Beginning with ancient Rome, domes became the design that opened up buildings, creating vast interior space. However, this was an engineering challenge and innovation for the time. Taking the traditional flat roofs of the Classical period and forming a hemisphere high off the ground, made of heavy concrete that is supported only by material below it, the Romans had to adapt to find a way to support the weight. Once the Roman engineers discovered how to displace the stress through a combination of recesses and coffers, they built the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, the Pantheon. Minor improvements were made over time, but the engineers kept the style relatively close to the original design; although, the art was lost after their eventual fall in the fifth century.
Then, in the fifteenth century, Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi undertook the task of rediscovering the lost art of dome-building, and sparked a new interest and furthered the art in his own right by completing the dome atop Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore. He redesigned the art and redefined the process for building a dome by creating one from an octagonal base, and made significant changes in supporting the dome above a wide-open expanse, in addition to replacing the iconic oculus of the classical domes with a lantern. In the following century, Michelangelo brought Brunelleschi’s accomplishment back to Rome, and was tasked with increasing the size and finding a way to include a new element into the dome: arched windows around its drum, the location where the curved roof meets the walls of the structure. Once completed, the dome above St. Peter’s Basilica was the tallest of its kind and the most ornate.
In the presentation, I will examine the design strategies and the materials that the architect and engineers of the Pantheon used to build the monumental dome, the largest of its kind before the Renaissance, and then how the Renaissance architects reinvented the strategies in the case of Florence’s Il Duomo and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Johnathan Hilliard, ’18
Sponsor: John Gruber-Miller