of Marcus Aurelius, which Donatello could have seen in Rome. Like Marcus Aurelius, Gattamelata controls
his massive horse with little effort. But Donatello’s Gattamelata shows a man whose face bears the mark
of age and whose expression shows a subtle mix of sadness and determination. One of the striking qualities
of Donatello’s work is the way it expresses the complexity of human emotion in a precise way.
Construction of Florence Cathedral (which is often referred to as the Duomo) began at the end of the
thirteenth century, and the plans for the cathedral were enlarged in the mid fourteenth century. The body
of the church was built in a simplified Gothic style, as was typical of the time. But those who planned the
new cathedral dreamed that the building would be crowned with a huge dome, about the size of the
Pantheon in Rome. Unlike the Pantheon, however, the dome would be set much higher above the ground,
so the same kind of arches and concrete reinforcements used in the Roman work would be impossible. The
cathedral’s dome was left unfinished for nearly a century because no one could figure out how to support
such a huge structure, or even how to support the framework for it while it was being built.
Around 1420, Brunelleschi (who turned to architecture after his defeat in the Baptistery door competition)
solved both problems. He designed an octagonal, double-shelled dome, which could be built in concentric
rings because of its interlocking brickwork. This design eliminated the need for an enormous system of
scaffolding resting on the floor. The dome’s two shells are relatively thin and are supported with heavy
stone ribs. The profile of the dome is pointed, rather than hemispherical, so the weight of the dome presses
more directly downward; buttressing is provided by smaller half-domes. These devices—especially the use
of stone ribs and the pointed arch—should sound familiar because they are derived from Gothic structural
systems. Brunelleschi clearly learned from the great builders of the past in order to solve a problem that
had baffled so many architects before him.
The dome of the Cathedral of Florence, Brickwork of the dome.
Watch the SmartHistory video on Brunelleschi’s design for the Dome
Other works by Brunelleschi, such as the Church of San Lorenzo or the Pazzi Chapel, show a similar
adaptation of older forms to create a new Renaissance style. The basic plan of San Lorenzo is much like a
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