Monday, November 25, 2013

Florence: Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome

I made an impromptu visit to Florence last weekend, and in my typical travel style, didn't really plan anything ahead of time. Florence is both perfect and terrible for this type of approach. On the one hand, there are so many things to do in Florence, you can easily just show up, wander around, and see plenty without giving it much advance thought. On the other hand, many of the attractions are pretty important, like the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the world's best collection of Renaissance art, or Michaleangelo's David at Accademia. Both of these require reservations ahead of time, so if you don't plan for that, your chances of getting in are slim to none. 

Since I'll be returning to Florence in December with my family, I just wanted to get a feel for the city in an attempt to avoid a "blind leading the blind" scenario come December. There was only one thing I absolutely had to make sure I saw: the Duomo di Sanda Maria del Fiore and la cupola di Brunelleschi.

Florence's cathedral (duomo) and its dome (cupola) is the most recognizable landmark in the city. The cathedral, began in 1296, has a distinctive look thanks to its colorful marble, and its dome, began in 1418, is a feat of engineering. Prior to its construction, the only other dome in the world was Rome's Pantheon. Somewhere between the Pantheon and 1418, the knowledge of how to build such a structure was forgotten. 

For 10 Euros, you can climb to the top of the cathedral's bell tower and dome. Like other towers I've climbed, this one has a few levels to stop at, catch your breath, and admire the view. 

Climbing the dome is another story altogether, and it's not for the faint of heart. Think you can do it? Alright, follow me...

You will take the first of 467 steps right after scanning your ticket at the side entrance to the cathedral. These steep, concrete steps run up interior of the cathedral wall and are original to the building. This means they're not exactly conducive to thousands of tourists heading up and down each and every day. As you begin to trudge up, you'll find yourself wondering why the dome is so popular. Plenty of cathedrals have domes, don't they? What makes this one so important? 

I mentioned earlier that nobody knew how to actually build such a thing. Yet the masterminds behind the cathedral wanted to top it off with a dome, so a competition was announced to find an architect who could figure out how to build one. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi (who is pictured below and whose patron was none other than Cosimo de Medici) were the two frontrunners.

Both had competed against each other to decorate Florence in the past; Ghiberti had beat out Brunelleschi to carve the bronze doors of the baptistery, pictured below. In Ghiberti vs. Brunelleschi round two, Brunelleschi won. Work began on the dome in 1418 and was finished by 1436 - the first octagonal dome in history to be built following the Pantheon.

Attempting to design the dome must have been a daunting task for Brunelleschi - nearly as daunting as the 400 more steps you have before you reach the top. It's starting to get crowded now; there's a large group of tourists in front of and behind you. The ones in front are moving slowly and those behind are trying to quicken the pace, leaving you in a rather annoying position. Frustrated, those behind you attempt to brush past, but the passageway is so narrow you find yourself in uncomfortably close contact with a complete stranger. He and his friends squish past, but not before you're practically smothered into the stone wall.

No matter, it's just a slight setback. Persevere, as Brunelleschi did when confronted with a major architectural puzzle. He faced two problems in designing such a large dome: support and weight, both of which, if executed incorrectly, would result in the collapse of the dome. Its proposed size was far too large to use stone to build, like the Pantheon, and there wasn't enough timber in the region to build the support scaffolding that would keep it up while construction took place. To solve these problems, Brunelleschi built with brick instead of stone, since it was lighter, and carried out construction over 16 concealed ribs - a sort of permanent scaffolding. To keep the dome from collapsing in on itself from sheer size, he created a double shell and incorporated internal stone buttressing and iron chains which, without going into the confusing detail of it all, spread the weight of the dome to its eight corners rather than the center. He also laid the inner bricks in a herringbone pattern which further assisted in transferring the weight to the ribs. 

You can see some of these innovations, like the herringbone bricks and the internal stone supports, as you continue to climb your way up. You'll have plenty of time to ponder Brunelleschi's ingenuity, because all movement has come to a complete stop. There's some sort of jam up ahead where the people who are ascending are trying to get past a mass of people descending. As you wait to start moving again, you notice some anxious looking people glancing around. This journey is not for claustrophobics, you think to yourself, feeling grateful that cramped spaces don't cause you any emotional distress. All the same, that miniscule little window letting in a ray of light and molecule of fresh oxygen is a welcome sight right now...

