After presenting my TEDx talk in Palazzo Signoria’s Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence, Italy, I was absolutely exhilarated. Although it was nerve-wracking, I was totally pumped by the response and honored to have met all of the people who spoke at the event.
At a small reception after the talk, I was approached by Bruno Guissani, head of TEDGlobal and we talked about whether I might want to convert my talk to English and extend it to 12 minutes for an event he was organizing in London, called Unseen Narratives.
I was very interested – and very frightened – at the same time. Within a couple of months, I was invited by Bruno to do the talk and took the plunge. Then I began to methodically prepare for it.
I prepared a 12-minute talk on the life of Brunelleschi and the impact the research I have done has had on not only my personal life but on the entire course of history.
In my Italian talk, I spoke about how the Cupola was technology, comparing it to the Internet. I even called it “the Internet of the Renaissance.” What I meant by this was how all of the collective thinking and energy that went into making such great things like the Cupola or the Internet were enough to really and truly change the world.
In my second talk, I focused more on the effects Brunelleschi’s work had on the Renaissance and on history, in general. The Florentine Renaissance brought forth a completely new era in politics, design, art, engineering, language and exploration, and one can point to the successful completion of an “impossible to build” building like the Cupola as the catalyst and the proof of human innovation.
I gave my second talk at the Unicorn Theater in downtown London. It’s a lovely space because the theatre is round and it puts you at the at the center of attention. Indeed, standing on the signature RED round carpet with 400 pairs of eyes fixed on you makes you feel comfortable, in a way.
I had my talk memorized, as I was a bit nervous. TED is a big deal and I figured that if I was lucky enough to have this opportunity twice, then I would try to make the best of it.
It feels strange to be part of an event like this. On the one hand you want to just relax and enjoy all of the talks, and on the other you really want to stay focused durin your presentation. I was speaking in the first half of the program so this allowed me to relax and enjoy the second half.
There were some great talks that night. A selection committee at TED in NYC chose a few of them to be posted online, though mine was not among them. However, TED plans to have all of the talks given that night online in the next couple of years.
You can read about the whole evening here:
Here is a transcript of the 12 most nerve-wracking minutes of my life:
TED LONDON / BATTISTELLA
This is the image I keep up on a wall in my office. It’s a section of a very old building that was the wonder of it’s time. I love this image because to me it reveals a story of strength. This section of building has been enduring weather and hardship for over 600 years holding up a crown jewel in architecture.
These stones are also 66 meters, about 200 feet from ground level.
They were placed here by skilled masons at the start of the renaissance and they help support the Cupola of Florence, designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419.
In 14th-century Florence, many were not up to the challenge of creating the Cupola; many actually believed it was an impossible task.
But against all odds, an original man, the world’s first architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, solved a 120-year-old mystery. The Cupola is an amazing architectural achievement and this mysterious egg, still stands today.
I discovered Brunelleschi’s Cupola two years ago when a friend, an 84-year-old structural engineer, handed me a book that took me on a romantic journey through Renaissance Florence. When I finished the book, I couldn’t get the Cupola out of my mind. I wanted more. I needed to know more about it. I guess I can say that I fell in love with it and its story — and I decided to follow my heart.
I’m a film maker and I dropped everything and moved from Canada to Florence Italy with no other plan, other than to write a screenplay and try to make a film about Filippo Brunelleschi’s Cupola.
I went to Florence to learn about the past …
But what I found is relevant to our collective future. Because the story of Brunelleschi and the Cupola is a story about how art and technology have a way of changing the world for the better and for the long term. I’ve come to learn that the building is the masterwork of a great thinker.
I might have even found out a secret or two about the Cupola!
The man who designed and built the Cupola overcame great odds, and I believe he succeeded because he is the original Renaissance man.
Brunelleschi was an accomplished master of many trades. He was both proficient and excellent at whatever he did. If he touched it, he specialized in it.
His father was a notary, so being from a decent Florentine family Filippo could have been a doctor or have taken up his fathers profession. But I think his sheer need to invent and create would lead him down a path in which he worked with his hands and further developed his brain – and seemingly insatiable curiosity.
He started out as a goldsmith and his early sculptures were competing with and displayed alongside those of the finest artists of the Renaissance, among them his stiff competitor and lifelong rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and his close friend Donatello, the painter.
Working as a goldsmith at Florence’s silk guild, he spun gold and silver thread to be woven into tapestries and fabrics that were sold around the world.
Then came a chance to create a masterpiece.
In 1401, at the age of 23, he was a finalist with Lorenzo Ghiberti in a contest to create the great bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry. When the judges declared the competition a tie and asked the young men to work together, Filippo refused. The panel of 35 judges, all important potential employers and contacts, were probably not impressed.
Then Filippo left for Rome, where he studies the ruins.
After extensive research in Rome, he brought back to Florence the use of the Roman arch as a load-bearing support in building construction and his buildings are sensually symmetrical and often carry the golden ratio.
The major setback seemed to drive him into deeper creative thinking.
He invented a machine to rediscover perspective drawing and the vanishing point, which is still used today as a foundation for perspective drawing. With Paolo Uccello, he created this very 3-dimensional painting, akin to the magic of 3D movies today.
He carved from wood, this very detailed 3D crucifix. Upon seeing it, his friend Donatello proclaimed, “I’ve put farmers on the cross until now.”
