29 August 2012

Brunelleschi's Dome - Florence, Italy

At the heart of Florence stands the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Begun in 1294, and designed by the architect, Arnolfo di Cambio (c.1240-1300/1310), the building is a vast basilica formed around a domed tribune, with two other attendant buildings – the Campanile and the Baptistery – each clad in white, green, and red marble. To the south of the cathedral, in the adjacent Piazza del Duomo, there are two niches in the neighbouring building, each containing a white marble statue of a seated man. The first is of Arnolfo, who sits looking rather formal and composed. Next to him, the second statue sits in a very different, much more dynamic, pose. The figure’s eyes are raised and seem to be staring, intently focussed upon the dome of the cathedral towering far above. Resting in the figure’s lap is a large sheet of paper over which the figure's hand is poised holding a set of dividers. This statue depicts Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the capomaestro (architect-in-chief) who designed and built the magnificent dome which crowns Arnolfo’s basilica.

The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore – or “Brunelleschi’s Dome” as it is perhaps better known – is an unequalled feat of engineering. When the main body of the basilica was completed in 1418 no one had yet managed to work out how such a monumental dome of brick and stone could be raised over such a vast space. The cathedral itself had been built on pure faith that somehow someone – with God’s help – would find a solution to this architectural challenge. That person was Filippo Brunelleschi. Filippo was a pioneering architect and engineer. In his early years he had spent time in Rome, examining the ruins of the ancient city, studying what was left of the old Roman capital. This period of study evidently paid dividends because he would later build upon and surpass the techniques of the Romans, confounding the architectural wisdom of his own day and in so doing transforming the art and science of architecture.

But Brunelleschi had to fight hard to realise his ambitions, competing with antagonistic rivals to secure each stage of the project to build the dome and the marble lantern which would surmount it. As a boy growing up in the shadow of the slowly growing basilica, he had been fascinated by the machinery used to build the cathedral, and in many ways perhaps his greatest triumphs – the machines and ingenious devices which he designed in order to construct such a vast and seemingly impossible project – have since been lost to us. Some of these large machines survive as drawings only – several of which were later drawn by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who, like Filippo before him, as a youth had been similarly fascinated by the methods employed in the basilica’s construction; and who – it is thought – whilst only a young man, and still only an apprentice, eventually assisted in the raising of the brass orb and cross which sit atop the marble lantern that finally completed the centuries long project of building the cathedral in 1461. A few of the smaller machines and tools have been preserved and can be seen when visiting the dome itself. Also, little noticed by the vast numbers of tourists who visit the cathedral everyday, two pulleys remain left in place, forgotten by the original work men – one of which can be seen if you follow the gaze of Brunelleschi’s statue to one of the tribune morte (blank tribunes), the niches which flank the main drum beneath the cupola.

The great engineering achievement of the dome itself consists in both the design and the method of its construction. Brunelleschi revolutionised the building of such domes in two ways. Firstly, he created the dome in two parts, in effect creating two domes one inside the other, thereby reducing the weight which the structure exerted on top of the walls of the basilica below, and, secondly, he employed an innovative pattern of brickwork, thereby also alleviating the stresses within the fabric of the dome itself and making the dome effectively a self-supporting structure. This alone was perhaps Brunelleschi’s most conspicuously visible display of his pre-eminent genius.

When he first submitted his proposals for building the dome he confounded the cathedral’s overseers, the Opera del Duomo, by telling them that he could construct the cupola without the aid of a supporting scaffold within; a suggestion which must have at first sounded like madness until properly explained. The dome would be self-supporting due to a combination of wooden and stone rings concealed within the structure and augmented by a herringbone pattern of brickwork, which is still clearly visible to anyone ascending the dome today. It’s also a great testament to Brunelleschi’s intense eye for such precision and detail that he also took pains to ensure the safety of the men employed in building the dome, such that there were only three fatalities during the building works, and only one of which was due to a fall during the actual dome’s construction.

