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Florence with a flourish

Brunelleschi's Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence By Ross King. Chatto & Windus, 2000. 184pp. £15.99

Some time ago I read an atrocious review of William Anderson's The Rise of the Gothic, that made me go out angrily to buy a copy. It was one of the most imaginative explorations of that style that I had read. Ross King's story might not get past such a mind, but I was enthralled. It tells of the means of building the largest-spanning and tallest masonry dome in history, singling out the volatile character of Filippo Brunelleschi, originally a goldsmith and clockmaker, as its secondary theme, a description no scholar has given me.

History is not necessarily best left to historians. No-one knows everything about a historical event, but the novelist, and King is one, can have the knack of getting closer to the spirit of his subject.

The notes at the end of this book show that the author has fully researched his subject, so his historical authority need not be questioned.

As he is a novelist, though, King's text romps along, generating considerable excitement: turnips being used as stone slabs, the hero's imprisonment as the cupola is completing, and plenty of subterfuge on all sides.

Solving the riddle of constructing the cupola, including its triumphant engineering and the invention of machines to realise it, remained central to the architect's life, despite all his other buildings, for 28 years until his death at 69.

Due to Brunelleschi's standing at the start of the Italian Renaissance, we tend to think of him as architect of the cupola in the full sense, but he was not. Before the competition to effect the construction of the final stage of the cathedral, the Opera del Duomo had already agreed the design of the master mason Neri di Fioranti, which included the octagon plan of 62 braccia (119 feet, or 36m) and quinto acuto pointed section. Not wanting Gothic buttresses, Fioranti had even suggested horizontal stone or wooden 'chains' resisting the cupola's outward thrust, and also its inner and outer shells like Russian dolls.

Brunelleschi kept resolutely to all this. For these reasons the cupola is part of proto-Renaissance as is the nave, but the lantern was from the master's hand (although he never saw it built).

While the book gives us an adequate portrait of Brunelleschi himself, we also find a fascinating picture of contemporary Florence, and some of its artists and masons, down to the details of their working day, dawn to dusk. Though Brunelleschi was a tough cookie, he looked after their welfare as best he could.His epitaph runs: 'Here lies the body of the great ingenious man Filippo Brunelleschi of Florence, ' ingenious meaning one who builds machines.

I found this a gripping story which students should be encouraged to read. It is about empathy.

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor at the University of Bath

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