Saturday, 19 November 2011


It was the Romans who gave us one of the great architectural features of our city landscapes today. Can you imagine Florence, Washington, London or Paris without a dome enhancing the skyline?
The  dome first arrived on the scene with the extraordinary building of the Pantheon in Rome, by Marcus Agrippa, as a temple to all the gods in Ancient Rome. It was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. It has been in continuous use throughout its history, and since the 7th C it has been used as a Roman Catholic church. Seeing it today, you cannot help but be impressed and marvel at such a remarkable feat executed by the Romans.
 painted by Rudolf Ritter von Alt image via wikipedia 
painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini via wikipedia
 courtesy Dadam3zk via wikipedia

courtesy MatthiasKabel via wikipedia
The oculus at the dome's apex is the only source of interior light, apart from when the doors are open. Throughout the day, the light from the oculus moves around the space in a reverse sundial effect. It also serves as a cooling and ventilation system. It is open to the elements and during storms, a drainage system below the floor handles the rain that falls through.
The second great dome built was that of Hagia Sophia - St. Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) - dedicated in 360. It is famous for its massive dome, and considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It was designed by the Greek scientists Isidore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician.
image courtesy Robster1983 via wikipedia
image courtesy Christophe Meneboeuf via wikipedia
After the dedication and until 1453 St. Sophia served as the Greek Patriarchal Cathedral except during 1204-1261 when it was converted to a Roman Catholic Cathedral. In 1453 the building became a mosque, hence the islamic features now seen in the interior.  In 1953 it was secularised and opened as a museum. 
I think that it is worth pondering at this stage, and considering the fact that it took nearly a thousand more years before the third great dome would appear on the European skyline. 
The main building of the dumo in  Florence was structurally completed in 1436. But by the beginning of the 15th C following a 100 years of construction, it was still missing it's dome. The great dome on the Florence dumo was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi who looked to the Pantheon for solutions. However, he chose to employ a double-shell design approach to the construction of the dome, using bricks due to their light weight compared to stone. Today we have modern understanding of physical laws and the mathematical tools for calculating stresses. Brunelleschi had to rely on intuition and whatever lessons he could learn from the many large scale models he built.
image courtesy MarcusOba via wikipedia
image courtesy enne via italian wikipedia
image via wikipedia
image courtesy Jps3 via wikipedia
Vasari's great fresco of the Last Judgement under the dome. He began it in 1572 and it was completed by Federico Zuccaro.
Having seen many of the great monuments of antiquity achieved by the Romans, I am always posing this question to myself - how skilled and great were the Romans? 
I shall reveal more in future posts.
An insight into Filippo Brunelleschi - polymath
Silver altar in the Duomo, Pistoia.
A substantial amount of the silver work on this altar was done by Filippo Brunelleschi.  He began his working life training as a gold and silversmith. It is amazing how these Renaissance artists were so versatile, and could turn their hand from painting to sculpture to architecture.
The pivotal event for Brunelleschi happened when he entered the competition to design the bronze north doors to the Baptistery in Florence. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were joint winners but the prize was to use Ghiberti's design. Brunelleschi refused to share the work and quit. He took himself off to Rome for several years where he studied the architecture of antiquity, and in particular the Pantheon. In competition again, he designed the dome for Florence, but refused to reveal the secrets of his plan knowing his ideas would be stolen. He suggested that the commission go to whoever could stand an egg on a flat marble surface. This odd challenge was accepted. Everyone failed except Brunelleschi who, to the outrage of his competitors, simply cracked the egg on its base and it stood upright. Anyone could do that, they said. To this he replied, With my plans anyone could raise the cupola. Impressed by his confidence, the wardens gave him the commission. However, the wardens were persuaded that the work was too important to be entrusted to one man, and once again his old rival Ghiberti was made his partner. Brunelleschi still refused to reveal his plans; work started, but stopped at a height of 24 feet. He retired to his bed feigning an illness. Ask Lorenzo, he croaked to the masons when they came for their intructions. Being ignorant of what should be done, Lorenzo countered by saying, I will do nothing without Filippo. He was miraculously restored to health when the wardens agreed to his plan for Ghiberti to design and build some stone ties. These were demonstrably unsuitable and Gilberti was dismissed. Brunelleschi was then made superintendent for life; he finally revealed his model and his genius became apparent.


  1. Hello, Rosemary,

    Brilliant, sly, cunning, genius, outrageous — whatever you call him, I really like Brunelleschi's confidence and moxie, though I wouldn't want to go up against him! Thanks for the great history lesson!

    When I was at work, I devised a screen-saver slideshow of domes viewed by looking straight up. I included the Pantheon, St. Peter's, the D.C. capitol, and about eight others, including those of some state capitols. The effect was very peaceful, almost like watching fireworks in slow motion, and visitors to my workspace always commented.

  2. What a wonderful post on domes everywhere, Rosemary: my favourite will always be the Istanbul one. It has something earthy about it which I love. You make me think of our English lesser-known domes: in particular of one which has lain secret and obscure in Mereworth, Kent, since it was bought by some fabulously rich Sheik in the sixties I think. Thank you: this post is a beginning to a whole range of research!

  3. Dear Mark - thanks for your generous comments.
    Perhaps you could consider a post on domes looked at from below sometime in the future?

  4. i think the angient cultures, could much more than we think. the had knowledge that probalby got "lost" through the years ( at least some of it)
    and without being inpolite, just a little correction. St. Sophia was build by the Byzantian Greeks and not the Romans ; )

  5. Dear Demie - thanks very much for your comments. Sorry, I had not intended to give the impression that St. Sophia was built by the Romans. I will make it clearer so that readers are not misled.

  6. Once the dome in Florence was completed it opened a whole floodgate of domes around the world. They gave a new dimension to the architecture of Palladio, Christopher Wren, Robert Adam, and William Kent. In the case of Mereworth Castle, as you will know Kate, the Scottish architect, Colen Campbell's design is considered to be based on Palladio's Villa La Rotonda, in Vicenza.

  7. Hi Rosemary! sorry about my very bad written comment! sometimes my english can be horrible ( or most of the times...)
    thank you very much for the correction : )

  8. Dear Demie - pleased you are happy with the new wording.
    You are right about skills being lost from the ancient civilisations. I intend to write a post in the future about Greek and Roman Classical statuary, and how the skill of representing the human form and its humanity was lost until rediscovered in the Renaissance period.

  9. Rosemary I’m happy to report I have visited the Pantheon, and it is one of the most stunning buildings I have been in! I recall a program with Dan Crabshank, and he was actually up in the dome; fascinating stuff. The whole thing is a marvel, from its beauty to engineering.

  10. Dear Bertie - the Pantheon is one of those buildings that once seen never forgotten. Many people are surprised that the Romans built it out of concrete, assuming wrongly that concrete is a fairly modern material.

  11. Rosemary I’m afraid this common error probably stems from these blasted modern architects and developers ‘making it their own’ by insisting on using said material in the ugliest manner possible, and blotting countless eyesores on some truly beautiful cities!

  12. I am sure you are correct Bertie


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