Yet the dome was remarkable in ways which reached beyond simply its ingenious method of construction, for it was also seen as an instrument with the potential for improving scientific knowledge. Not simply an expression of faith made manifest in bricks and mortar, it was also seen as an instrument for examining the mechanics of God’s Universe. And as such this was recognised by one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of the Renaissance, Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482). Toscanelli and Brunelleschi became friends around 1425 – and both men were very alike, wholly committed to their work, uncaring of their appearances, not wasting time with luxuries, they were instead each dedicated to their life-long projects of refining their own areas of expertise. It is said that Toscanelli helped Brunelleschi by instructing him in Euclidean geometry, and, perhaps unwittingly, Brunelleschi posthumously repaid the favour in the form of his greatest construction – the dome itself – which allowed Toscanelli to turn the entire ediface into an enormous sundial. By installing a bronze plate, la bronzina, with a small aperture (of a circumference not exceeding one thousandth of its height above the ground) at the base of the lantern. This small hole then channelled a beam of light which fell some 90 metres below to a special gauge laid out on the floor. The device allowed Toscanelli to calculate what he perceived to be the motions of the Sun (in his contemporary geocentric view of how the solar system operated), enabling him to calculate with much greater accuracy than anyone before him the precise moments of the summer solstice and the vernal equinox. These calculations were of great assistance to the Church authorities, who could use them to better determine the dates for such moveable feasts as Easter. They were also of great benefit to navigation at sea as well, and it is known that Toscanelli corresponded to this end with no lesser navigator than Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). The sundial was later refined by the mathematician, engineer, astronomer and geographer, Leonardo Ximenes (1716-1786) in 1754, who used the device to calculate variations in the angle of the inclination of the Earth’s axis with respect to the plane of its elliptical orbit around the Sun (our modern heliocentric view). This ‘function’ of the dome was restored to full working order in 1996. A brass meridian line has been set into the floor of the Capella della Santa Croce (on the north side of the cathedral) which is not usually accessible to the public, but the line can still be glimpsed from the balcony, high up inside the dome when descending from the lantern.

I first visited Florence in early 2004 and had been captivated by the Duomo. That first visit was only a very brief overnight trip, contributing to an exhibition being held at the Palazzo Pitti. That evening I had crossed the Ponte Vecchio and wandered up to the Duomo which stood with its polychrome marble and its warm red terracotta tiles all brightly lit up against the stark black night sky. The effect on me was profound. I knew I would one day have to come back and explore the city properly and the Duomo in particular. Eight years later and I have just returned from five days doing exactly that. For a historian interested in the Renaissance in general, Florence is a city of incomparable fascination. There is so much to see and examine that a single trip is unlikely to suffice, and so I still hope to go back again one day. On this particular trip though, I made the Duomo and Brunelleschi my focal point. I took with me an indispensable guide. Brunelleschi’s Dome, How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King (Penguin, 2000), is an excellent and highly readable account of Brunelleschi’s life and his greatest work, the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. It really is worth reading up and studying the dome before visiting so as not to miss the many fascinating small details which make it such a marvel to contemplate. 

However, it can be hard to fully appreciate the construction amidst the constant press of other tourists surging up through the narrow confined spaces between the two shells of the dome itself, pushing one ever upwards between the curving walls, which are in a deplorable state, covered in thoughtless graffiti. Then, scrabbling for a foothold on the narrow ledge surrounding the marble lantern, where it’s equally difficult to stand looking back against the hordes of cameras all clawing for space, and all intent on pointing their lenses out towards the understandably breathtaking panorama of the city far below. When I visited it seemed as though no one was really interested in the actual fabric of the building on which they were standing, through which they had laboriously climbed and threaded their way, following in the footsteps of Filippo and his Masons, and Michelangelo too, who had climbed the dome to study it as part of his preparations for the building of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. How many of these visitors I wondered knew of the genuine technical achievement which lay beneath their feet? – Such a remarkable construction which had changed and advanced architecture by a single and immeasurable giant stride; an achievement made all the more remarkable for simultaneously having been constructed during a period of tumultuous uncertainty, a time of pestilence and warfare. 