If two people can't even walk through side by side, how on earth did builders transport materials to the top? Brunelleschi had an answer for that, too. He invented various machinery to hoist pieces up the side of the dome; many of which were used for centuries after. Still, it must have been an incredibly tiring task.

Speaking of tired, you're starting to feel the effects of having climbed the tower's 414 steps plus the 200ish of the dome so far. The line is moving again, and you ask a passerby how much further it is until the top. "You're not quite halfway yet," they answer, and a small part of you, the part that has always hated Stairmasters at the gym, wants to admit defeat. "But don't worry, there's a cool part up ahead," they add. Sure enough, you pass through a door and find yourself on a circular catwalk which goes around the lowest interior point of the dome, putting you nearly face to face with the massive frescoed ceiling.

The fresco, which is 3,600 meters in surface area, depicts the Last Judgement. It was carried out by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari between 1450 and 1579. It's quite a masterpiece, though art historians critique it for its unevenness - the result of two different painting techniques being used. Vasari painted in the buon fresco technique while Zuccari used in secco. Buon fresco is a style of painting in which the pigment is mixed with water and applied to wet plaster. As the plaster dries, the color becomes an integral part of the wall. The in secco style involves mixing the pigment with egg and applying it to plaster that has been re-moistened with water.

You won't have much time to look for variances in pigment application, however, because you've now come to another door on the other side of the dome. You take a deep breath and head back into the tight, narrow passageway. The steps here are freakishly steep and you're grateful for the handrail that was added to help facilitate climbing.

You climb and climb and climb. You're getting tired. Your legs are starting to ache. You're sweating through the long sleeved shirt and sweater that you wore, and you try to take off your scarf but end up elbowing somebody in the face. You're thirsty, but there's not enough room to reach into your bag and get your water out. In an attempt to lighten the weary mood that surrounds you, you try to converse with the group ahead of you. "Posso annullare il mio membership per la palestra," (I can cancel my membership to the gym), you joke. Nobody responds, and your grammatically incorrect sentence hangs awkwardly in the air. Whatever.

You reach yet another door and find yourself at a higher level circling the dome's interior. Straight ahead you see the hell scene from the Last Judgement, and you feel for a moment that the man getting his head speared off by Satan could easily be you. Or perhaps you're the one getting whipped by a bizarre lizard-human hybrid. They taunt you as you pass by and you realize that no, you're not like those poor souls in hell. They have it alot easier than you do. In fact, you'd gladly allow Satan to spear off your head if it meant you could avoid the next 200 steps.

But you're getting close! You see that more people are descending. They look happy and fulfilled, as though they've just seen something wonderful. You'll wonder what it must be like to feel that way, because you don't think you'll ever be happy again if you're stuck in this cement tunnel for the rest of your life. And you will be stuck there, if the line doesn't start to move again. A rather large woman in front of you is getting anxious and is taking it out by trying to get the line in order.  

"We can't have this! We can't get by! It doesn't work! If you're coming down, you need to be on the right side, not the left!!" She shouts in annoyingly shrill English. Those who understand her roll their eyes. Those who don't just look confused and give her blank stares.

The line is at a complete standstill now while people try to maneuver around each other up ahead. You don't care - nothing matters anymore. You're stuck between a rock and a hard place - literally. Is this what my life has come to? You ask yourself. A tiny voice in your head tries to remind you that it will be worth it once you reach the top, but it's not loud enough. The optimistic part of you is gone. Forever, probably. You resign yourself to living out the rest of your life packed inside Brunelleschi's dome with strangers, like a bunch of tourist sardines in a can. 

The line moves. You continue to trudge upwards.

Suddenly, you see the light. 

Jesus himself has left the scene of the Last Judgement and is standing outside, on top of the dome, reaching down a hand to pull you up. Being out in the daylight again is nearly blinding and the wind is bitterly cold, but you don't care. You've made it to the top of the dome! Rejoice, and be glad!!

It's crowded, but just pick a spot near the railing and take in the scenery. From up here, you can see all of Florence.

