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Hank talks about Renaissance architect, engineer, and professional cranky guy Filippo Brunelleschi in this "Great Minds" dose.

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Hank Green: People have created and discovered so much frickin' amazing stuff that we hardly even notice anymore, like somebody was once like, "Dude, check this out. It's a skyscraper. Let's build this!" And then another guy was like, "Yo! We could totally make this. It's a called a car. It's a drivey thing that'll go backwards and forwards!" What I wanna know is, Why did we even think that we could do those things in the first place?

[intro music]

So yeah, humans are pretty presumptuous. A lot of this cocky kind of attitude can be traced back to the European Renaissance, actually, and it could be argued that the entire Renaissance dated back to a cranky little Florentine architect named Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi was born in 1377, just a couple of decades after the black death finished up killing pretty much everybody in Europe.

For nearly a century, Brunelleschi's hometown of Florence had been working on a cathedral, the Santa Maria del Fiore, and they had a problem. The original architect of the Santa Maria del Fiore (because they started it a century ago) was, expectedly, dead by this point. Unfortunately, he had not left behind plans on how to finish the massive dome that he had said was going to be a part of the design of his church. Basically, until then, every cathedral in Europe had been built with the help of flying buttresses, which is just one of my favorite phrases in the entire English language, but flying buttresses were totally off-limits within the city of Florence. I'm not entirely sure why, but I'm sure there was a good reason. And so nobody knew how to finish the Santa Maria del Fiore, not because nobody knew but because the technology literally had not been invented yet.

So, the committee in charge of building this cathedral had an awesome idea. They said, "We're gonna have a contest, and the person who submits the design that seems the least whack is going to get the prestigious title of Head Builder, and we're gonna build that guy's dome." But Brunelleschi had been burned before on one of these artsy design contests, and he was like, "You know what? I'm not gonna win this thing with design; I'm gonna win it with science!"

So Brunelleschi and his buddy, the sculptor Donatello, went to Rome to study the Pantheon, which, over a thousand years after its construction, was still the world's largest un-reinforced concrete dome. And it still is! So, those two together measured the hell out of the Pantheon. Brunelleschi went back to Florence, did some calculations, and he walked in front of the committee and he said, "Here's what I'm gonna do. Imma build two domes, one inside the other, held together by these strong as hell stone chains, like barrel hoops. The two nested domes are gonna support each other, and it's gonna blow your damn minds! However, I'm not gonna tell you how to do it until you make me Head Builder, because I don't trust any of your ass-faces."

The committee wasn't thrilled to be spoken to in this manner, and they kicked Brunelleschi out, calling him an ass and a babbler. And for a while, he was a very unpopular guy in Florence, but the thing is, the committee wasn't getting any good ideas about how to actually build the dome, so eventually they caved and gave him the job.

And it totally worked! Brunelleschi and his team finished the double dome in about 16 years, which is, like, lightning speed for the Middle Ages.

Not only was the design for the dome totally innovative, he also created a bunch of innovative techniques for actually building domes. For instance, Brunelleschi created the first modern sky crane, which allowed them to lift bricks up and place them with incredible precision. He also created the world's first reverse gear, which nowadays you can find on your bicycle or in your automatic transmission.

He also introduced, like, safety practices, which was totally unheard of back then. I mean, if a worker fell and died on the floor of the cathedral, no big deal, but he made all of his workers wear harnesses while they were working. He also watered down their wine so they wouldn't get totally hammered on the job. (Taking the wine away completely was apparently not an option.) As a result, only three people died during the construction of Brunelleschi's dome, which by Middle Age standards was pretty freakin' awesome. Usually, people back then were like, "Ah, if you're gonna make an omelet, you're gonna have to break a few bodies on the floor of the cathedral."

And while he was doing all of that, on the side he was doing a little painting and discovered a little thing called linear perspective.

So, Filippo Brunelleschi. Not a super nice guy, but I think he may have convinced the entire western world that there's nothing that the human mind can't figure out.

If you wanna know more about Filippo Brunelleschi and his dome, you can look in the description below and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can ask questions -- we will try and answer them -- and you can also suggest topics for future SciShows, and if you want more of these and you're not already subscribed, please go subscribe at