Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 9, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
A Dome, Your Inner Fish, and Idol Whiners
It's nice to know the readers of the Rhino are looking out for me. Wendell
Putney wrote to tell me that instead of fighting with Claritin's insane, human-proof packaging, I should get my doctor to prescribe the generic Loratadine 10
mg. It comes in a standard bottle and it's "on the $4 list of generic drugs
available at WalMart or Target."
I can live with that!
I enjoy finding little "niche histories" -- brief books that look at a particular
person or event or achievement in history but deal with them exhaustively.
Sometimes, the authors pick a subject so scanty that they have to pad
mercilessly in order to fill out even a thin volume.
But Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented
Architecture, by Ross King, is a jewel of a book.
In part, it's a biography, and a fascinating one. Brunelleschi was an architect
in an age when architecture wasn't quite treated like an art. Rather it was a
set of problems -- and the guilds of Florence treated each problem as a
separate contest, forcing artists and architects to compete with each other over
and over again to win the contract to build each part of the building and each
machine required to build it.
The problem with the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was that when it was
originally designed and laid out, no one had the faintest idea how to actually
build a dome as huge as the one specified.
It was something of an act of faith. As if they said to each other, This will be
the biggest and best cathedral anywhere, and by the time we're ready to build
the dome, God will provide someone who can figure out how to do it.
And God did provide -- Filippo Brunelleschi [fee-LEEP-po bru-nel-LESS-key], a
private, pig-headed man who disdained to work in cooperation with anybody.
Either he was in charge or he wasn't. And in that era, such arrogance was not
Of course, people would have appreciated it even less if the building fell down
while under construction, or at the first earthquake after it was built.
Brunelleschi's chief rival -- for his entire life -- was Lorenzo Ghiberti, a
brilliant artist whose baptistery doors are still a tourist (and art student)
destination in Florence. But Ghiberti was never Brunelleschi's match as an
architect or designer of machines.
If Ghiberti had only recognized this and concentrated on what he was good at,
Brunelleschi's life would have been easier (and both men would have been
much happier, no doubt). But Ghiberti took each contest as a death match,
and when time after time the contest went to Brunelleschi, Ghiberti could not
It didn't help that Ghiberti was named "co-architect" on the project -- and then
was treated with complete disdain by Brunelleschi and all the artisans.
Ghiberti simply didn't know anything about what was to be done, and
Brunelleschi, true to form, wasn't interested in letting Ghiberti in on the
secrets of construction.
Brunelleschi knew that anything he shared with Ghiberti would quickly be
claimed as Ghiberti's own invention and would be stolen and copied all over
Italy. Ghiberti was a highly social self-promoter -- and in his one-sided feud
with Brunelleschi, he even stooped (or so it seems) to maneuverings so low that
he got Brunelleschi thrown into prison for not paying dues to a guild that
nobody ever paid dues to!
Their personal struggle, though, is almost trivial compared to the enormous
challenges Brunelleschi faced in building the largest dome in history.
Yes, larger than the U.S. Capitol dome. Larger than any dome ever built. And
he was required to build it without flying buttresses to help distribute the
weight, and without building internal scaffolding to support the dome while it
was under construction.
He achieved it by the use of stone-and-iron "chains" to bind the structure
together so it didn't fall outward, and by creating wooden cranes and elevators
that could raise massive stones to astonishing heights and maneuver them into
Meanwhile, he provided for the safety of the workers -- though they still
required nerves of steel to work at such heights, dangling over the floor of the
The sad thing is that even though Brunelleschi's dome remains the largest ever
made out of natural materials, when you actually visit the place it doesn't look
like much -- not from the outside.
I saw it when I was in Florence, but I had to be told that it was something
worth seeing, and in truth I still wasn't that impressed. The problem is that it
is in proportion to the cathedral it part of, so that until you realize that the
building itself is astonishingly large, the dome looks a bit smallish.
Moreover, the dome is not perfectly round, but rather octagonal. The ridges
that mark the eight ribs of the dome are not so much structural as decorative,
but our modern eyes are used to seeing such protrusions as the "bones" on
which everything else hangs.
If the dome were perfectly round, it would look, from the outside, like more of a
It took this book for me to realize that the ridges are irrelevant and the task
was one of the finest achievements in the history of architecture.
The book is extraordinarily well written, with its combination of life-and-times
and architectural explanations.
Don't misunderstand -- sometimes it's tough sledding, if only because most of
the diagrams are too authentic.
That is, the text does a pretty good job of explaining how a particular machine
worked, but then the diagram or illustration created by an artist of the period
is often so completely unrelated to what King wrote (or, indeed, to anything
that makes mechanical sense at all) that I'm left baffled.
By the end, what most amused me was how petty and ordinary were the lives
of these great artists. It's easy to ascribe godlike virtues to the "geniuses" of
the past -- and in my opinion Brunelleschi's actual achievements as an
inventor far outstrip those of da Vinci.
In fact, one of Brunelleschi's machines was long ascribed to da Vinci because
there was a drawing of it in da Vinci's notebooks. But da Vinci had merely
visited Florence and sketched what Brunelleschi had already built!
A much more easily-read book is Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish: A Journey
into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.
In fact, Shubin often talks down to his audience a bit. It's clear that he thinks
he's writing to people who know almost nothing of anatomy or evolution; and
that's a good thing!
But his jokes, alas, are the kind of lame humor that gets laughs from students
because they're so desperately grateful for anything to break the monotony of
Never mind all that. Because this book is an introductory course in the
persistence of forms through the process of evolution, and it's written by a
working scientist who has made important original contributions to science.
If you are adamantly opposed to the idea of evolution, then you really must
avoid this book. It makes the fact of evolution so obvious and clear that the
only way you can continue to disbelieve it is to assert that God is such a
trickster he went to a lot of trouble to provide us with overwhelming evidence of
(The book does not, however, address the process of evolution, which to my
mind is the real battleground between fanatical Darwinists and equally
fanatical intelligent-design creationists. My personal opinion is they are all a
bunch of clowns, claiming to know more on both sides of the issue than the
evidence can possibly justify -- and then insisting that the schools be forced to
teach their unprovable doctrines.)
Whether you see this book as an exploration of the workings of blind nature or
as a celebration of the creations of a benevolent God is of no concern to me.
What the book does is show you, in detail, how embryonic and fetal
development, DNA, and mature body structures all reveal our intimate kinship
with the first air-breathing fish to turn fins into the four limbs of all land-dwelling vertebrates.
That it's easy to read and contains cool stories about how you go about doing
this kind of science is a bonus.
To the people who have declared that Danny Noriega's getting dropped from
American Idol is proof that Americans are "still homophobic," I must point out a
1. As far as we know, Noriega isn't gay, he's just effeminate. Are you saying
that we should assume all effeminate men are gay? Isn't that stereotyping?
2. Americans didn't vote against him, they merely neglected to vote for him.
Was it our duty to vote for him because he's (as you assume) gay, whether we
preferred other singers or not?
3. There is another contestant whose "credentials" as a homosexual are at least
as good as Noriega's, and the "scandal" about him (working as a stripper in a
club with a mostly-male clientele) was widely known before the voting -- and
that contestant made it through into the final twelve.
4. Personality plays a large role in the voting. Isn't it possible that people
detested Noriega, not because he was effeminate, but because he was
obnoxiously snotty whenever he spoke?
5. Isn't it just possible that Americans cast their votes for the singers whose
vocals and performance they liked best? If so, then doesn't ascribing evil
motives to the audience because they didn't vote for every member of various
PC-designated victim groups show a lot more about your bigotry than theirs?