As you look out at the city below you, try to imagine you're looking at it five hundred years ago. Somewhere below you, Michaelangelo is sculpting David, the Medici are counting their money, and Botticelli is painting Primavera. You're looking at the birthplace of the Renaissance where countless masterpieces were created.

Brunelleschi's innovative dome was copied all over Florence and became the blueprint for many others, including the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. Michaleangelo, who was the architect for the St. Peter's dome, was reported to have said, "I'll make its sister - bigger, but not more beautiful." 

If you ever plan to visit Florence, I suggest checking the cathedral, tower, and dome off your list right away. Lines are sure to be shorter earlier in the morning, and fewer people would definitely make the 467 steps more bearable. Even with hordes of temperamental tourists, however, getting to the top of the dome and the view that greets you there is an experience no one should pass up. Of all the magnificent things that came out of the Renaissance, Brunelleschi's dome is undoubtedly one of the most impressive. Seeing it in person - not to mention actually being inside of it - is something I'll never forget. 

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Pillars of Milan

I've just finished The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. The book is set in 12th century England, during the years of anarchy that came as a result of a dispute over the throne between Empress Maud, the daughter of the dead King Henry I, and her cousin, Stephen. Maud had the support of those who saw her as the true heir - she was, after all, the king's daughter. But Stephen gained support from those who saw Maud as unfit to rule because she was a woman. Blahblahblah, historical ramblings. Anyway, the story follows the lives of various characters and revolves around the building of a cathedral.

That probably sounds extremely dull to most of you.

Admittedly, it even took me a few chapters to really get into it, but I promise you won't be able to put it down if you give it a chance. The characters are masterfully intertwined in surprising ways and you'll find yourself celebrating and commiserating with them as they attempt to finish the cathedral amidst political and religious schemes and strife. What has stuck with me throughout, however, is the silent star of the book - the cathedral itself.

In the past two and a half months I've lost count of the number of cathedrals I've seen. Their size, intricacy, and beauty never fail to leave me in awe. I've literally spent hours making my way down the nave and the aisles, admiring each chapel and seeking out various architectural features I could identify. I have a deep appreciation for cathedrals, but it's always been, for the most part, academic. Pillars of the Earth has given me a more intellectual appreciation. It's one thing to walk through a cathedral and admire it for purely artistic purposes, or even to feel deeply moved, religiously speaking. But to really understand how and most importantly, why these amazing structures were built puts a whole new spin on what you're looking at.

If you looked at Christianity as a line on a graph over the centuries, one of its highest points would be the medieval period. The unshakeable belief in God, heaven, and hell that these people held is the sole purpose for building massive churches. Well, that and the income they could generate for a town, but really, 99.99% of it was driven by religion. The taller the building, the closer to God - people honestly believed that this was true. They also believed that creating something on such an enormous scale specifically for God would undoubtedly win his favor, thus abolishing their sins and securing their place in heaven. In Pillars of the Earth, the master builder, Tom, is driven by a deep desire to create the most beautiful cathedral in England, but also very much by his wish to give his wife, who died and is buried in unconsecrated (unholy) ground, a place in heaven.

"My first wife... Agnes... she died without a priest, and she's buried in unconsecrated ground. She hadn't sinned, it was just... the circumstances. I wondered... Sometimes a man builds a chapel, or founds a monestary, in the hope that in the afterlife God will remember his piety. Do you think my design might serve to protect Agne's soul?"

Philip frowned. " this design the best thing you could offer God?"

"Except for my children, yes."

"Then rest easy, Tom Builder. God will accept it."

Now, I'm certainly not the most religious person you'll come across, but even I have to admire how sincerely the people of this time believed. Were it not for that unshakeable faith, I doubt these beautiful churches would ever have been built.

So God accounts for most of the why, what about the how? I'm sure I'm not the only person who has found themselves wondering, "How on earth did people a thousand years ago figure out how to build such structures?" The miracle of it all is made even more apparent by the relative simplicity of our modern buildings in comparison. The answer is simple: years and years and YEARS and DECADES, sometimes CENTURIES of hard labor.

The aptly named Tom Builder in Pillars of the Earth secures his position as master builder of the cathedral thanks to his knowledge and understanding of masonry and the mathematics of building. The engineers of centuries past were, in many cases, as brilliant and knowledgeable as ours today.

