Florence Duomo project (1420–1436): Learning best project management practice from history

Article Highlight:

This paper recounts the project managed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1420–36 to construct a dome for the newly built cathedral in Florence, Italy – an enormous technical challenge. Through best practice in a range of areas Brunelleschi brought the dome to completion within the desired time scale and budget. The authors summarise the features contributing to the project’s success and identify knowledge that is transferable to the present day.

Keywords

  • Technical innovation
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Supply chain
  • Critical path

Download now             

What does the paper cover?

The authors are interested in the process of knowledge transfer from a historical project to contemporary practice. They have looked in detail at Brunelleschi’s project and have identified a number of factors that led to its success. These include ‘hard skills’ such as technical innovation, logical problem-solving, meticulous planning and sound strategy, together with ‘soft skills’ such as persuasion and diplomacy, effective communication and the ability to manage and motivate a workforce.

Methodology

The authors reviewed relevant literature and visited both Florence cathedral and Brunelleschi’s source of inspiration, the Pantheon in Rome, to investigate the scope of the dome project, and how Brunelleschi managed the constraints and challenges involved.

Brunelleschi’s approach is recounted in detail, starting with his study of the Pantheon and his assessment of its relevance to the Florence project. His project management is explained in terms of technical innovations, organisational structure, people management, management of supply chains and budget, scheduling, risk management, and quality assurance.

Research findings

Florence was the key financial and cultural centre of the unfolding Renaissance. The project to construct a landmark cathedral commensurate with its status was very nearly complete by 1367, save for a 42m-in-diameter gap where the dome should be. The Opera (works) committee was at a loss for an architect able to construct it. In 1420 Filippo Brunelleschi came forward with so persuasive a vision that the Opera commissioned him. The project had to be completed according to constraints in terms of time and budget.

Early stages of the project
Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon in Rome, constructed 1,300 years previously. Rather than adopting its techniques wholesale, however, he learnt from and adapted them.

As at the Pantheon, his foundations were in the form of a ‘drum’ to distribute the weight, and the dome was a self-supporting structure of stepped rings, with the fabric getting thinner as it rose towards an ‘oculus’ or opening at the top. Also, like the Pantheon, the dome had ‘tension rings’ to hold the structure in place. However, Brunelleschi decided to use light bricks and quick-drying mortar instead of concrete. He gave his dome a double shell of brickwork, and he built the scaffolding up in octagonal stages rather than using a more-costly option of centring it underneath. He also improved on Roman practice by setting up a carefully planned supply chain for materials and devising new lifting engines to move the bricks into place.

Main phase of the project
Brunelleschi appointed a separate team and manager to be responsible for each side of the octagonal dome. The workers were guildsmen from the ruoli, an official list of skilled craftsmen, and they were paid according to skill and risk, so, for example, those who worked at higher altitudes earned more.

Each layer of the dome had its own work platform – a ring of scaffolding that supported it and formed the base for the next layer – and had to be complete before the next was begun.

To keep costs under control without sacrificing quality, Brunelleschi used efficient techniques, such as the lifting engines as well as templates for the curvature of the dome. His planning took account of critical paths, for example with regard to supply chains, and he kept quality under constant surveillance: he was on site daily and ensured managers and workers checked their work.

Brunelleschi communicated well, took care of health and safety issues, and offered rewards for success – a banquet for the workers on completion of each layer. He was also astute: for example, he manoeuvred himself out of having to accept a deputy whom he deemed unhelpful (Lorenzo Ghiberti), and out of raising workers’ pay following a strike (by dismissing them and rehiring them).

The project’s legacy
Completed in 1435, Brunelleschi’s dome was acclaimed as a phenomenal success, and his masterpiece inspired other subsequent projects, including the domes of St Paul’s, London, and St Peter’s, Rome.

Directions for future research
The authors are currently collaborating on further research in relation to the relevance of historical projects to contemporary project management, and are working towards a planned publication provisionally entitled Managing Transformation Projects - Tracing Lessons from the Industrial to the Digital Revolution. 

Conclusions

Brunelleschi’s project management had strengths in three main areas: technology, organisation and process. These relied on ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills, including deep understanding of the requirements and challenges of the project, technical expertise, sound strategic planning and skilful management. Brunelleschi excelled at adapting existing ideas to new contexts. He used novel technology. He managed people well and communicated clearly. He also had key personal qualities that included persistence, creativity, flexibility, sound judgement and attention to detail.

