The bronze ball sitting atop the Cupola is a grand treasure. It’s in plain view and is a completely separate entity from the Cupola itself. With the lantern, it is a decorative structure that also serves an engineering purpose, pushing weight down through the Cupola structure to hold everything in place.
The Cupola took 16 years to build. By the time it was finished, Filippo Brunelleschi had helped change the world and the world of architecture forever. I (along with many others) consider the Cupola the most advanced technological achievement of its time because of the amount of new thinking that had to happen in order to build it. The building has incredible staying power and is still used in its original capacity, as the cathedral of the city of Florence. By way of comparison, think of the many buildings that have crumbled and gone to dust. The Cupola holds the distinction of being the first and largest of its time. Many think that the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome is much larger than Brunelleschi’s dome, but it is not.
To build such an incredible, one-of-a-kind structure, Brunelleschi had to invent things. He needed to invent all of the construction machines. In modern terms, and using myself, a filmmaker, as an example, I would have to first invent a cinema camera, then the film, then a way to process the film and the projection, before actually making the film. Actually, there are many days I feel like that is exactly what I am doing by making this film on Brunelleschi.
So, after 16 years of proving himself, time and again, of designing and executing methods for the construction of what was the ‘impossible building,’ Brunelleschi presented his ideas for the lantern—the creative part, the beautiful part, the marble cherry on top of the Cupola and the crown of his years-long achievement. One would assume that he had earned this right through the hard work and genius he had already displayed. But this was not exactly the case.
The Opera del Duomo did not grant the commission to Brunelleschi. Instead, there was public competition and 11 people were invited to submit drawings and models. Brunelleschi went to work on his drawing and when he was ready to construct his wooden model, he called on one of his trusted colleagues, the wood carver Manetti. Manetti had been employed for many years by Brunelleschi in various capacities during the construction. This time, Manetti said no because he was submitting his own designs for the lantern.
So Brunelleschi, at 59, ordered the chestnut wood and went back to work, carving his own model. We know that he was an established sculptor and his wooden crucifix in the church of Santa Maria Novella was a turning point in perspective and detail at the start of the Renaissance. So he plied his craft once again at the end of his career, not granted any special privilege, and he set out to win the right to finish the building he would later build and live beside for the better part of his adult life.
What happened with the competition? He won, but he never saw the ball and lantern finished, as it took 35 years to complete. However, you can see the model he carved in chestnut wood in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo until it closes after Easter this year (see www.museo.operaduomo.fi.it for details).