In many ways Brunelleschi’s Dome represents the great achievements which now characterise the Renaissance – it represents a tangible embodiment of the meeting of both profound vision and vaunting ambition with the refinement of art and beginnings of genuine science. Brunelleschi’s Dome perhaps represents for us (in our present-day historical perspective) the profound faith in human aspiration and human achievement which re-emerged in the Renaissance era, as much as it also undoubtedly represents an expression of its makers’ unshakeable faith in the divine glory to which they dedicated their incomparable labours – an achievement which remains physically unsurpassed even into our own era.

All the photographs accompanying this article were taken by me on my recent trip to Florence.

18 August 2012

Rebuilding the Bamiyan Buddhas?

One of the most important historical sites on the ancient Silk Road between China and the West is Bamiyan in Afghanistan. An article published on the BBC News website this week discusses the issues surrounding calls to rebuild the famous colossal Buddhas which were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, versus calls to leave the giant niches standing empty.

The Statues which date to the 6th century were carved directly into the sandstone cliff-face, and the surrounding hillside is riddled with man-made caves. The site was once a great Buddhist sanctuary with Buddhist monks occupying the caves, many of which were decorated with Buddhist frescoes that are now thought to represent the earliest use of oil painting in art. The two giant statues of standing Buddhas were modelled largely in the Gandharan-style – in which Hellenistic forms merged with Buddhist themes, strongly characterised by sensuous lines which made for a distinctive aesthetic of idealistic-realism – most notably marked by the stylised flowing forms of drapery laid over serenely beautiful representations of the human figure. The Statues were carved into the cliff with surface details embellished in moulded stucco and adorned with precious stones and metals. 

Bamiyan was visited in 630 AD by a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, named  Xuanzang (c.596-664), who wrote the classic Chinese text Great Tang Records of the Western Regions – which in turn is said to have inspired the better known classic, Journey to the West, perhaps more popularly known as Monkey (attributed to Wu Cheng’en). Xuanzang described Bamiyan at the time of his visit, noting that there were ten monasteries situated there with over a thousand monks in residence. Curiously, he also describes a third statue of a reclining Buddha which has since been lost – and some think still exists and lies waiting, yet to be discovered.

The two standing Buddhas were destroyed in March 2001, using a combination of dynamite, artillery shelling and anti-tank mines, under the orders of the ruling Taliban regime, who are said to have decreed that the Statues were symbols of idolatry and therefore were contrary to the principles of an extremely strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law. Even though the Buddhist community who created the monuments have long since left the site and the local community is now in the present era an all Muslim population, international calls to preserve the monuments as cultural assets of world historical importance were ignored by the Taliban leaders who went ahead with their destruction. It seems that before this occurred several governments and international bodies made various offers to try to induce the Taliban to hold fire, some of which possibly only further raised or inflamed contentious issues concerning the provision of aid to the local communities of the Bamiyan area; issues which have since muddied the perception as to exactly why the Taliban proceeded with such a drastic and regrettable destruction. Many countries around the world, including the few foreign Governments who supported the Taliban regime, roundly condemned their actions.