Significance of the research

While many technical aspects of the project were specific to their time and function, Brunelleschi’s project management skills, especially soft skills as discussed above, remain highly relevant today.

Other research summaries

Occupational stress and job demand, control and support factors among construction project consultants

Article highlight:

This article investigates the relationship between job demands, job control, workplace support factors and occupational stress among South African construction project consultants.

Click here

The project benefits of Building Information Modelling (BIM)

Article highlight:

This article provides an outlook on the potential use and advantages of BIM in the construction sector for project managers. It has been taken from the International Journal of Project Management.

Click here

Does Agile work? - A quantitative analysis of agile project success

Article highlight:

This article looks at the benefits, or not, of applying an agile (i.e. flexible) method of project management, as opposed to more traditional methods.

Click here

Differences in decision-making criteria towards the return on marketing investment: A project business perspective

Article highlight:

This article encourages the use of return on marketing-specific investment (ROMI), paired with client lifetime value (CLV) and programme data sets, as a tool to facilitate dialogue between finance and marketing departments.

Click here

Institutional development, divergence and change in the discipline of project management

Article highlight:

This article looks at the challenges of developing project management as an academic discipline.

Click here

Explicating the dynamics of project capabilities

Article highlight:

This article looks at the spread of knowledge about benefits management and its adoption by organisations; the global development of benefits management; and translation processes at the organisation level.

The article’s authors undertook literature reviews and drew on their own extensive practical experience.

They used translation theory to analyse the development of benefits management and to draw conclusions about its current use.

Click here

Benefits management: Lost or found in translation

Article highlight:

This article looks at the spread of knowledge about benefits management and its adoption by organisations; the global development of benefits management; and translation processes at the organisation level.

The article’s authors undertook literature reviews and drew on their own extensive practical experience.

They used translation theory to analyse the development of benefits management and to draw conclusions about its current use.

Click here

Understanding the professional project manager

Article Highlight:

This paper explores and examines the duality of ‘local’ knowledge (company; sector) and ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge (specialist skills, often transferable) that project managers have and rely on.

Find out more

Corruption in public projects and mega projects

Article Highlight:

This article explores the impact of corruption in large, unique projects such as public projects and megaprojects, as well as the conditions and features that favour such corruption.

Find out more

Project portfolio management in practice and in context

Article Highlight:

This research advocates new approaches and perspectives on project portfolio management to deepen understanding of its application in the day-to-day business environment.

Click here

Managing change in the delivery of complex projects: Configuration management, asset information and ‘big data’

Article Highlight:

This article provides insight into how change is managed in three organisations delivering complex projects – Airbus, CERN and Crossrail – and how those methods are evolving in the era of ‘big data’.

It has been taken from the International Journal of Project Management.

Click here

Three domains of project organising

Article Highlight:

This article challenges the belief that project organising is temporary. It argues that most project organising is done by (relatively) permanent forms of organisation. It also argues that the belief of its temporary nature has limited the development of research in this field.

Click here

The unsettling of ‘settled science’: The past and future of the management of projects

Article Highlight:

Professor Peter Morris’ management of projects (MoP) perspective unsettles the norm of project management theory and practice because he criticises standard guidance as being too execution-focused.

Click here

Project studies: What it is, where it is going?

Article Highlight:

This paper proposes a new framework for project research, the project studies framework, containing three levels of analysis and three types of research.

Click here

Projectification in western economies: a comparative study of Germany, Norway and Iceland

Article Highlight:

This paper tests and confirms a common assumption that projectification is increasing in companies, economic sectors and whole economies in the western world. The research presented contributes to making the term ‘projectification’ a fact based on sound empirical evidence.

Click here

What practitioners consider to be the skills and behaviours of an effective people project manager

Article highlight:

Project managers need to show open and honest concern for and genuine interests in the people they work with, understanding their feelings and emotions. This understanding will help them to predict future behaviours of their team members so they can plan to avoid, for example, people conflicts.

Showing respect for others and what they stand for is a behaviour that carries a lot of weight in effective people management – in any culture. People value being respected for what they are and stand for. It makes them feel good about themselves but also about the person showing the respect.

Click here

Join APM

Sign up to the APM Newsletter.