dome; many of which were used for centuries after. Still, it must have been an incredibly tiring task.
Speaking of tired, you're starting to feel the effects of having climbed the tower's 414 steps plus the 200ish of the dome so far. The line is moving again, and you ask a passerby how much further it is until the top. "You're not quite halfway yet," they answer, and a small part of you, the part that has always hated Stairmasters at the gym, wants to admit defeat. "But don't worry, there's a cool part up ahead," they add. Sure enough, you pass through a door and find yourself on a circular catwalk which goes around the lowest interior point of the dome, putting you nearly face to face with the massive frescoed ceiling.
The fresco, which is 3,600 meters in surface area, depicts the Last Judgement. It was carried out by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari between 1450 and 1579. It's quite a masterpiece, though art historians critique it for its unevenness - the result of two different painting techniques being used. Vasari painted in the buon fresco technique while Zuccari used in secco. Buon fresco is a style of painting in which the pigment is mixed with water and applied to wet plaster. As the plaster dries, the color becomes an integral part of the wall. The in secco style involves mixing the pigment with egg and applying it to plaster that has been re-moistened with water.
You won't have much time to look for variances in pigment application, however, because you've now come to another door on the other side of the dome. You take a deep breath and head back into the tight, narrow passageway. The steps here are freakishly steep and you're grateful for the handrail that was added to help facilitate climbing.
You climb and climb and climb. You're getting tired. Your legs are starting to ache. You're sweating through the long sleeved shirt and sweater that you wore, and you try to take off your scarf but end up elbowing somebody in the face. You're thirsty, but there's not enough room to reach into your bag and get your water out. In an attempt to lighten the weary mood that surrounds you, you try to converse with the group ahead of you. "Posso annullare il mio membership per la palestra," (I can cancel my membership to the gym), you joke. Nobody responds, and your grammatically incorrect sentence hangs awkwardly in the air. Whatever.
You reach yet another door and find yourself at a higher level circling the dome's interior. Straight ahead you see the hell scene from the Last Judgement, and you feel for a moment that the man getting his head speared off by Satan could easily be you. Or perhaps you're the one getting whipped by a bizarre lizard-human hybrid. They taunt you as you pass by and you realize that no, you're not like those poor souls in hell. They have it alot easier than you do. In fact, you'd gladly allow Satan to spear off your head if it meant you could avoid the next 200 steps.
But you're getting close! You see that more people are descending. They look happy and fulfilled, as though they've just seen something wonderful. You'll wonder what it must be like to feel that way, because you don't think you'll ever be happy again if you're stuck in this cement tunnel for the rest of your life. And you will be stuck there, if the line doesn't start to move again. A rather large woman in front of you is getting anxious and is taking it out by trying to get the line in order.
"We can't have this! We can't get by! It doesn't work! If you're coming down, you need to be on the right side, not the left!!" She shouts in annoyingly shrill English. Those who understand her roll their eyes. Those who don't just look confused and give her blank stares.
The line is at a complete standstill now while people try to maneuver around each other up ahead. You don't care - nothing matters anymore. You're stuck between a rock and a hard place - literally. Is this what my life has come to? You ask yourself. A tiny voice in your head tries to remind you that it will be worth it once you reach the top, but it's not loud enough. The optimistic part of you is gone. Forever, probably. You resign yourself to living out the rest of your life packed inside Brunelleschi's dome with strangers, like a bunch of tourist sardines in a can.
The line moves. You continue to trudge upwards.
Suddenly, you see the light.
Jesus himself has left the scene of the Last Judgement and is standing outside, on top of the dome, reaching down a hand to pull you up. Being out in the daylight again is nearly blinding and the wind is bitterly cold, but you don't care. You've made it to the top of the dome! Rejoice, and be glad!!
It's crowded, but just pick a spot near the railing and take in the scenery. From up here, you can see all of Florence.
As you look out at the city below you, try to imagine you're looking at it five hundred years ago. Somewhere below you, Michaelangelo is sculpting David, the Medici are counting their money, and Botticelli is painting Primavera. You're looking at the birthplace of the Renaissance where countless masterpieces were created.
Brunelleschi's innovative dome was copied all over Florence and became the blueprint for many others, including the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. Michaleangelo, who was the architect for the St. Peter's dome, was reported to have said, "I'll make its sister - bigger, but not more beautiful."
If you ever plan to visit Florence, I suggest checking the cathedral, tower, and dome off your list right away. Lines are sure to be shorter earlier in the morning, and fewer people would definitely make the 467 steps more bearable. Even with hordes of temperamental tourists, however, getting to the top of the dome and the view that greets you there is an experience no one should pass up. Of all the magnificent things that came out of the Renaissance, Brunelleschi's dome is undoubtedly one of the most impressive. Seeing it in person - not to mention actually being inside of it - is something I'll never forget.