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on 8 November 2009
Brunelleschi's Dome
I had thought about buying this book for some time, and finally took the plunge. Although it is only a short book, it is filled with detail and clear that the author had thoroughly researched the book prior to writing. However, despite all of this I did find it hard going, and this, is possibly because I have never visited Florence and so was not as familiar as I could be with the subject of the book. I have since given the book to someone else who thoroughly enjoyed the book but who was more knowledgeable about the area and history of Florence than myself.

For a book about the architecture and construction of such an iconic building it seemed surprisingly short of pictures, more of which may have helped in the understanding of the text. I also felt I would have liked to have known more about the man who masterminded the building of the dome - but perhaps there was not much more to tell about someone who made such a massive undertaking his life's work.

Overall, an interesting read, but, as already suggested by an earlier review, perhaps is best appreciated by those who are already familiar with the subject matter.
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on 23 June 2015
Really enjoyable. Having visited the cathedral several times in the last couple of years and due to visit again this year I still marvel at how the dome and the cathedral could have been constructed with the tools and knowledge available at the time

The Dome was and is certainly a true marvel of the world of architecture - and I for one could never tire of visiting and being awe struck.

View the Cathedral from San Miniato, above Florence, for a wonderful sight
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on 16 April 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 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 15 July 2001
as a modern day consultant working on large projects, I found this book very uplifting. Things haven't changed too much! As a regular visitor to Italy it enhanced my knowledge of one of the great wonders. This is a novel, a history book, a study in human nature; it is amusing, enlightening and intellectually sound.
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on 1 September 2004
This is a really excellent read, both in its description of the construction of the dome and in the way it adds colour to both Brunelleschi and the rest of contemporary Florence. The only criticism I would have of the text is that some of the technical descriptions of how the dome was built are difficult to follow - I found myself having to read them two or three times before I understood what the author was getting at. And the book would really benefit from more, and better, illustrations - a large format version of the book with proper colour photographs and plans would be great.
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on 12 February 2003
This is another great read from Mr. King. A week or two ago I finished his wonderful "Michelangelo And The Pope's Ceiling" and at that point I decided I'd have to read "Brunelleschi's Dome". Over the past year or so I'd seen "Brunelleschi's Dome" in various bookstores and I'd skimmed through the pages- never buying it because I was put off by the technical illustrations. I figured this must be a book meant for architects and engineers. But I was wrong. While there is no denying that the technical aspects are a major part of the book, the illustrations are very useful in helping the lay reader to understand the ingenious solutions that Brunelleschi came up with to overcome the numerous technical difficulties involved in the construction of such a large dome. By going into the nitty-gritty of the construction process, Mr. King allows us to appreciate Filippo's accomplishment. After all, this was a man who was a goldsmith and clockmaker- not an architect! And even though the book is under 200 pages in length, Mr. King manages to include a lot of interesting peripheral information. We learn about the lives of the masons who worked on the dome- how many days they worked (only about 200 per year, actually. They had off Sundays and religious feast days, which came about once a week. They also couldn't work in bad weather); what they ate and drank (surprisingly, although they were a couple of hundred of feet above the ground they drank wine! Considering water quality at the time, wine was considered healthier. Florentines also believed that it "improved the blood, hastened digestion, calmed the intellect, enlivened the spirit, and expelled wind". Mr. King adds that wine "might also have given a fillip of courage to men clinging to an inward-curving vault..."!). Filippo was very safety-conscious. Because of his precautions, only one man died and few were injured during the 26 years Brunelleschi was in charge of the actual construction. A good thing....these were the days before workers' compensation and survivors' benefits! Another interesting theme of the book is the rivalry between Filippo and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Years earlier, Ghiberti had bested Brunelleschi in the contest to see who would be awarded the commission to cast and put up the bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Ghiberti won that competition. This time around Brunelleschi came up with the winning design. However, Ghiberti was still involved in "The Dome" project and there was no love lost between the two men. There was a lot of nasty backbiting behind the scenes of the "this guy doesn't know what the heck he's doing!" variety. Despite the fact that Ghiberti's baptistery doors are considered to be an artistic masterpiece (and were recognized as such by his contemporaries and by those who came shortly after- even the persnickety Michelangelo marveled at the workmanship) the following anecdote will give you some idea of the ill-will between the two men: Lorenzo, who was generally an astute businessman and was always on the lookout for good places to put his money, had bought a farm in the hills above Florence. Mr. King writes, "As the farm, called Lepriano, did not prove a successful investment, Lorenzo was forced to sell it. Years later Filippo was asked what he thought was the best piece of work Lorenzo had ever done, to which he replied- 'Selling Lepriano'". If we add "comedian" to his long list of accomplishments, we see that Filippo Brunelleschi was indeed a true "Renaissance Man"!
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on 2 January 2001
When I first saw Florence Cathedral I asked the cliche question 'How did they build it?' and so when this book appeared I snapped it up. Its a great story. First, the book helped me appreciate just what a challenge it was. how do you build what is still the world's largest masonary dome without scaffolding, modern cranes, construction materials - or even power. Indeed the book points out that when construction began, nobody actually knew how to build what they had designed. The story is held together by the thread of genius that is Bruneleschi and how as each challenge arose - he found a solution. To this story of eternal optimism is added a sense of mystery - Bruneleschi's compulsive secrecy was such that it is only recently that engineers really understood how (without scaffolding) he raised the dome without it falling in during construction. King's narrative elegantly blends these elements of history, engineering and biography into a very readable book.
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on 30 May 2001
This book is a wonderful combination of history, scandal and some in-depth understanding of one of the marvels of medieval Italy.
The plot seems simple enough - the wish for one man to build the biggest unsupported dome in the world. This single minded desire of Brunelleschi is then interwoven with the political intrigue of renaissance Italy with wars and plagues shaping the development of this project as much as the ability of the architects and builders.
The long running feud with Lorenzo Ghiberti, spiced with bankruptcy, imprisonment and an adopted child stealing his possessions keep the narrative rolling along, interspersed with some technical elements that, although fascinating frankly lost me a little, while the sexual and political intrigue soon brought me back. The fact the invention of an ox-hoist kept me enthralled for a whole chapter speaks volumes as the whole fabric of the time is woven into each element of the book. New inventions are created and seem then to pass into the norm, while chapters entitled 'The tale of the fat carpenter' tell the tales of the petty rivalry and the real human side to what actually happened on a project of this scale.
Like a historical 'pret a porter' renaissance superstars, like the Medici and Dante, are merely the bit players to the main theme which is Brunelleschi himself with the dome coming a very close second.
If you are going to Chiantiville this summer then this book along with 'Gallilo's daughter' (Dava Sobel) will give the day trips to the cities so much more meaning.
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on 20 August 2001
It is a great book to read. Buy the book, take a week off, go to Florence and read the book THERE - you will admire the book so much more if you visit the Duomo before and after reading the book. It is fascinating how such a project started whitout anyone being sure if it could ever be finished.
It is interesting from so many different angles - architecture, history, project management, change management, life as such, great achievements of mankind, and so on, and so on... - that I find it difficult to classify this book as a history book, an architecture book, a biography, a management text, or something else.
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This is a good book on a fascinating subject: the construction of a church dome that surpassed in size Hadrian's Pantheon in Rome, the one that stood for about 1300 years as a marvel of the world. Brunelleschi was certainly a genius for accomplishing this, and his "record of largest" stood until the 20C, when new materials enabled architects to develop in altogether different directions.

