Against all odds

Two dreams become one in Florence

David Battistella
September 29, 2011

TF's new column is by filmmaker David Battistella, who moved to Florence from Canada earlier this year to pursue his dream: writing and producing a feature film based on Ross King's 2000 book Brunelleschi's Dome, about the life of Filippo Brunelleschi and the building of Florence's cupola. A transplanted Italian-Canadian, David will share stories about being a ‘reverse immigrant,' an Italian who was born abroad and returns to an Italy that is vastly different from the one his parents left in the 1950s. The column will chronicle David's pursuit of his dream, including anecdotes of his new life in Florence and his efforts to finance and launch his ambitious project. 


We don't always know why we do something. Sometimes, we know only that we have to do it. That is why I am in Florence. Twenty months ago, I was sitting in a sauna at a health club in downtown Toronto. That's where I met an 85-year-old structural engineer named Morty who loved Italy and its architecture. His affectionate Yiddish/Italian term for the sauna was shcvitzeria and our conversations there started it all.  


Over the next several months, we often had conversations at the club and eventually became friends. My girlfriend and I invited Morty, a widower, to my home for dinner, where we talked about art, music and design. He spoke of his wife as if she were still at his side and carries her memory gently with him. She was a filmmaker, and he would lament that the film business had been rough on her. 


One day at the club, he walked up to me and handed me a book, Brunelleschi's Dome: The Building of the Great Cathedral in Florence, written by Ross King. Inside there was a note from Morty: ‘She always thought this would make a great movie.' I thanked him and continued with my workout, but on the subway ride home, I dove into the book. 


Just four years earlier, I had spent four days in Florence. Climbing the cupola's 463 steps on the morning of day one was the highlight of my stay. I knew nothing about the building, its history or architecture. All I knew was that I was pulled in by this giant egg and wanted to see the city from the lanterna. 


Now, with King's book in my hands, riding through Toronto's underground, I missed stops because I could not pull my head out of the story. Reading, I fell in love with the romance of fourteenth-century Florence, and visualized every scene, every character. For a filmmaker, reading this story was like biting into a ripe apple-you can't chew through it fast enough to get to the next bite. 


The characters, the politics, the cathedral: all built purely with human invention and ingenuity before computers, before electricity. Why? What was driving the whole idea? Was it the fact that proud Florentines wanted to show off their skills to the world? Was it the passion of one man, trying to beat the odds? The questions rolled through my mind.  


I read the entire book. Then I read it again. And again. 


Then I started writing down some of my own thoughts on the matter. I began reading and researching. I contacted King's agent and inquired about the rights to the book. Soon, it became evident that my immersion would have to be complete. 


I had to move to Florence to see things first hand and feel the place, live the city, walk the streets and begin my journey into the mind of Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect who pulled off the impossible. The mathematician who calculated all the angles. The ‘mad-secretive-scientist' who would never reveal how it was done (he even ordered that plaster cover over sections of brickwork so that his Florentine methods could not be copied). 


By July 2010, I had decided. A month later, I gave up my apartment and started to save money for the journey to Florence. I used all of my frequent flier miles to get a ticket on the only date available: January 1, 2011. ‘01/01/11, repeating numbers,' I thought. Something about it had to be right. 


I arrived with two suitcases and my laptop, ready to see if I could execute my secret, pretty much impossible plan: to adapt King's book into an epic film about an epic project in an epic city during its most celebrated era. 


Soon, I was looking at the name Filippo Brunelleschi written by his own hand in 600-year-old books. The ledgers in the Cupola documents are as beautiful as they are mysterious. But I'll save that story for the next time.




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