Yet the legacy of this destructive act remains an indefinitely contentious and complex one. There are increasing calls to attempt to restore one, if not both, of the Statues; other proposals have suggested recreating the figures using laser projections; yet some insist that the niches should remain empty as monuments in themselves. The arguments for each case are complex even within the camps of their own supporters. Some argue that they should be recreated in defiance of the Taliban’s arbitrary decree; while the motivation for some in proposing they should be rebuilt is perhaps religious or purely in the interests of historical preservation, seeking to uphold notions of a ‘world heritage’; others say the niches should remain empty as a monument to the intolerant and ignorant exclusivist ethos which decreed their destruction. But by the very nature of such an international debate, opinions will naturally vary widely, and not everyone will see eye to eye. Too many different agendas are at play. Some argue that the essentials are what matters most. The Statues were remnants of a superseded faith which no longer populated the area, and so to rebuild them would be contrary to the belief system of the present local populace. Even though that populace had (we assume) largely been happy to live in the shadow of these colossal monuments for centuries without problem or offence. Yet to ask them to support or even participate in their restoration or rebuilding would run contrary to all the tenets of their system of religious beliefs. And yet, to allow outsiders to come in and undertake the work would smack of the imposition of old world imperialistic projections into an area suffering from the day-to-day realities of poverty, deprivation and lawlessness, when such an area could clearly benefit from international interventions of a drastically different ethos and orientation. Why put the Buddhas back on their feet and yet not assist the local people to get back on their feet? – Naturally some would argue that such a project would indeed be just such an investment, bringing jobs, wealth, and a sustainable source of income in the form of future foreign tourism. Each argument can be cancelled by another and vice-versa; and so the wheel of misunderstanding continues to revolve, stuck in the cycle of its own intellectual death and rebirth. Admittedly, with the coming of Genghis Khan (c.1162-1227) in 1221, the site was abandoned by its Buddhist founders who were ruthlessly driven from the valley in revenge for the death of the Khan’s grandson who had been sent with a military force to seize Bamiyan. The irony here is not lost though – in the simple fact that one of the original tenets of the Buddhist faith itself is that all things are subject to change, the sutras state that nothing remains forever; consequently, one has to consider whether rebuilding the Buddhas is not so much contrary, as possibly even acceptable to the Buddhist faith?

Whether or not this debate or these issues will be resolved or instead a resolution imposed without the full consent, agreement, or satisfaction of all the parties concerned, one thing is clear. In their destruction more has been learnt about the Buddhas. A small wooden reliquary cache was recovered from the chest of one of the Buddhas which has enabled the date of its creation, or rather its consecration, to be accurately established. There has been very little proper archaeological investigation of this vast ancient site, which apparently remains seeded with landmines. It is clear though that there is much more to be discovered at this crossroads of antiquity, a place where a turbulent past meets an equally turbulent present.

* * *

UPDATE: (February 6th 2014) UNESCO Stops Unauthorised Reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas - The Art Newspaper

UPDATE: (February 21st 2015) UNESCO Reveals Winning Scheme for the Bamiyan Cultural Centre - One of the judging panel is my colleague, Bob Knox. More info on the international competition here.

5 August 2012

From Cairo to Nubia - Travelling through Time

“So composite and incongruous is this body of Nile-goers, young and old, well-dressed and ill-dressed, learned and unlearned, that the new-comer’s first impulse is to inquire from what motives so many persons of dissimilar tastes and training can be led to embark upon an expedition which is, to say the least of it, very tedious, very costly, and of an altogether exceptional interest. 

His curiosity, however, is soon gratified. Before two days are over, he knows everybody’s name and everybody’s business; distinguishes at first sight between a Cook’s tourist and an independent traveller; and has discovered that nine-tenths of those whom he is likely to meet up the river are English or American. The rest will be mostly German, with a sprinkling of Belgian and French. So far en bloc; but the details are more heterogeneous still. Here are invalids in search of health; artists in search of subjects; sportsmen keen upon crocodiles; statesmen out for a holiday; special correspondents alert for gossip; collectors on the scent of papyri and mummies; men of science with only scientific ends in view; and the usual surplus of idlers who travel for the mere love of travel or the satisfaction of a purposeless curiosity.”

