Firenze, Italy is home to many cultural treasures, not least of which is the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, with its unmistakable dome. Pippo the Fool tells the story of Filippo Brunelleschi, the goldsmith who defied expectations and designed the dome for a competition, orchestrated to solve what was becoming an insurmountable architectural challenge. Whether ahead of his time, or simply eccentric, Brunelleschi was ridiculed by his fellow Florentines and earned the unflattering nickname of Pippo the Fool (although he did manage to befriend the artist Donatello, so his brilliance was not lost on all.) Rather than apply himself to his trade, he was known for his fanciful--some would say useless--machines and inventions, waiting for his opportunity to show his true talents. When the time came he proved his detractors wrong, won the contract, and put the finishing touch on a duomo which has since thrilled engineers and pilgrims, locals and tourists.
Author Tracey E. Fern and illustrator Pau Estrada have combined to recreate a Renaissance city which is colorful, rather clean, and impatient; the construction of the dome is a matter of great concern to everyone. The illustrations reveal plenty of period detail, from the clothing, to the busy market scenes, to the animals sharing the homes and streets of the locals. While the illustrations are sometimes humorous (an ironic beam of light from Heaven falling upon the head of Pippo's main rival and tormentor, Lorenzo Ghiberti springs to mind,) the humor never comes from the foreignness of this slice of the 15th century. In fact, the inclusion of an Illustrator's Note at the end of the book provides insight into how Estrada recreated 15th century Florence--and more specifically, the construction of the dome--without the aid of photographs. He also tips his hat to a some of the masters of the Italian Renaissance in his illustrations, although those homages might be missed by all except art students.
After taking over 120 years to build the basilica, the fact that the dome itself was finished in a mere 16 seems miraculously swift. Brunelleschi's ability to forsee every structural difficulty and devise his own efficient solutions was no doubt a factor in this. While young readers might not fully grasp the years involved, they will certainly get a sense of the scale of the project as the dome, brick by brick, comes to visually dominate the book. And should they ever manage to visit Firenze themselves, they just might recall the story of the dreamer who left such a remarkable legacy to his city.