Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part I

Things have been quite slow around here, content-wise, for the past two weeks, because last week I was in Italy on a family vacation (and, of course, had to cram a lot of preparation into the week before). The trip was something of a whirlwind trip, a little of this and a little of that, but it was quite enjoyable.

We arrived in Milan on Sunday, March 13, but immediately took the high-speed train to Florence; Trenitalia was quite efficient and the entire train system in Italy is easy to use once you figure out how it works. It's less scenic than you might expect, though. Having come off a redeye flight and a train ride, we weren't in much of a condition to do anything that day, but it's impossible to miss the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, usually just known as the Duomo di Fiorenza, and the hotel was a surprising well-run boutique hotel right next to it. The view of the Duomo from one room, in which you get a bit of the campanile or belltower (it was a more spectacular view at night, but there's so much light on the cathedral at night that it was difficult to get a good picture of it):


And the view from another:


The original church, Santa Reparata, was built somewhere around the fifth century; by the thirteenth century it was practically falling down and was utterly inadequate for the increasingly bustling town. A new church was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1294; the final result was much larger than Arnolfo had planned, in part, I believe, because in the course of the construction, the relics of Saint Zenobius, patron saint of Florence, were re-discovered, thus stirring up greater interest in the project. Much of the ultimate look for the cathedral (and for later Renaissance churches) was influenced by the Baptistry, which had been built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; Arnolfo, before designing the cathedral itself, had built up some of the decoration on it. I wasn't able to get a picture of the Battistero that I liked, so here's one from Wikimedia:

Firenze.Baptistry06.JPG
Georges Jansoone; CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1401, a design competition was held for a new set of bronze doors for the Baptistry ; the commission was won by Lorenzo Ghiberti, who worked for decades to complete them, and are some of the most famous doors in the world, known as the Porte del Paradiso (a name for them that is usually said to go back to Michelangelo). The current Baptistry doors are actually replicas; Ghiberti's originals are in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which, unfortunately, was closed the entire time I was there.

Construction on the Campanile began in 1334 under Giotto di Bondone:


By 1418 a design competition was held for the one and only part of the cathedral that was still unbuilt, the dome. Filippo Brunelleschi managed just to edge out Ghiberti in the contest. The basic parameters had been set by Arnolfo di Cambio's design, but the dome called for was not obviously even technically possible -- it had to be a very large, very high dome without any buttresses, but without buttresses a dome that size would be subject to severe hoop stress, and thus naturally tend to start bulging out. In other large domes, you would usually have supported the dome from the inside while building it, but in this case the dome was being built over a working cathedral, which sharply limited what you could do to keep the dome in place during construction. Scaffolding would be a problem -- you would ordinarily need an immense amount of wood to build the supporting scaffolding, and Tuscany is not heavily wooded. And what materials would you use for that size? Stone would be too heavy. Other big domes, like that of Rome's Pantheon, used concrete, but you had to have the right recipe, and the old recipes were all lost. So Brunelleschi began a series of innovative architectural solutions to apparently insoluble problems: no supporting scaffolding was used; the dome was primarily built out of brick, which is both lighter and easier to work with than stone; the dome is in fact hollow, a double-shell, to make it lighter; the skeleton is quite rigid; the scaffolding for workers was cantilevered; and much more. Khan Academy has a good summary of the engineering genius Brunelleschi poured into the dome.


Thus Florence's most characteristic landmark. Ironically, I never actually had time to go in, or to go up and see the sights from Giotto's Campanile, which is a shame -- but there is so much to do in Florence that seeing it all is simply impossible.

to be continued

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