An Ascent Of The Great Dome – Florence, Italy

The traveler who, turning his back to the gates of Ghiberti, passes, for the first time, under the glittering new mosaics and through the main doors of Santa Maria Del Fiore experiences a sensation. He leaves behind him the facade, dazzling in its patterns of black and white marble, all laced with sculpture, he enters to dim, bare vastness—surely, never was bleaker lining to a splendid exterior. Across a floor that seems unending, he makes long journeys, from monument to monument; to gigantic condottieri, riding ghost-like in the semi-darkness against the upper walls; to Luca’s saints and angels in the sacristies; to Donatello’s Saint John, grand and tranquil in his niche, and to Michelangelo’s group, grand and troubled in its rough-hewn marble.

At length, in the north transept, he comes to a small door, and entering there, he may, if legs and wind hold out, climb five hundred and fifteen steps to the top of the mightiest dome in the world, the widest in span, and the highest from spring to summit. For the first one hundred and fifty steps or so, there are square turnings, and the stone looks sharp, and new, and solid; a space vaulted by a domical roof follows, and is apparently above one of the apsidal domes to the church; then a narrow spiral staircase leads to where a second door opens upon a very narrow, balustraded walk that runs around the inner side of the dome.

He is at an altitude of sixty-seven meters, exactly at the spring of the cupola and the be-ginning of the Vasari frescoes; the feet are at an elevation of one meter less than is that of the lower tops of Notre Dame de Paris, and yet the dome follows away overhead, huge enough, high enough to contain a second church piled, Pelion-like upon the first. Before, in the dimness, is the vastest roof-covered void in the world; it is terrific, and if the visitor is susceptible, his knees shake, and his diaphragm seems to sink to meet them.

The impression is tremendous; no wonder that the Tuscans felt Brunelleschi to be the central figure of the Renaissance. Again and again, whether in the gallery or between the walls of the dome, the thought comes ; men built this, and one man dared it and planned it. Not even the Pyramids impress more strongly; for if Brunelleschi built a lesser pyramid, he hollowed his and hung it in the air.

On the other side of the space, a small black spot becomes a door when the traveler has giddily circled half the dome; it opens upon another staircase, up which he climbs between the two skins of the cupola, or rather between two of the three, like a parasite upon a monster. Sometimes the place suggests a ship, with the oculi as gunports, piercing to the outer day, or else, his mind fresh from that red inferno of Vasari’s frescoes, the traveler is tunneling up through a volcanic crater with a whole Typhonic Enceladus buried below.

To right and left, the smooth, cemented surface curves away and upward, brick buttresses appear constantly, but always with the courses of brick laid slanting to the earth’s level, and perpendicular to the thrust of the dome. Every possible effect of light and obscurity makes the strange vistas yet more weird, and, now and then, there is a feeling of standing upon the vast, rounding slope of some planet that shines at one’s feet, then gradually falls away into the surrounding blackness.

The famous “oaken chain” of Vasari’s life of Brunelleschi is there, bolted together in suecessive beams. Last of all, a long, straight staircase, straight because without turn to right or left, curves upward like an unradiant, bowed Valhalla-bridge to a great burst of daylight, and the climber is upon the top of the dome.

He is as completely cut off from the immediately surrounding earth as upon a cloud girdled mountain, for the dome swells so vastly below that the piazza can not be seen about transept or choir, and not one of the apsidal domes shows a tile of its covering, while the nave, that huge and tremendous nave of Santa Maria, looks but a narrow, and a distant roof. At one’s back, the marble of the lantern is handsome and creamy in color, but battered and broken; its interior is curious—a narrow funnel of marble, little wider than a man’s body, set with irons on either side, is the only ladder, so that the climb up is a close squeeze. There is a familiar something gone from the surroundings, and that something is soon remembered to be Dante’s baptistery, which does not exist from Brunelleschi’s dome, being blotted out by the facade of Santa Maria. One hundred feet be-low, showing its upper and richer portion gloriously from this novel point of view, is what from the piazza is the soaring bell tower, the Campanile of Giotto.