The Wooden Dome

The dome (cupola in Italian) was an important feature of heaven machinery, both from a symbolic and a technical perspective.

Symbolically, through its semi-spherical shape, the dome represented the nine heavens which, according to the Ptolemaic system, surrounded the earth. The nine heavens were distinguished on the dome’s inner surface by means of nice circles of little lamps.

Technically, the dome provided a solid structure to which the movable platforms could be anchored by means of ropes and iron bars. It was made of wood and iron and was extremely heavy. We do not know exactly how the dome was anchored to the ceiling. However, we know from the records that it could cause damage to the ceiling because of its weight.

According to the artist and historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) was the inventor of the heaven machinery (Ingegni del Paradiso) in its final version, that is to say the dome, cloud platforms and mandorla together.

However, there are no historical records that prove Brunelleschi’s involvement in theatre. The association between Brunelleschi and the heaven machinery might have originated from his talent as “dome designer”, shown in the example of the construction of the innovative structure of the dome found in the Florentine cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore.

Despite a lack of documentation, some scholars believe it to be historically plausible that Brunelleschi was the main inventor of the Ingegni del Paradiso. Other scholars are suspicious about Vasari’s report. Nerida Newbigin for example, who accurately studied the records of the workshops, which built the heaven machinery, has recently suggested the name of Pippo di Baldo (1417–1471 ca.), who appears in the records several times as designer and builder of the staging; therefore, he might have been one of the main inventors of the Machinery. Pippo di Baldo shared the same first name and profession (a goldsmith) with his more famous contemporary, Filippo (or Pippo) Brunelleschi, and this might have caused confusion in Vasari’s historical reconstruction.