European Architecture Series
Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Renaissance

Filippo Brunelleschi's Dome and Italian Renaissance Architecture.

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The Dome of Florence Cathedral,
a sublime example of 15th century
Renaissance architecture, which
was engineered by architect
Filippo Brunelleschi. His success
in surmounting the engineering
problems faced during the dome's
construction advanced the prestige
of Florence amongst rival cities
such as Pisa, Sienna and Lucca
and helped to establish the city
as the centre of the early period
of the Italian Renaissance.

Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and
the Italian Renaissance (1420-36)


Why is it Important to the Renaissance?
Facts About Florence Cathedral
Memorials to Brunelleschi
Articles about Renaissance Art

Evolution of Art
For a chronological guide to architecture
and sculpture throughout the ages, please see:
History of Art Timeline (2,500,000 BCE - Present)

Florence Cathedral and the
Baptistery, seen from the
Piazza del Duomo.

Fresco painting under the Dome
of Florence Cathedral, depicting
the Last Judgment, painted by
Vasari and Zuccaro (1568-79) in
quadratura style, during the
mid cinquecento.

Architectural Terminology
For a guide to terms used,
see: Architecture Glossary.

Renaissance Historians
For the leading scholars
of Renaissance art, see:
Bernard Berenson (1865-1959)
Kenneth Clark (1903-83)
Leo Steinberg (1920-2011)

Why is Florence Cathedral Important to the Renaissance?

The Renaissance in Florence is inextricably linked with the dome of its new cathedral, whose construction was a particularly inspirational element in Early Renaissance art and did much to confirm Florentine preeminence during the quattrocento rinascimento. The basilican Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence ("Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower") was begun in 1296 in a style of Gothic architecture, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (c.1240–1310) and ornamented with the characteristic inlaid marble panelling of Tuscan-style Romanesque architecture. Civic rivalry between the Ducal States led to the construction of an ambitious dome, raised to a height above the central nave to exceed that of any church in Tuscany. By 1418, the construction of the nave had already predetermined the octagonal plan arrangement of supporting piers capped by an elevated drum, but the technical means by which to construct the dome had not yet been established. In short, the project was stalled. The successful solution - inspired by both the Gothic tradition of stone vaulting and the principles of Roman architecture - was found and implemented by the leading Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), whose studies of Roman buildings gave him an insight into Classical methods of proportion and structure. His proposal for the cathedral's dome employed an inner and outer dome, with the inner shell being self-supportive thanks to concentric rings of masonry blocks, herringbone brickwork and embedded chain supports. All this dispensed with the need for temporary wooden scaffolding - which in any case would have been unmanageable at the height and span in question. Brunelleschi's solution exemplified the transition between the Gothic world and the new spirit of scientific and aesthetic enquiry. Indeed, his achievement set the course of Italian Renaissance art, placing Florence at the heart of a new cultural age. Since Brunelleschi's death, a number of additions have been made to the building. For example, in 1568-79, an enormous mural painting of The Last Judgment was painted on the underside of the dome by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, paid for by the Medici family in Florence; an elaborate Gothic Revival facade, for instance, was added to its western side during the 19th century, by Emilio De Fabris (1808-83); while three huge bronze doors were added 1899-1903. However, the real significance of Florence's Cathedral lies in its dome and the Renaissance thinking that inspired it.

Architectural Facts About Florence Cathedral

The cathedral complex, situated in the Piazza del Duomo ("Cathedral Square"), comprises three buildings: the Cathedral itself, the Baptistery and Giotto's Campanile (bell-tower). All three buildings are included within the area of central Florence which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cathedral remains one of Italy's largest churches: it is roughly 153 metres (502 ft) in length; and 38 metres (124 ft) wide, while the arches in the aisles are 23 metres (75 ft) high. The cathedral's dome is about 115 metres (372 ft) in height and 45 metres (147 ft) in width. It was - for centuries - the largest dome in the world, and is still the largest brick dome ever made.

The cathedral of Florence is built as a basilica, in keeping with Roman and Byzantine styles, which were then adapted to the forms of Classical Antiquity, which so inspired Renaissance architects. It has a wide central nave comprising four square bays, with an aisle to either side. The chancel and transepts follow an identical polygonal plan, separated by two smaller polygonal chapels. The overall plan forms a Latin cross, while the aisles and nave are separated by wide pointed Gothic arches supported by composite piers.

