Filippo Brunelleschi is justifiably famous for his design of the dome of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo). Famous enough that my household contains not one, but two books about Brunelleschi and his dome, as I recently discovered.
The first is Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, in which King follows the career of Filippo Brunelleschi and the long process that lead to the construction of what may still be the most impressive dome in the long history of human architecture. The story of Brunelleschi and his dome is gripping. If a book about early Italian Renaissance cathedral architecture can be called a “page turner”, Brunelleschi’s Dome deserves the title.
The second is Pippo the Fool, a children’s book written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Pau Estrada. The books cover much of the same ground. Indeed, Pippo the Fool uses King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome as a reference (yes, it is a children book that lists its references – be still my beating heart). Pippo the Fool, however, is meant as a narrative illustration of an individual genius triumphing over the odds and bullies based upon Brunelleschi’s life; whereas Brunelleschi’s Dome is an exploration of history.
Brunelleschi was inarguably a genius. He combined study of ancient architecture and visionary creativity led him to invention well ahead of his time. He also seems to have been a bit of a jerk. The conflict between his admirable genius and questionable personal behavior – petty jealousies, cruel pranks, etc – is a major element of King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome. The reader is meant to be impressed by Brunelleschi’s genius, and this reader was. The reader is not meant to like Brunelleschi as a man, and this reader didn’t (although Donatello seemed to find a way).
Pippo the Fool implies some of these personal foibles, but does not dwell on them – compromise for the narrative. Estrada mentions in the illustrator’s notes that all these Renaissance geniuses seemed to be rather unlikable human beings.
The different goals of these two books lead to some distinct differences in the way particular events are handled. In particular, the contrast in treatments of Il Badalone, Brunelleschi’s failed effort to create a gigantic amphibious cart for the transport of marble. Il Badalone was an expensive fiasco and an embarrassment. In Pippo the Fool, the ambitious, failed invention is treated as evidence of Brunelleschi’s genius alongside the revolutionary hoist (perhaps his greatest invention) created to efficiently haul building materials up to the dome.
Where the children’s book is necessarily more limited in the themes it can explore, King is able to add a dimension. It is notable that the failed inventions of Brunelleschi met the same criticism, opposition, and initial encouragement as his strokes of true genius. This highlights a truth often lost in genius hero narratives. Geniuses succeed despite criticism sometimes. They also fail as predicted by their critics. The critics are not always wrong, even if they have been in the past – a lesson worth remembering when one sees the rhetoric of the genius overcoming critics used as a substitute for real evidence.
As a parent, I recommend Pippo the Fool. The narrative provides hooks for discussing science, architecture, mathematics, and history with your children. Estrada’s illustrations are beautiful and engaging. They also conscientiously reference the artwork of the early Italian Renaissance and the few historical depictions we have of Brunelleschi himself.
In this context, Brunelleschi’s Dome provides the parent with the necessary background to deal with the questions Pippo the Fool will inspire in your children. This does, however, highlight two weaknesses I found in Brunelleschi’s Dome. First, I found some of the modern diagrams to be either too simple or too inadequately described to contribute meaningfully to my understanding. Second, and I understand I am a niche audience, is that King does not seize the opportunity to describe the mathematical and physical principles that make it difficult to go from architectural models to building the actual structures. The models built by Renaissance cathedral architects were impressively large (think the size of houses), but factors such as non-linear scaling of forces meant that the models could not be used as precise guides to building full-sized structures. The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore provides a dramatic illustration of principles that are useful throughout everyday life.
Brunelleschi was inspired to create the dome over Santa Maria del Fiore by the architecture of the Romans. Maybe your future genius will be inspired to create by the work of a disagreeable Renaissance genius.