DASH OF ART – “When Geniuses were only born in Florence…”

Are you in Florence for a conference, a congress or the meeting of the Board of your company? You’re lucky… if you can find time for a city tour. You are very lucky if you can extend your stay for a weekend, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, as well as the cradle of the Renaissance.


For some scholars, the Renaissance began in the mid-fourteenth century and was exhausted at the end of the sixteenth century; for others it starts with the discovery of America, and ended at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Finally the thesis of David Herlihy is very impressive. For the American professor, it was the “Black Death” (1348-49), mentioned by Boccaccio in the preface to his Decameron, “pestifera mortalità trapassata”, which begot a revolution in the social and cultural life of the time.

The tragedy, caused by the annihilation of one third of the total European population, 25 million men, women and children, perhaps indirectly gave rise to a new revival, at least for the survivors. The landowners increased the salaries of the few remaining workers, for fear they passed to the competitors, the corporations allowed access to new members and the shortage of manpower accelerated the development of important innovations.

But in the end, the chronology of events does not matter. What is important however is that, starting from a small town, reduced to merely 20-30 thousand inhabitants by the plague, a radical change took off, that influenced whole Europe and transformed the man from a supporting actor into the great protagonist.

But who was the author of this miracle?

Hard to say. The Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote:

Miracles are propitious accidents, the natural causes of which are too complicated to be readily understood.”

But if you do not know the author, you know the ‘beneficiary’. It is a group of ‘Geniuses’, all born in and around Florence, in a period that goes from 1377 to 1475.

We will have to wait up to five centuries later to find once again a similar concentration of “genious” in a single location. This time however, we are not dealing with painters, sculpters, architects, but scientists, researchers, ingeneers, entrepreneurs expert in High-Tech. The town is not Florence anymore but Silicon Valley.

These extraordinary Tuscans can be divided into two categories.

In the first, we find the “performers“: architects, painters and sculptors such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Uccello, Masaccio, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo.

In the second, the “customers“, educated, rich (actually extremely rich), a bit egocentric and art lovers: Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, Luca Pitti, Filippo Strozzi and Giovanni Ruccellai, bankers and merchants willing to invest huge amounts of capital in order to tie their names to history.

Now the money is no longer the ‘devil’s feces’, in fact it is a sign of success and social achievement and the indispensable tool for economic development. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, in Florence, 80 lenders already operate who lend money to the Emperors, Popes and Kings, and support the activities of goldsmiths. Then, before the end of the century, some of them begin to provide assistance to the poor, by providing microcredit, thanks to the invention of the ‘pawnbroker’s’. The wealthy Florentines not only have large capital but, are also guided by big ambitions. The desire to assert their prestige leads them to commissioning the construction of impressive buildings (and even competing with each other).


No longer satisfied with the sole glory on earth, what they also seek now is eternal life. So the noble residences flank churches and fortresses, and redesign the architecture of the city. So here is some Florentine palaces, beautiful, imposing and very expensive: Palazzo Rucellai, Palazzo Strozzi, Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Medici (afterwards Medici-Riccardi). As you see, we are still in the logic of Demand creating Supply and not vice versa.

Then, if the time at your disposal is very little, at least try to stop by Duomo Square, to see one of the wonders of architecture of all times: Brunelleschi’s dome.

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Filippo Brunelleschi, or the man who was a “gift sent from heaven to give architecture a new form “, as defined by Giorgio Vasari; if he had met the wishes of his father, Ser Brunellesco Lapi, he could have become a notary like him or, at least, doctor like his great-grandfather. But he decided instead to become the greatest architect of the fifteenth century… as we say ‘nobody is perfect’. But Filippo (1377-1446), nicknamed Pippo, was also a goldsmith, sculptor and engineer and the discoverer of perspective.

The symbolic work of Brunelleschi’s genius is the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. The construction of the Cathedral was started in 1296 under the direction of Arnolfo di Cambio and upon its completion distinguished itself for being the largest church in the world (subsequently the third after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London): 153 meters long, 90 meters wide and 90 meters high.

With the death of Arnolfo the works were interrupted and resumed only in 1331, when the Corporation of the Wool took charge of the construction. Three years later, Giotto became the head man, but mainly took care of the tower (85 high and 15 meters wide), which will be completed after twenty years. The work proceeded on and off, with the appointment of new architects throughout the end of the century. The dome will have to wait a few more years, until the competition, in 1418, won from Brunelleschi.

In the contract, the customers required a height of 144 Florentine arms and a width of 72 (the arm is equivalent to 0.584 meters). The octagonal dome took sixteen years of work. The extraordinary innovation was to build the dome without reinforcement, thanks to the use of a double vault with hollow space, made with stone herringbone that had the structural function of being self-supporting. The outside vault had only the cover function.

Following Vasari, only two models were paid (10 florins each): that of Brunelleschi and that of Ghiberti, and also the responsibility of the building was given to both, for the same wage. But Filippo gradually prevailed over his rival. From 1424, he is considered as “inventor et ghubernator maior cupolae” and two years later, his salary is almost three times that of Lorenzo.

We can imagine the difficulties of Pippo in managing a construction site of such size and having to convince carpenters, bricklayers (or “maestri di cazuola”), masons, blacksmiths that the technique would allow the dome to support itself.

But Brunelleschi was an excellent manager capable of managing a complex organization and at the same time oversee the quality of materials, logistics and security.

Scholars, who are immersed in the analysis of archival documents, state that in fact, only a few accidents were recorded. Thanks also to the fact that Filippo used a revolving crane, about 20 meters high to move the sedges of bricks, marble, wood, iron, for a total of 8 tons per day.

Approximately sixty people, randomly selected from special lists compiled every six months, were working in the construction site. The work week was six days, for 10 hours a day and they worked 270 days a year. An hourglass measured breaks, while absences were recorded on a chalkboard. According to the analysis of Franco Carnevale, considering an average of 50 workers per day, over a period of 16 years, we can say building the dome required 2.16 million hours / man / work. The wages, about 1.5 lire per day, were paid in cash on Saturday. Those who did not work were not paid. Journeymen and laborers were paid by the master upon which they depended. Generally workers brought their own tools and meals (the wine was offered on rare occasions, but watered down for a third!).

And last but not least, the New Museum dell’Opera of Florence will open its doors to the public from the 29th of October, which is filled with more than 700 works, telling 700 years of history. The New museum will host the largest concentration in the world of monumental Florentine sculpture (Middle Ages and Renaissance). 6000 square meters divided into 25 rooms to admire the masterpieces of Arnolfo di Cambio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Donatello and Michelangelo, who were mainly made for the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s Campanile.

For practical information (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata and the Opera Museum) see the website.

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Stay tuned dear Storm-Troopers !

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