In a recent conference appearance, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking revised his forecast. Due to population growth, climate change, refugee streams, public unrest and epidemics he shifted the time for humans to live on planet Earth down from an earlier prognosis of 1000 years to a mere 100 years. Then, it’s either lift-off for other planets or doomsday everyone.
In his latest thriller “Inferno”, Dan Brown’s hero Robert Langdon (the Da Vinci guy) hunts through modern-day Florence in pursuit of clues relating to Dante’s divine comedy. His mission: Prevent the outbreak of a virus designed by an unscrupulous genius (Swiss genius, by the way, ha ha!) which will efficiently limit mankind’s population growth. In the 2016 movie, Robert Langdon succeeds. In the book, he doesn’t. And one does not really care.
In various countries across the globe the sovereign seems to have become tired of democracy – a tool far from being perfect – and is all too eager to put the power into the hands of autocratic demagogues, who do not even strive the complexity of today’s issues, lest try to resolve them.
Pessimism is en vogue these days. But is it justified?
Rewind: 700 years
One of “Inferno”’s key clues is presumed to be hidden in the Baptistery of San Giovanni, a church dating back to 700 AD, in which font every child born in the city was baptised. Knowing that the Baptistery lies only a few meters west of Florence’s main cathedral, Robert Langdon rushes towards the magnificent dome, and in all that running still finds time to remember Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Renaissance man, architect and constructor of the cupola, the massive dome overarching Florence at a height of 150 meters.
Let’s build something big!
When in 1296 the foundation stone of Santa Maria del Fiore was laid, Filippo was not even born. The original architect of the cathedral, Arnolfo di Cambio, was a man of fame, having built – amongst many others – the Palazzo Vecchio and the new, massive city walls. His original draft captured the wish of the city of Florence to build one of the most beautiful – and most impressive – churches in Christendom, a plan which foresaw – amongst other elements a dome that would be larger than the one on Rome’s Pantheon or Constantinople’s Hagia Sofia.
There was only one problem, and the fact that since the 1360ies a 10-meter long brick model of the finished church was standing in one of its naves did not help: No one knew how to build such a large dome, and whilst the masons were progressing, the question on how to raise this massive roof would become one of the biggest architectural mysteries.
Problem first. Solution later.
In 1418 the solution of the problem could no longer be postponed, and so the woolmaker’s guild – in charge of financing the construction – issued a competition, asking for ideas on how to complete this herculean task. Filippo – then 41 years old – won the competition, and his proposal was so bold that the guild only hesitantly awarded him the price – under the condition that he would be accompanied / balanced by a 2nd architect.
As millions of tourist photos prove: Filippo’s concept ruled, the cupola was built and the cathedral completed – most of it at least in 1461, though some works continued up to the 16th century. Filippo did not live to see the moment – he died in 1446 and was honoured by being buried inside the cathedral.
The future will provide the way.
Two thoughts spring to mind:
- It takes courage to get together and plan a project – especially when no one has an idea how long it will take to complete it. Sure everyone involved knew it would take “very long”. I doubt that 165 years was a duration considered as acceptable by anyone at the beginning of the project.
- And it probably takes even more courage to start such an endeavour if you have no clue on how to complete it. The masterminds behind the plan simply trusted that someone down the road (fate, innovation, God)would eventually invent the tools and methods needed – and thus it happened. Dominus providebit – the lord will provide the way.
In order to build his cupola, Filippo Brunelleschi went far beyond the realm of architecture – which was not difficult for him given that he was a goldsmith / watchmaker by education: To accelerate and facilitate construction, he invented two cranes for speedy lift and precise placement of the heavy stone blocks. Filippo also is the first man known to have obtained a written patent for a technical invention – a ship to transport marble blocks – which never worked, by the way.
Follow the lead – against obstacles.
If you think that the construction was a piece of cake, Florence being rich and focused on its cathedral: The city was visited by the plague for the first time 1347, which killed 80% of its inhabitants. Black death came back on 1363, 1374, 1383 and 1390, and still construction continued. And then there’s war: Besieged by the Duke of Milan in 1402, then by his son in 1424 again. War against Lucca in 1430. You name it, they had it.
Not everyone is born to build a dome and be buried in a cathedral. However – is raising two children to be self-sustained citizens so much worse? Or making sure a business is prospering, providing decent salaries to its employees and their families? Is it only worth to engage in projects with a payback in six months? Should we despair of the complexities lying ahead?
I do not think so. Hope is one of the strongest drives in men. It was hope that brought Florence to believe the task could be completed. It is hope that lets millions of people engage everyday for worthy causes.
Is hope a concept of the Renaissance? Is today’s life more complex than living in the Renaissance? Does it take more courage to live today than back in 1400? I doubt it.
Hope focusing on short-term only is folly. Is it worth to think long term? Definitely yes!
I took a lot of inspiration and historical facts from Ross King’s book “Brunelleschi’s Dome“.
* The picture of the cathedral is from photographer Grueslayer , CC-BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42900408