Rating: 4 out of 5.

I took a course for which this book served as a kind of textbook, which I loved in theory, but found very difficult in practice.  It was an engineering course on statics, and the concept was that we would learn about the construction of the great dome on Santa Maria del Fiore in tandem with learning about the mathematics that would currently be used to support the engineering of such a structure.  The idea seemed perfect to me, combining history and engineering in just the way that I find so intriguing.

In execution, unfortunately, the course would have greatly benefited from a more conventional textbook to accompany this piece.  While it does discuss matters of engineering, Brunelleschi’s Dome is definitely not a technical piece – it is rather a history piece that happens to involve some engineering concepts.  The wonder and vagueness with which the author describes the technical problems Brunelleschi solved to accomplish the raising of the dome are ample indication of where this book’s heart lies.

While I call it a history book, in some respects it doesn’t know what it is.  At times, it has the feel of a biography, and it does more or less follow Brunelleschi, but compared to most biographies it would be considered grossly superficial and poorly researched.  There is little sleuthing through historical accounts to infer what the architect may have been doing during poorly recorded phases of his life, and the author in many places is content to tell us that it is a mystery, or maybe to relate a few fanciful tales while admitting that most historians believe them to be false.  In that respect, it leaves the reader wanting to know more.

It also isn’t exactly a history of the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore, although I contend that it is closer to being that than it is to being a biography of Brunelleschi.  We are given only brief insight into how the original design came to be, and to anyone other than Brunelleschi who was involved in the project, and enormous portions of the dome are raised off-page, so that near the end of the book we get an official ceremony marking the dome’s completion without having been entirely made aware that it was close to being finished.  It therefore leaves the reader dissatisfied on this count, as well.

Despite that, it is a worthwhile read.  If this were as long as many of the other biographies that I’ve read (looking at you, Chernow), and left me unsatisfied in these ways, I would not think it worth your time to read, but because it is short (I read it in the course of a busy weekend), I’m more willing to forgive it a certain incompleteness or lack of depth.  Think of this as a survey book that touches on many different ideas: early Renaissance construction and architectural techniques, the life of Brunelleschi, the story of Santa Maria del Fiore, even the politics of Florence at the time.  You’ll need to do more research to fully plumb the depths of any of these subjects, but this might serve to get you started and interested.

As for learning statics and engineering mechanics from studying the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore, or other period pieces of architecture, I can’t say that I recommend it.  While you can glean insight from studying the completed products, the process was decidedly less scientific than involved in modern architecture.  Calculations were almost nonexistent, outside of geometric considerations, and any understanding of tension, compression, torsion, moment arms, and so forth was purely qualitative, not quantitative, and often could only be described as intuitive.

There are more serious pieces of literature out there, and there are more detailed pieces of literature out there, and there are more rigorous pieces of literature out there.  If you’re looking for something specific out of this book, there’s a very good chance that you won’t find it.  However, if you’re looking for something broader in scope that is a little bit of a renaissance book about a renaissance man near the beginning of the Renaissance, then this is a great, quick read to gain a little insight into fourteenth century Florence, the revival of Roman architectural techniques, Brunelleschi, and the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore.  I hope you consider giving it a read.

Note: there is a documentary about the Medici family that covers a lot of content overlapping with what’s in this book, and is well worth a watch if you enjoy historical documentaries.

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