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TV Review: ‘NOVA’ – ‘Great Cathedral Mystery’

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Public Television’s NOVA debuts the “Great Cathedral Mystery” this Wednesday, February 12, at 9:00 p.m., ET. The hour-long documentary speculates how Il Duomo di Firenze, Florence’s great cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, was constructed. One of Italy’s greatest churches, the Duomo houses the largest brick dome ever constructed. But how did the architect Filippo Brunelleschi mastermind such an immense project during the Renaissance?

Exterior view of The Duomo, Florence, Italy, courtesy of National Geographic Television.

Exterior view of The Duomo, Florence, Italy, courtesy of National Geographic Television.

The recently discovered cuppolina, courtesy of National Geographic Television.

The recently discovered cuppolina, courtesy of National Geographic Television.

Located in the heart of one of the world’s most beloved cities, the Duomo still mystifies modern historians, engineers, and architects. Ultimately constructed of more than four million bricks, Brunelleschi had to come up with a method that didn’t use scaffolding, as there wasn’t enough timber in Florence for a dome of the size. The “Great Cathedral Mystery” asks a team of bricklayers from the United States to try to construct a “mini-Duomo” to test recent theories of construction. Using period tools and techniques, the group from the International Masonry Institute uncovers the intricacies involved in Brunelleschi’s spiraling herringbone pattern of bricks in his “spin pesce” [fish spine] pattern.

Brunelleschi may have lost the competition to design the cathedral doors to fellow goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti, but he wasn’t going to risk losing his shot to his design nemesis once again when in 1418 the competition to design the dome for the cathedral was announced. To preserve his chance at building the dome he was extra careful to keep his design ideas secret, ideas like the first reverse gear pulley, an ingenious innovation.

The “Great Cathedral Mystery” includes fascinating modern-day experiments as well as providing in-depth history, all set against the gorgeous backdrop of Italy’s jewel of a city, the beautiful Florence. Anyone who has studied Renaissance art, visited the Duomo, or who dreams of visiting the city and its cathedral in future will enjoy this informative look into the construction of its enormous basilica.

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