Victoria Hammond begins her chapter in David Stephenson’s revolutionary book about the dome with this quote: the dome offers ‘a kaleidoscope of shifting visions of heaven ranging from the grand cosmology of imperial Rome, through richly embroidered Byzantine worlds and the mystical geometry of Islam, to the sublime serenity of the Renaissance and the gravity-defying transfigurations of the Baroque, culminating in the ethereal lightness of the rococo and beyond.’ This encompasses the immense propagation of the domical form across eras and cultures, and shows its profound use in helping us to trace this architectural history. The first section of this essay shall discuss how the domed edifice has developed from ancient sacred forms, then moving forward to discuss the specific effects that this history has had on the dome structure. The last section will focus on the importance of dome decoration in tracing history. In choosing three examples — the Cathedral of the Assumption (Fig 1) in the Kremlin, consecrated in 1479, the Alhambra’s Sala de las dos Hermanas (Fig 2), built in the Islamic style in 1258, and the dome of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge (Fig 3), finished in 1965 — I hope to give a comprehensive conclusion to the idea that domes take their form from a wide range of times and places, and tracing this complex history gives a thorough understanding of the meanings that can be attributed to them.
‘Just as the dome form itself represents the transcendent sphere, so its history transcends race and religion.’ The dome has a complex and varied history, to which it owes its ‘transcendent sphere’ form, and the place to begin is with the primitive shelter concept. At the most primitive level, the most prevalent type of constructed shelter was circular in plan and covered with a curved roof. Circles of saplings or leaves would have been bound together and bent inwards at the top to form a roof. This was the easiest method of construction, as there was no need to bind a separate roof to the structure. From this, the associations of the dome and curved drum with ‘a tribal and ancestral shelter’, therefore home, came about. In fact, the Arctic Inuits continue to build their snow homes, igloos, using a domical structure. The etymology of the word, coming from ‘domus’, meaning ‘house’, illustrates this quality further, also extending the dome’s purpose to ‘house’ other things. The Middle Ages and Renaissance saw the word translate into Domus Dei , the Italians into duomo, the Germans and Danish into Dom, and as late as 1656 in England, dome meant ‘Town-House, Guildhall, State-House or Meeting-House.’
‘Whilst the men of the Middle Ages look on the world as a vale of tears…here in this circle of chosen spirits, the doctrine is upheld that the visible world was created by God in love’. With this quote from the closing lines of his book on Renaissance Italy, Art Historian Jacob Burckhardt captures the attitudinal shift that epitomises the Christian Renaissance — the change from Christ as sufferer for humanity to Him as the essence of perfection. This period, as the ‘rinascitá’, or rebirth, of the Classical, was characterised by a rejuvenation of classical elements, including the architectural orders, due to a sharp focus on ‘studia humanitatis’, including Platonism, and the associations humanism had on the visual world. This humanistic approach gave rise to alternative representations of liturgical and domestic buildings and the concept of simplistic representation of mathematical complexity. It is the simple appearance of the building that initially gives rise to the notion of harmony — the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole — but as we delve further into the geometrical and compositional elements we discover the harmony that is presented in the individual components and the ways in which they produce concord. Donato Bramante in his 1502 work of San Pietro in Montorio’s Tempietto, commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, shows a magnificent example of this focus on antiquity, proportion and simplicity, an example that highlights the development of the Renaissance in Rome. Further North, Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, an intellectual endorser of Bramante, generated many of his own responses to the period, the contradictory elements of which can most vividly be seen in Il Redentore. This later church, built between 1577 and 1592, reflects notions of harmony in its characteristic elements, but shows the adaptations to the ‘Late Renaissance’ philosophy, with a renewed sense of originality.
Tempietto is a component of Bramante’s larger church in the Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio, overlooking the eastern slope of Gianicolo Hill. Surrounded by the cloisters of the church, it sits perfectly in the centre of a little courtyard, atop the sacred site of Saint Peter’s martyrdom on the cross. The temple is peripteral, with a colonnade of sixteen Roman Doric columns, modelled on the Temple of Vesta on the acropolis in Tivoli, and the Temple of Hercules Victor near the River Tiber in Rome, which was likely direct inspiration on Bramante’s doorstep during his extensive studies of the remnants of ancient architecture. The Tempietto columns are unfluted and have a base, distinguishing them from Greek Doric columns as are found on the Parthenon in Athens. Corinthian was the order used for both of the classical temples, and Bramante’s choice of Doric plays a big role in the depiction of harmony.