Courage is a subjective term. Acts that some might consider courageous might be thought of as foolish by others. Often the only difference between a courageous endeavor and a foolish one rests in its outcome. The definition I choose for this essay is thus: the act of taking risks to achieve a desired outcome. With this definition it is possible to measure courage by determining the level and extent of the risks one is willing to accept. Of course the ultimate act of courage involves risking the most valued possession any person has: their life. Next to this sacrifice most risks pale in comparison, but most would agree that risking your reputation and livelihood for a desired goal is significant.
All construction projects require some courage, and that needed to construct the dome at Santa Maria del Fiore was not exceptional for the masons and workmen who climbed up to do the work. A few fell to their deaths, but sadly this was not uncommon in construction projects at the time, nor is it today. The world in 1420 however was a much more callous place for workmen than it is now. When a workman perished his widow and family would be given the wages he had earned to the moment he fell, his funeral would be paid for, and nothing more. His family would sometimes be left to beg or starve. Fortunately the number of deaths reported during the construction of the dome was remarkably low considering its enormous scope.
The courage I speak of in this essay involves the process leading to its actual construction, not the work itself. The fact that Florence poured so much of its recourses over 130 years into the massive walls and vaulting of the cathedral without having the vaguest idea how to enclose that enormous hole in the roof is extraordinary; a bold statement of optimism and confidence that easily could have ended tragically. If one can imagine the skyline of Florence without their dome… if it had never been attempted or if it had collapsed during construction the city and its history would be drastically different than it is today. They risked so much pride, time and treasure in their goal to build something unprecedented in its size, and ended up achieving something beautiful as well. Additionally they did this at a time when horrible plagues and military conflicts were constantly at their doorstep.
The dome has withstood earthquakes and a steady flow of lightning strikes over the last 600 years. It remains a solid and powerful symbol above the city of Florence and is, in my opinion, one of the world’s proudest monuments to courage.