The golden orb for the top of Florence’s Duomo, the Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flowers), was under construction in the studio of Andrea Verrocchio when Leonardo da Vinci arrived there as a twelve-year-old apprentice.
The orb is a hollow ball constructed from bronze and copper plates, eight feet in diameter. It could have been an ideal hideaway for a shy new arrival to use as an escape from the foreign bustle of a working art ‘factory.’ By all accounts, Verrocchio’s studio was a hierarchy of workers ranking from age, experience, and natural talent. A thirteen year-old boy used to the quiet sanctuary of idyllic country freedom may have found the transition to city life, daunting.
The orb was raised into place in 1471, after sitting unfinished for years, when Leonardo was seventeen. He would have lived and worked beside it for almost four years. A painting exists of a ‘Tobias with Three Archangels’ by Biagio d’Antonio Tucci, with the orb’s installation in the distant background. I love such miracles. A five-hundred year-old snapshot of what the artist saw. A frozen day we can actually see.
In my historical fantasy, ‘Second Lisa’ a fictional biography of Lisabetta, Leonardo’s kid sister, I premise the seventeen year-old Leonardo, helped install the orb. He has left notes regarding welding, and sketches of Brunelleschi’s designs for winches and screws, and the hoists and scaffolds that were used to raise the orb to the lantern of the cathedral. Leonardo wrote a memo to himself in one of his manuscripts: Remember the way we soldered the ball of Santa Maria del Fiore.
I find it amazing to gaze 350 feet in the air and imagine the boy Leonardo clambering on a scaffold, welding inside the great ball, dizzy from the toxic fumes of copper and mercury.
Two-hundred and thirty-one years later, after many direct lightning strikes over the years, the copper ball finally succumbed and fell to the ground during a severe electrical storm and had to be replaced.
Verrocchio had a few workers engaged in the installation. Who better than a light and nimble teenager eager for recognition who may have been goaded into volunteering for such a task? Can you see Leonardo up there as close to the sky and his beloved birds as any Florentine was likely to get?