Tom designed the three levels of the nave wall - arcade, gallery and clerestory - strictly in the proportions of 3:1:2. The arcade was half the height of the wall, and the gallery was one third of the rest. Proportion was everything in a cathedral. The tower should be either one and a half times the height of the nave or double it. It would give the building an attractively regular profile, with the aisles, the nave, and the tower rising in equal steps, 1:2:3. 

These people understood what would look 'good' and exactly how to implement it; they knew what would allow them to build in a straight line, or create a pointed arch, add windows, or solve difficult problems that often arose while building. They knew and carried out all these things without the aid of our modern technology.

He stood on the scaffolding far above the ground, staring close-range at the new cracks, brooding. He needed to think of a way of bracing the upper part of the wall so that it would not move with the wind. he reflected on the way the lower part of the wall was strengthened. In the outer wall of the aisle were strong, thick piers which were connected to the nave wall by half-arches hidden in the aisle roof. The half-arches and the piers propped up the wall at a distance, like remote buttresses. Because the props were hidden, the nave still looked light and graceful. He needed to devise a similar system for the upper part of the wall....if only he could build piers and half-arches to support the clerestory...

The above passage describes a builder's dilemma regarding the way the height of his cathedral (taller than any other at the time) required additional support, for cracks had been appearing throughout. He needed to add this support without compromising the aesthetic integrity. He later solves the problem by developing flying buttresses - a common feature on many gothic cathedrals. Though the book provides a fictional account of the problem, a similar scenario in real life likely pushed the real inventor of flying buttresses to reach the same conclusion.

Above is the buttressing on Westminster Abbey in London. Each outer pillar reaches a point inside the wall, providing support to the structure. This support isn't enough, however, when cathedrals are built taller. Additional buttressing is required for the upper portions; thus, flying buttresses were utilized, like on Notre Dame in Strasbourg, pictured below. The higher portion of the church is supported by the half arches that jut out and connect to the original lower supports.

Innovations aside, even the most simplistic cathedral could not take shape without the basic materials. Take another look at Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame above; all of that stone had to be quarried by hand and transported to the building site via oxen and carts, then cut with hammers and chisels into hundreds of perfectly shaped pieces for building walls, pillars and arches and sculpting angels, saints, and other decorative pieces. Timber had to be cut from forests and transported to the site as well. As the church grew upwards, wood and stone would be moved from the ground up, piece by piece with pulley systems. There were no cranes, no heavy machinery to assist.

Cathedral building employed hundreds of people and often helped villages prosper into cities. When finished, they would become the churches that held the bishop's throne and often the remains of a particularly important saint. People would flock from all around to hear the bishop say mass or just to kneel at the bones of a saint. There is really no modern day equivalent to describe the sheer importance of the way the people's devotion to God manifested itself in these impressive churches during the Middle Ages.

I suppose that's the point I'm trying to get at here. These buildings weren't created because the town wanted something nice to look at. Cathedrals were built to worship God. Cathedrals were made enormous to please God. Cathedrals were decorated beautifully because God was worthy of only the most glorious of structures. Because of this driving force, the people who lived thousands of centuries ago managed to find innovative techniques to carry out the construction, without the modern technology we use today to create, in my opinion, many less beautiful buildings. I dare you to walk into any European cathedral bearing all of that in mind and not be at least a bit moved, humbled, and awed at what you're seeing.

So, after this incredibly long introduction, let's take a look at Milan's own cathedral, shall we?  Awhile ago I posted about the exterior of the Duomo. It's extravagant, intricate, and beautiful.

The inside is no different. Sadly, I must make a disclaimer here; none of my amateur photography does justice to the sights of Italy, and these photos are certainly no exception. Since you can't use flash inside the cathedral, all of my photos taken with my camera turned out dark, so these are iPhone photos. You get the gist of the place, at the very least. Nothing compares to actually walking inside, anyway.

Milan's Duomo boasts rows of massive pillars. Like many Gothic cathedrals, each pillar is surrounded by shafts, giving it a more impressive look overall.

Each pillar is topped off with carved capitals featuring various religious figures.