He worked as a watchmaker, built clocks and timing mechanisms and understood the complexity of gears and precision machinery.
But this didn’t stop him from challenging Florentine authority or the establishment.
He was once physically removed from a gathering of great Florentine artists for holding the radical belief and insisting that he could construct the Cupola without the need for central scaffolding.
With a sometimes crude personality, he could offend people but he was also known as a great practical joker, with a wicked sense of humour.
He struggled with only minor success until he met a challenge large enough for his brain and his talent.
By 1419, church construction was in it’s 123rd year. No one had yet figured out how to build the Cupola.
I believe Filippo knew that building the Cupola was his life’s mission.
You can still climb the Cupola today. There is only one way to the top – 463 steps – one at a time, no elevator. There’s plenty to think about when you take this journey.
You can admire the brickwork, think about the 88 men who climbed these steps every day to go to work. You might be reminded that is still a working parish, the Cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore.
It takes numbers to understand the mysteries of Brunelleschi’s Cupola.
Twenty nine thousand tonnes of stone, brick, mortar and iron went into its construction. It has survived almost six centuries of lightning strikes, earth quakes and floods, and, of course, gravity.
The dome spans 55 meters – more than half a football pitch!
There was no electricity or computer simulations available at the time. The basic tools were a pencil, a ruler, and lead on a string.
In wood-fired kilns, the workers made over 70 million high-quality bricks and all of the mortar was mixed on site.
When the construction of the church started 125 years earlier, in 1296, the Cupola was just an idea, a concept. Like other major pieces of disruptive technology in history, like the printing press or the Internet, no one really knew what power it would harness.
The Cupola had to be invented.
Every construction machine had to be invented; every mathematical angle needed to be calculated.
Solving massive engineering problems was one of Filippo Brunelleschi’s specialties.
How to lift 1000-kilo loads sixty meters high?
Filippo invented a hoist with three gears and a reverse gear, as well as a safety mechanism that could lift and lower loads of stone and mortar to the construction level.
He seemed to draw on a lifetime of “living and experiencing”, painting, goldsmithing, sculpting, math, astrology, in order to accomplish the tasks presented before him.
And he did this in a state of perennial uncertainty. Because every phase of construction called for a new competition with his peers. Every new machine, was an open competition, but he won most of them.
In renaissance Florence, winning the competition for a building did not mean you would not continue to be challenged. Any of the people who competed for the work retained the right to refute or challenge your designs and ideas at every stage. In the first 7 years of construction, Brunelleschi had to fend off challenge after challenge from his peers – such as the naysayers who believed his plan was wrong and that the Cupola would collapse.
A similar cathedral in Siena had collapsed during construction and Florentines were not keen on feeling the kind of shame associated with a similar civic failure.
The process had to be slow, meticulous and perfect. And Filippo continuously needed to prove, publicly, that his methods were correct.
I have come to understand that the Cupola in Florence is much more than a just a building or an example of great architecture. It was about stretching personal limits.
The Cupola houses leading-edge 14th-century technology that influenced the way history would unfold.
Take, for instance, a gnomon which was installed in the lantern and which provided the world’s largest sundial and a more accurate calculation of the summer solstice. This helped in shipping navigation and may have been part of the reason Columbus was able to sail to America in 1492.
Other great things came out of the Cupola.
The problems solved by Brunelleschi before and during the construction of the Cupola gave next generation artists, like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, the ability to take their thinking, design and drawing to the next level.
Would Leonardo have had the foundation to build his body of work without previous inventions like perspective, building machines, 3-dimensional drawings and astrological devices?
In its time, the Cupola was a modern-day miracle and I believe that is still a modern-day miracle. It’s unique as no one has ever equalled it.
The project’s administrative structure was possible because during those years, Florence was democratic state.
The building of the Cupola required a unique collaboration between private enterprise, public entities and the church. Its construction began because city leaders dared to ask the following two questions.
If not now, when? If not us, who?
The Florentine government gathered its greatest business minds and set up the L’Opera del Duomo, the organization which administered 3000 gold Florins per year toward the construction of the Cupola.
Brunelleschi was paid 3 gold Florins per month to head the project.
Before embarking on the Cupola project, I can imagine Filippo, at 42 years old, having not yet created his masterwork, yet taking on something no one had ever dared even try.
Maybe this is why I keep this photo above my desk.
Perhaps by helping the world understand the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, a man whose genius helped usher in a new age of thinking and bring an explosion of creativity to the rest of the world, we can all learn a little something about the ripple effects of perseverance, thinking and creativity.
Everything that went into building the Cupola affected the civilized world. From this apex in Florence, Italy, the gold ball and cross act as a bridge to the past; a sort of beacon for thinking, for a way of life and a reminder that technology, enquiry and ingenuity – in any age – is the way humankind advances.
Brunelleschi was essentially a modern man. He had a wide-ranging skill set, which he applied to every problem in a unique way. He was a politician and served his city on many levels of government.
His masterwork is the culmination of years of learning and commitment to excellence, all within a difficult political structure aiming to please both public and private interests.
While studying Filippo, it has been a pleasure trying to get to know him through his work and the limited writings about his life.
But it’s easy to see that creativity and curiosity can still be a blueprint for modern living and historical figures can still be great mentors.