Brunelleschi's Dome / by Anne Lanzilotti

Walking through the streets of Florence surrounded by the glowing orange light of sunset and bright green shutters, it is still stunning every time one comes to a cross street where the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore suddenly comes into view. For musicians, this structure is of particular importance in relation to one of the major Renaissance works we study, Guillaume Dufay's motet Nuper rosarum flores, because the piece was written for the consecration of the dome in 1436. This particular motet is studied for its intricate use of proportions in the form, proportions that some scholars say were written based on those of the cathedral below.

Studying the work and reading Charles Warren's article, “Brunelleschi’s Dome and Dufay’s Motet,” in graduate school, I was intrigued to visit the cathedral and listen/see for myself how the proportions and the music felt in the space. Although Craig Wright’s “Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, King Solomon’s Temple, and the Veneration of the Virgin” outlines other possible explanations for the proportions of the piece—that it is not based on the proportions of the Florence Cathedral at all, and rather is based on the dimensions for the Temple of Solomon and symbolic number representation for the Virgin from a biblical passage—I am personally more intrigued and convinced by the architectural proportions as hypothesized in Warren’s article.

Returning to Florence this week, I was struck by the incredible feat of building the dome itself. The cathedral had been under construction for years, and it was only because there was a model of what the church might look like when completed with a large dome that the problem arose in the first place. Someone had a vision that the church would have an enormous octagonal dome even though it was clear for over fifty years that no one in Italy knew how to actually build it. The mystery of the dome was put forth as a competition, and goldsmith and clockmaker Filippo Brunelleschi rose to the challenge. In the process of building the dome, Brunelleschi solved countless problems and invented various machines over the years, taking risks, having incredible failures, all for the sake of problem solving and following through with a vision (Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome goes into great detail and is fantastic further reading for those interested). Through these banalities, failures, and innovations, Brunelleschi was able to create a structure that still inspires and creates wonderment today.

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