The shafts that surround each pillar seemingly continue on their way up beneath the decorative capitals and emerge again above them, where they branch off, cross the vault of the nave, and join up with the corresponding shaft from across the way. The square/triangle pattern that results is called a ribbed vault. The very first cathedrals were built with boring barrel vaults - basically just a regular old arched ceiling. Ribbed vaulting was an innovation that allowed cathedrals to be built higher than ever before.

The side aisles of many cathedrals are lined with smaller chapels dedicated to a particular saint or person. Above is a rather large shrine to Saint Something-or-Other, complete with stained glass windows, which were another innovation of Gothic churches.

Size comparison: that random man is barely taller than the base of the pillar.

And like any good Christian church, Milan's Duomo is the final resting place of many esteemed religious men. Yes, these are their real bodies, preserved and enshrined and on display. Rotting popes really liven the place up.

Pictured above is the crypt of San Carlo, the archbishop of Milan in the 16th century. He helped lead the counter-reformation in Italy and became a saint following his death.

It really does make me a bit sad that buildings like this aren't made anymore. The art of cathedral building is about as dead as that pope up there. Fortunately, these churches have stood the test of time and they can still be appreciated today - even more so, when you bear in mind how utterly remarkable it is that they were built in the first place. I'll end this how I started it; cathedrals are awesome, and Pillars of the Earth is a great book which I highly recommend it to anyone who has even a remote interest in historical fiction. And who knows, it may inspire you to jump the pond real quick and see some European cathedrals for yourself.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Cimitero Monumentale

Milan's Monumental Cemetery can be summed up with two words: enchantingly eerie. It's hidden up in the northern part of the city, above Parco Sempione and away from the always busy Piazza del Duomo and Sforza Castle area. The nearest metro stop is Porta Garibaldi, and the cemetery is about a ten minute walk through a not-so-nice area from the station. By not-so-nice, I mean there is currently a ton of construction going on, the buildings have a low rent hideousness to them, and you're likely to catch the faint whiff of urine more than once. But trust me, it's worth it!

The cemetery is hard to miss due to its looming cathedral entrance and stone walls surrounding the nearly 250,000 square meter site. It was opened in 1866 as a "resting place for Milan's most important men" and has since expanded to include anyone willing to pay what I imagine must be a hefty price for a plot of land.

The entrance to the cemetery takes you through the Famedio, a massive, cathedral-esque structure. The exterior is made of marble and built in the late medieval style, while the inside is decorated with lavish Byzantine blues and golds. The city's most honored and well known citizens lie within the walls of the Famedio, while lesser known graves occupy the expanse of land behind the building.

I think the interior must be so bright and shiny to make up for the overall gloominess of the cemetery itself. After admiring the dome, I made my way down one of the long hallways, where nameplates and statues line the walls. Eventually the walls disappeared, replaced by pillars and massive tombs commemorating Milan's most famous writers, artists, and politicians. 

My first visit to the cemetery occurred by accident. I noticed the massive dome of the Famedio while wandering around one day and decided to take a look. It was a rather unfortunate day to be walking around a cemetery; the sun was hidden behind dark grey clouds, a brisk wind was causing tree branches to creak eerily, and as I found myself further and further into the shadowy depths of tombs and graves, it began to rain. Telling myself I didn't want to get wet, I abruptly left, but in all honestly, I was completely freaked out. I returned on a much sunnier day, though I still couldn't shake the general uneasiness I felt as I meandered through statues and tombs.

Every statue is different. Some are religious figures, poised to ward off evil and protect the inhabitants of the graves. Some are likenesses of the deceased, and others portray the surviving family members, keeping watch over their lost loved ones. They're all beautiful in their own strange ways... though some are just downright creepy.

The crypts are remarkable as well. Some are built for individuals, but most house entire families. Each one is a unique, miniature example of some form of architecture: gothic, renaissance, medieval, modern... there's even an Egyptian pyramid.  

The cemetery is the #5 Milan attraction on TripAdvisor. This either means that Milan sucks for sightseeing if a cemetery is in the top ten, or that it's a pretty damn interesting cemetery. In  my opinion, it's  a little of both. Either way, it's a rather remarkable place and I highly suggest a visit if you ever pass through Milan.

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emilan: November 2013