Thirty-six years old and on early Saturday morning, for the first time, I’m going to punch my passport. In Italy. I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the U.S., but I have never gone over the ocean. I’m nervous a bit at the notion of experiencing international travel, but more than anything, I’m excited to see the country whose culture has had so much influence on me. Naturally, I’m reading as much as I can about Italy to prepare for the trip.
Gilmour’s “The Pursuit of Italy,” is magnificent so far, written with keen and sly observations as well has accessible history. I’ll post about it before we leave, hopefully.
I started with Ross King’s “Brunelleschi’s Dome,” a book that has sat on my shelf for too long, maybe just in preparation for this trip, where we will indeed visit the famed il Duomo, located in Florence.
This short book is about Filippo Brunelleschi, the man who submitted the winning design for building the massive dome in Florence. The project had been stalled, despite decades of effort, until Brunelleschi entered the scene. He had no formal training as a builder; instead, he was simply a goldsmith and clock maker. But he spent the next nearly 30 years as the capomaestro, building the dome under incredible circumstances.
The book itself is well crafted. It’s not overly-long, keeping a non-engineer reader’s attention. Still, the book could have benefitted from some additional pictures/diagrams to help those of us who lack ease with design and engineering principles. Yet, by the end of the book, you feel as if you appreciate what he did and how he did it in a way that does inspire. The magic of the dome is that he built it in the 15th century. I marveled months ago at David McCullough’s account of building the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1800s, but this dome was three hundred years prior! And to top it off, Brunelleschi built the dome without any supports underneath it while he built it. That was the key trick that awed.
There are a few key lessons here for us mere mortals who go to an office building every day and don’t build domes that last 600 years. The first is this: each year, anyone who worked on the Dome had to swear allegiance to a design that was completed almost 50 years prior by Neri di Fioravanti. A mission, a core value, a goal. Neri didn’t provide a plan, just an inspirational vision of where the builders should go. And on faith, the builders followed the vision, never saying, “it’s just not possible.” They did the impossible and never strayed from the core value and goal, despite the many disbelievers that were carping on the sidelines. That’s being mission-driven.
Second, Brunelleschi failed over and over again during the entire run of the construction. At times he was the fall guy, and at other times, his own foibles were the cause of his failures. But he maintained a focus, kept his head up, and in the long run, he has been celebrated as a genius who built something grand.
Finally, while the core goal stayed sacred, there was ample room for trial and error. In fact, it’s somewhat clear that even when he submitted his design for the Dome, Brunelleschi wasn’t quite sure exactly how he would get it done. He tolerated experimentation and kept faith in the fact that if you stick to a goal, allow for uncertainty and improvisation, you can still succeed.
Knowing a bit about the construction and the history of Florence will make our visit there next week a truly awesome experience. Without the book, it would be easy to appreciate the beauty of the Dome, but with it, I’ll better understand just how difficult it must have been to complete. And there are plenty of business lessons that I’ll take with me next time I’m in the office.
Thanks for reading.