The core of the story is that Brunelleschi, as an exemplar of the early Renaissance, studied the Roman examples and then experimented in ways that allowed him to surpass them. Technically speaking, he also solved the problem of the large dome - designed over a century earlier without a clear means of executing it - by reinventing architectural engineering.

It was here that the book began to lose me. King goes into excruciating detail about Brunelleschi's avoidance of "centering" - the construction of a temporary wooden scaffold for support inside the dome, which would have used far too much of one of the most valued commodties of the era, hard wood - via the construction of a new pulley system to raise the stones (which occupies an entire chapter), and other innovations that may interest only very serious students of architecture. Furthermore, there are pages of descriptions of the type of bricks he used and even custom-designed to fit the geometry of the dome as it tapered (yes, he describes their geometric shapes as in a catalogue). Even worse, I did not always find his technical descriptions very clear, and had to re-read them to get it, sometimes more than once.

Moreover, King goes into a lot of biographical territory that is neither documented nor known even from hearsay. So the book is peppered with phrases like "he must have thought", "he must have realized", "he must have resented" etc. That makes this bio too speculative for me, lacking in academic discipline. Brunelleschi was a difficult character with lots of enemies and mysteries about him, of course, but we just don't know enough about his machinations to say much that is definitive - so if you don't have something that proves, or directly indicates, that he thought/felt one way of the other, any interpretation that seeks to characterise it is the stuff of fiction.

That being said, King knows both the technical details and the larger historical context, and most of the time he can express his thoughts well, even with evocative style that reflects a genuine writing talent. So in a turn of phrase that is marvellously dense and masterfully accurate, he evokes this or that trait of the early Renaissance and what it means. You get the politics, science, and art that are evolving, as well as the techniques of war and even transportation. This is a great pleasure and kept me going. (This is personal in that I was looking more for trends and context than technical engineering details and other readers may enjoy the latter more.)

Recommended. I learned a lot from this book, but it draged in its technical detail. Nonetheless, this is a writer to watch.
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