If you ask any seasoned world traveler to name the most beautiful place they have ever visited, they will surely put the Italian city of Florence at the top of their list. Florence is one of the most coveted tourist destinations in the world. The city, like most of Italy, is a true living museum of culture, art, architecture, cuisine and style. Strolling the streets, bridges, churches and museums of this resplendent city is one of life’s great joys.
Seen from the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence, the ancient city hugs the banks of the River Arno, and the endless mantle of tiled roofs of the old town seems to flow like a single undulating layer of colored mats. Strikingly, the horizontal center of the city is astonishingly crossed by the soaring dome of the Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome overlooks the surrounding maze of streets densely packed with shops, churches, homes, and public places. It is one of the most famous faces in the world.
The construction of the dome was one of the great architectural, mathematical and engineering achievements of the Middle Ages. Techniques perfected to achieve the perfect symmetry of the Basilica’s dome are the foundation of modern building engineering. We owe a lot to the design entrepreneur who gave the Florentines and us the famous dome.
Filippo Brunelleschi was initially a master goldsmith. How he developed the unique architectural skills for which he is most famous remains a mystery. He was revered in the Florentine region for his metalwork, sculpture, and relief pieces. He had also built several mechanical watches, one of which was said to include an alarm.
The nave and sacristy of the Basilica of Santa Maria di Fiore had been completed for years. However, the center of the building was empty, essentially a donut hole. The plan was always to cover the space with a towering dome. Mass construction was not unheard of in the Middle Ages. The ancient Romans had created the Forum, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum, among many examples of large-scale construction. Knowledge and technical skills that the Romans had honed 15 centuries earlier had been somehow lost when the Great Plague and the Middle Ages descended on the developed world.
Brunelleschi and his close friend, the great artist Donatello, had traveled to Rome and studied the many ancient ruins and buildings built when the Empire was at its peak. Upon returning to Florence in 1418, he learned that a contest was being held to reward the inventor of a novel mechanical hoist with a large cash prize. The hoist would be used to complete the dome of the Basilica by speeding up the lifting of large tonnage of building materials to heights of hundreds of feet.
Brunelleschi presented a detailed drawing of his lifting machine. His work 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 keep walking in the same direction, and a simple lever gear could be activated to raise or lower the hoist. This made it possible to reload the transport platform, raise and lower it in about 10 minutes. He won the award and the commission to build the hoist that would be essential to complete the dome of the Basilica.
The mystery of how to support the great weight of the dome, especially at such a great height, was yet to be solved. Brunelleschi’s ingenious solution did not require any centering construction, buttresses or supporting walls. He used a herringbone pattern to lay stone, thus dispersing the pressure and decreasing the weight that the lower levels of the building would have to bear. In addition, instead of supporting the curvature of the dome with an internal skeleton and a hidden barrier wall, he created a girdle of rings to support the construction with much less weight. The result is the huge open dome that from inside the Basilica seems to rise like a majestic door to heaven.
In 1423, the eminences of Florence organized another competition to promote the invention of a lateral mechanical hoist. This device was considered essential to complete the work on the dome, as once the construction materials were lifted to the high work platforms, they had to be unloaded and moved to specific work areas. Brunelleschi submitted the winning design for a device called “castello.” This invention included an ingenious series of gears and rails and is considered the progenitor of the modern “tower crane” used in the construction of skyscrapers today.
Brunelleschi’s inventions are estimated to have handled the movement of 70 million pounds of building materials in the 15th-century creation of the dome of the Basilica Santa Maria di Fiore. The lost Roman tradition of building on a large scale was rediscovered by this son of Florence. Modern business and construction projects have benefited in other ways from the management skills honed by Filippo Brunelleschi.
For example, Brunelleschi was the first known architect to accurately scale the details of his project specifications. He was the crownless father of the plane. Before its use of precisely drawn plans, construction was carried out using sight lines, plumb lines, and stakes.
Brunelleschi was also the first documented project manager known to write specific business plans detailing the assumptions on which he based his budgets. Today, no serious manager would start or expand a business without coming up with a detailed plan to use as a roadmap.
Filippo Brunelleschi filed the first known patent for his mechanical hoist. He intended to protect his invention and fully intended to enjoy the 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. Its military fortifications and shipbuilding improvements were considered unique. The world he left behind when he died in 1446 was a much more progressive and beautiful place due to the contributions of this self-made genius.
Entrepreneurs, inventors, entrepreneurs and artists can learn a lot from the life and work of Filippo Brunelleschi. His curiosity led him to Rome and to the study of ancient and lost building techniques. The ability to apply advanced mathematical, engineering, and architectural techniques to seemingly insoluble construction problems has given the world the supreme glory of Florence, the Dome of the Basilica of Santa Maria di Fiore. Modern management tools, such as protecting intellectual property by applying for patent protection and writing personalized business plans, were pioneered in this great Florentine and are used to this day. The perfection of engineering plans through the use of layout and blueprints allowed builders to project, budget and design more advanced complex constructions.
We tend to think that modern ideas are always the most advanced. Studying history often reveals that there really isn’t much that is really new, just refined and improved on the margins. Large construction projects are carried out in modern times. However, a visit to Florence and the study of the great buildings of the Renaissance provide proof that the great vision and craftsmanship of the past stand up well to anything modern man can build, even taking into account the great technological advances we enjoy. today. Men like Filippo Brunelleschi were the visionaries of his time and I think he would be at the forefront of creativity if he were alive and working today.