Verrocchio's Golden Ball
History of the star that shines above the dome of the Florence Cathedral
A golden star shines at the highest point of the center of Florence: it is the famous Golden Ball by Verrocchio, placed on the top of the lantern of Brunelleschi's dome, 115 meters high. It is a cruciger globe (this is the correct definition) of almost two tons of gilded copper, with a diameter of approximately two and a half metres, which was designed by Andrea Verrocchio and his workshop in 1468 and put in place in 1471. The ball marks the historical, visual and conceptual conclusion of the Santa Maria del Fiore construction site, in a way it is its crown, the diadem placed to complete the titanic work of that entrprise. As can be seen in the wooden model of the lantern by Brunelleschi and in other visual evidence that preceded its creation (such as the portrait of Dante by Domenico di Michelino), a crossed ball at the top of the lantern was foreseen from the beginning of the dome construction site. The idea of this important sign, which would illuminate the sky of the city for centuries, came from the smallest and oldest cruciger globe that crowns the lantern of the Baptistery, the building that was the small-scale model of the entire Brunelleschi vault, its ancestor as religious and civic center of Florence.
The sphere surmounted by the Greek cross is a beautiful work in its apparent simplicity of form, both in itself and in the relationship it establishes with the entire urban fabric and constitutes a true marvel of engineering and technique for its time: it was designed as a hollow object, made up of multiple sheets of copper soldered together and gilded.
Andrea del Verrocchio was, moreover, the most skilled metallurgy expert of his time and his workshop was one of the most important in Florence (and Italy) of the second half of the fifteenth century.
Here, while Verrocchio gave life to his creation, there were a host of brilliant young artists learning the art, including a very young Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo took part in the undertaking of hoisting the large hollow sphere onto the "button" on the top of the lantern cone and took the opportunity to study the astonishing construction machines left on site by Brunelleschi and which Verrocchio still used. In 1471 the ball sparkled in the sky "with great celebration and pleasure of the people", as Vasari reports and as other contemporary sources recall.
Unfortunately, however, neither Verrocchio nor his peers could have known that that large mass of copper, at that altitude, would have been an extraordinary lightning magnet. Serious damage was caused by the lightning bolt that fell in 1492, which was interpreted as a premonition of the death of the Magnificent; and the other one that the sky threw down on the night of January 27, 1601 not only caused serious damage to the lantern, but also caused the "ball" to fall. Its reconstruction took place with great expense but also with considerable speed and in 1602 the ball was back on its summit... with some modifications however (as few know): Buontalenti, who supervised the restoration, in fact suggested that it be rebuilt a little ' larger and that it was equipped in the upper part with that small window which still facilitates the path of maintenance workers towards the cross.
In the following centuries many other cruciger globes will flourish on the top of the churches and chapels of Florence, but none exceeds that of Santa Maria del Fiore in height and size. The lines of the white ribs of the large dome converge in it, seeming to raise it like a trophy. The ball is the navel of the religious life of Florence, in eternal dialogue with the lion on the tower of Palazzo Vecchio: the former is the symbol of the power of the government, this is the sign of Christian Florence which recognizes the supremacy of God (represented by the cross) about the world and earthly powers (the sphere).