This description by Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) from the opening pages of her great travelogue, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1888), in many ways held just as true when I travelled on the Nile in 1992. I remember scanning the deck of our boat and noted two types of tourist – those assiduously reading their books on the Pharaohs and those deeply engrossed in reading Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile; another way of divvying them up might have been those lounging in the sun and those sitting in the equally sweltering shade. For each though, it seemed Egypt represented a land of historic romance, of nostalgic charm, each lost in their shared exotic fascination.

Egyptology is a uniquely fascinating branch of archaeology. And it seems almost as if the sole purpose of the ancient civilisation which flourished for so many centuries on the banks of the Nile was purposefully orchestrated towards preserving its own immortal posterity. Obsessed with death and the afterlife they built monuments that sought to defy the marching sands of time, and, in so doing, they created a rich playground for archaeologists, scholars and scientists of all kinds of allied disciplines who in many respects have taken up that role of preserving their remains as far into eternity as science can manage. Before I travelled to Egypt I had actually been lucky enough to do some voluntary museum work which had given me some first hand experience of ancient Egyptian material culture, I’d also read a few relevant books. The best of which was Exploring the World of the Pharaohs (now published simply as The World of the Pharaohs) by Christine Hobson (Thames and Hudson, 1990). This book, as its sub-title states, is a complete guide to Ancient Egypt. It is set out rather like a textbook, with excellent illustrations – drawings, maps, photographs – and short, neatly rounded chapters, with boxed biographies of key people in the history of Egyptology in the margins of the pages directly relevant to their work. There is even a useful ‘Gazetteer’ at the end with tips for the modern day traveller, who hopefully will not have to sink their dahabiyeh in the waters of the Nile for 24 hours to rid it of vermin before setting out on their journey up river as the celebrated artist David Roberts (1796-1864) had to in 1838.

Roberts’ paintings and drawings are now the eponymous representation of the romance of that first era of Western-led scientific exploration in Egypt. Many of his sketches and paintings are so accurate that even to this day they still provide a valuable record for modern Egyptologists. Yet he remained very modest about the great achievement of his works, to a friend he wrote that: “Having been familiar with almost every work on Ancient Egypt previous to my coming out, I should say that those mighty remains remain yet to be done, both with regard to showing their vast magnitude and elegant formation of the architecture. Yet I think I have approached nearer the thing than anyone hitherto. To do anything nearer would take years.”

Roberts’ artworks and Edwards’ descriptions are both evocative representations of a bygone Egypt. Yet following in their footsteps, Egypt remains an equally fascinating place to explore, not least for all the many varied and amazing discoveries that have been made since they each travelled their thousand miles up and down the Nile. But Egypt is a country currently in flux with the recent revolution and the subsequent great changes in its government. Travel and tourism however have been such great mainstays of the Egyptian economy since the days of Roberts and Edwards, I hope the country continues to capitalise on this industry and further the exploration and understanding of their ancient forbears. Whilst I was travelling in Egypt I found all the people I met open, welcoming and friendly. Most Egyptians seemed very proud of the great antiquity of Egyptian civilisation. And understandably so, for the past permeates the present throughout the country. 

Yet only a few years after I wandered around the Temple of Hatshepsut, admiring its beautifully harmonious architecture set before a breathtaking rocky escarpment, around 60 foreign tourists and their guides were massacred by extremist gunmen. I hope that a harmonious outcome will be the lasting result of the recent elections in Egypt. I can’t help but think of the story of Caliph Omar (c.582-644) and the once magnificent Library of Alexandria – who when asked what to do with its books after Egypt first came under Muslim rule supposedly replied: “If what they contain is in accord with the Koran we have no need of them; if what they contain is not in accord with the Koran we have no need of them still. Proceed, then, and destroy them.” (see, Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library (Vintage, 1991), Chapter XVI). It is said the scrolls were then fed into the furnaces of the heating system for the city’s baths, and it took over six months to burn them all. History is not simply a single country’s asset – it is also of relevance and instruction to the rest of the world too. We have much to learn from the people of Egypt, both past and present.