The construction site of Brunelleschi's Dome: men and machines
In designing the construction of the dome Brunelleschi's genius overcame the culture of his time and that of the ancient Rome, giving life to the first modern construction site: He not only projected the architecture but also designed the tools necessary to build it and paid attention to every single aspect of the builders’ work.
Filippo designed the extraordinary machines for the transport and installation of the materials, which were later studied by important Renaissance architects such as Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Giuliano da Sangallo, Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci. Brunelleschi invented large rotating cranes horizontal and vertical trolleys, levers and winches with adjustable speed, moved by animal strenth thanks to the skilful use of gears, weights and counterweights.
The Opera del Duomo still has many of the original tools from Brunelleschi’s period, such as tensioners, scissors or metal pincers, sizes for the sliding of ropes, and the famous "ulivelle". The “ulivella”, lost during the Middle Ages, was used by the ancient Romans for lifting the heaviest stones. Biographers raccounts that Brunelleschi made a real archaeological discovery during his study stay in Rome: among ancient ruins he found an original “ulivella” still stuck in a stone block.
The life of the workers
These machines and the materials transported had to be maneuver and put in place by expert workers. There were only about sixty masters involved in the construction under the guidance of Brunelleschi. The architect knew well how much dangerous it was to work at those dizzying altitudes and made sure that during the sixteen years of construction (1420-1436) his masters could work safely. There are records of “only” eight seriously workers injured, one “white death”: that of Nencio di Chello who died falling from the walls of the drum in 1422 and other injuries from falling materials or from moving construction machines… but, it still something incredible for that period!
This is thanks to the fact that Brunelleschi and the Opera del Duomo had taken very modern precautions: the large suspended scaffolding had a parapet that prevented falls and protected the view from vertigo and fear of the the large voids. And since it was dangerous for the workers to discend and climb the scaffholdings, Brunelleschi provided to make deliver food and drinks directly in the scaffholdings (hence, the Vasarian legend of real taverns placed there). We also know that the Opera del Duomo used to pay the injured workers for sick days, compensation, treatment (a worker injured on the construction site had been sent to be treated at the thermal baths) and in the case of " Nencino" the Opera del Duomo also covered the expenses of his funeral. Moreover, the workers were not obliged to work at the top, and those who did it received wages increased, in proportion to the risk.
The history of the Dome Construction site shows that the genius of Brunelleschi and the audacity of the Opera del Duomo were not only about engineering, and that the bricks of the dome are cemented with the deepest values of Christian humanism.