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Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

by Ross King, (Walker & Company; 194 pp., $24)

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If you've ever been to Florence, or seen a picture of Florence, or have an interest in the Italian Renaissance, you will be familiar with the iconic dome of the Florentine cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. This enormous dome swells above its sprightly, patterned church at the very heart of the city, and epitomizes the grandeur, dignity and inventiveness that mark the era in which it was built. The beauty of il Duomo is such that we tend not to think of its making. So perfect is it that it seems likely to have sprung into existence all complete, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.

Of course, this is not at all what happened, as Ross King tells us in his delightful little book on the creation of the largest dome in the world. The dome was part of the original plan for the cathedral, but no one knew how it could be built. But after 50 years of dreaming and preparation, the guild building the cathedral put its faith in architect, inventor and clocksmith Fillipo Brunelleschi. Under his guidance, the dome was begun on Aug. 7, 1420, following a celebratory breakfast of bread, wine and melons held 140 feet in the air--where the dome would begin its vault across its 140-foot diameter.

Brunelleschi's Dome recently won the Book Sense 76 Book of the Year award for nonfiction, which it well deserved. King wraps his core story in enticing garments of context: We learn of the ongoing competition between Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti; of the factions and political maneuverings of the city; of the structure of the craftsmen's guilds and other social realities, along with the mind-bending facts about what it took merely to acquire the materials to build the dome. He makes the daunting problems and Brunelleschi's ingenious solutions admirably clear without being dry or overly technical. But best of all, King conveys the drama of this massive, 26-year architectural engineering project, and makes one of the world's greatest buildings even more beautiful to our newly informed eyes.

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