Across from the Cathedral stands the Baptistery ("Battistero di San Giovanni"), an octagonal building built between 1059 and 1128 in the style of Romanesque architecture - the style upon which Renaissance architecture is largely based. The Baptistery is itself an icon of Renaissance sculpture, due to its three sets of bronze doors created by two of the great Renaissance sculptors. Two sets were created by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), a major rival of Brunelleschi, and one set by Andrea Pisano (1290-1348). The Cathedral's campanile (bell-tower), built between 1334 and 1359, was designed by Giotto (1267-1337), and completed by Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti (1300-69). It is 14 metres (45 ft) square and 84 metres (275 ft) high, rising in four successive tiers, and supported without buttresses.


The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was erected on the site of an earlier cathedral, built in the early 5th century. By the last decade of the 13th century it was crumbling with age, and no longer able to compete with the new or renovated Gothic cathedrals in rival cities across Tuscany. The new structure of Santa Maria del Fiore was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (his other designs included the Franciscan church of Santa Croce and the crenellated fortress palace-cum-town hall, known as Palazzo Vecchio) and was expected to take 140 years to build. As it was the project proceeded in fits and starts, with a succession of different architects, including Andrea Pisano, Giotto, Francesco Talenti, Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, Alberto Arnoldi, Giovanni d'Ambrogio, Neri di Fioravante and Andrea Orcagna. By 1418 the only part of the structure that had not been completed was the dome, because no one could figure out how to engineer a dome to cap the huge octagonal cathedral tower without it collapsing during construction. A competition was held to find a solution, which was won by Brunelleschi. Work began in 1420 and was finished in 1436. The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was the first octagonal dome in history to be erected without a temporary wooden support, and it became the visible symbol of the Florentine Renaissance culture.


The root cause of the architectural difficulty with the dome, was the decision - made in 1367 - to reject the Medieval Gothic style (which used buttresses to support the upper tiers of a cathedral) in favour of a more classical-looking Mediterranean dome (which had to be self-supportive). The dome itself had been designed already by Neri di Fioravante who had proposed a large inner dome enclosed in a thinner outer dome (partly supported by the inner shell), as protection against the weather. The inner dome was to sit unsupported by any buttress on the octagonal drum. That was the plan, but no one knew how to engineer it. The point was, the width and height of the dome was so great that it was almost certain to spread and fall under its own weight, buckling the octagonal drum in the process.

Brunelleschi's solution was based on three main elements. First, he embedded four sets of embedded iron chains - which acted like barrel-hoops - to prevent the inner shell from spreading. Second, this system of support was further reinforced by eight vertical ribs, supplemented by 16 concealed ribs, radiating from the centre. Third, the brickwork of the inner dome was laid in herringbone patterns which helped to transfer weight and stress to the vertical ribs. The outer dome was crowned by a type of cupola, known as a lantern - which was also designed by Brunelleschi - but completed in 1461 after his death by his friend Michelozzo. The lantern closed the central oculus of the dome and exerted additional downward force, thus reducing the outward thrust at the base. The roof of the lantern was topped with a copper ball and cross, made in 1469 by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), containing a set of holy relics. The ball was dislodged by lightning in July 1600 and replaced by an even larger one two years later.

Memorials to Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi, the engineer of Santa Maria del Fiore, trained first as a sculptor and goldsmith, before turning to architecture in 1401. His understanding of Roman art and engineering underpinned a huge part of his Renaissance success, which was to turn the unnecessary complexity of Gothic design into something simpler and brighter. A large statue of Brunelleschi now stands in the Piazza del Duomo looking up at his magnificent dome, the classical silhouette that continues to dominate the skyline of the city. He himself is buried inside the Cathedral: his tomb lies in the part of the crypt which is open to the public. The fact that he was accorded such a prestigious burial place inside Florence's most important building, is clear evidence of his reputation among the leaders and citizens of his native city.

Articles About Renaissance Art

Sienese School of Painting (eg. Lorenzetti brothers, Sassetta)

Renaissance in Rome Under the Popes (eg. Raphael and Michelangelo)

Renaissance in Venice (eg. Mantegna, Bellini family, Titian, Tintoretto)

Venetian Renaissance Architecture (1400-1600)


• For more about Italian Renaissance architecture, see: Homepage.

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