It was a dark and stormy night

Jan 26, 2021

Work in progress on the Dome of the Florence Cathedral

The night between 26 and 27 January 1601 must  have been not so peaceful. 

A very violent lightning struck Verrocchio’s golden ball that overlooks the dome of the Florence Cathedral, threw it off and dropped it where a plaque still remembers the point of impact. The impression was enormous. It was seen as a clear sign of the incoming end of the world.

But the restoration works immediately followed: the lantern was restored, and already on 21 October 1602, the ball was relocated. Very quickly, considering that the challenges: the total elevation of the entire structure is 116.50 meters, and the ball weighs 18 quintals.

Before the installation of a lightning rod in 1859, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore had been hit 27 times, with an average of once every 15 years. And such occurrences, as you can imagine, often involved damage to the structure of the lantern.

Details on how to intervene sometimes emerge where you do not expect them. For example in the “Assumption of the Virgin” by Santi di Tito, preserved in the Church of the Carmine in Pisa.

In the preparatory drawing, visible in the reflectograpy made by Art-Test, there is a sort of crane drawn on the right side of the lantern, a crane which then disappears in the finished painting. So we can assume that the crane was visible at the time of the drawing but not when the painting was concluded. This detail could therefore help with the dating both as regards its conception, and therefore the realization of the first underdrawing, and as regards the finished artwork.

But could the crane we see be the one on the lantern following the lightning strike of 1601? The recognizable details of the crane drawn in the painting in question do not allow to recognize the exact typology. We know with certainty that machines with winches and pulleys were already known and used at the time of the construction of the dome

Although Brunellleschi did not leave any descriptions of the machines he used, (which in many cases were invented and custom made), many drawings (among which we show Leonardo’s) show how he made use of cranes, and how these were used, even after his death, by the workers who completed the project. 

It is also known that, for example, a crane was designed specifically for the lantern. But the drawing made by Gherardo Mechini in 1601 shows a large scaffolding that surrounds the whole structure. So either the Carmine altarpiece was built when the restoration works were over, or it was at the time of another near-end of the world.