05 July 2020

The dome in Florence changed
city skylines from Rome and
Dublin to Berlin and Albania

Brunelleschi’s duomo in Florence … how were the self-supporting Renaissance domes in Italy built without shoring or temporary timber centring? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Until the 20th century, four domes in particular graced the skyline of Dublin: the domes of the Four Courts, Custom House and City Hall, and the Russian-style copper church dome in Rathmines. But domes were difficult to build and needed highly-refined architectural and engineering skills.

The skills needed for constructing domes were brought to Torcello, Venice, Ravenna and other parts of northern Italy by Byzantine craftsmen who were reluctant to share their secrets with other building workers.

But domes eventually became popular as a status symbol for churches with wealthy patrons. In time, the word duomo in Italian became a synonym for cathedral, to the point that many people think Saint Peter’s in Rome, with its dome, is a cathedral.

The dome at Torcello … Byzantine building skills were transferred to Venice and other parts of Italy? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Earlier this summer, in a collaborative study published in Engineering Structures, researchers at Princeton and the University of Bergamo revealed the engineering techniques behind self-supporting masonry domes that are part of the Italian Renaissance.

They analysed how cupolas like Brunelleschi’s duomo in Florence and later self-supporting Renaissance domes were built without shoring or the usual temporary timber centring.

James Gandon’s dome at the Custom House in Dublin was rebuilt after the Irish Civil War (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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Professor Sigrid Adriaenssens of Princeton collaborated with a graduate student Vittorio Paris and Professor Attilio Pizzigoni of the University of Bergamo. Their study is the first ever to quantitatively prove the physics at work in Italian Renaissance domes and to explain the forces that allow such structures to have been built.

Previously, there were many hypotheses about how forces flowed through such constructions. But no-one really knew how they were built.

Now these researchers have found that the brickwork of the inner domes incorporated a ‘cross-herringbone pattern,’ lines of staggered, vertical bricks that extended diagonally across the curvature of the dome. These lines repeatedly crossed each other, forming diamond shapes, and were filled in with horizontal courses of bricks.

The copper dome in Rathmines … said to have been made in Glasgow for an Orthodox church in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For Professor Adriaenssens, the project advances two significant questions. ‘How can mankind construct such a large and beautiful structure without any formwork – mechanically, what’s the innovation?’ she asks. Secondly, ‘What can we learn?’ Is there some ‘forgotten technology that we can use today?’

Their detailed computer analysis accounts for the forces at work down to the individual brick, explaining how equilibrium is leveraged. Their tests verify the mechanics of the structures and make it possible to recreate the techniques for modern construction.

The researchers anticipate their study could increase worker safety, enhance construction speed, reduce building costs and yield environmental benefits. ‘The construction industry is one of the most wasteful ones, so that means if we don’t change anything, there will be a lot more construction waste,’ said Dr Adriaenssens.

‘Overall, this project speaks to an ancient narrative that tells of stones finding their equilibrium in the wonder of reason,’ said Professor Pizzigoni. ‘Nothing is more moving than reading the lightness of the heavens in stone, in absolute and simple form such as that of the Florentine cupola.’

The dome inside an Orthodox church in Crete … domes are a central feature of Byzantine-style churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The dome of the New Synagogue in Berlin … symbolic of Jewish confidence in 19th century Germany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Blue church domes are synonymous with many Greek islands. The dome was adapted by Muslims from Byzantine architecture and became part of the design of mosques throughout the Islamic world.

Inside the dome at the Irish Islamic Centre in Clonskeagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A new-found confidence in Jewish communities across Europe was expressed in the 19th century in elegant architecture that included striking domes in new synagogues in Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Florence and Rome. The most eye-catching dome in recent Dublin architecture is at the Irish Islamic Centre in Clonskeagh. Who knows, in time we may see more domes on the Dublin skyline.

In multi-faith Albania

The archaeological site at Butrint … settled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Venetians, it was abandoned in the late Middle Ages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Now that I have been semi-cocooned for far too many months, I realise how much I managed to travel last year, to the point that I never got to write about everywhere I visited. Perhaps the most remote and unusual place to visit last year was the once-Greek-speaking part of southern Albania, including the town of Sarande and the archaeological site at Butrint.

I had first visited southern Albania in 2006, when I lectured on Greek history at the Durrell School of Corfu, and it was interesting to see how much has changed in less than a decade and a half.

At the harbour in Sarande … tourism has opened Albania to the outside world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We crossed the once heavily-mined, narrow straits (14 km) that separate Corfu from Albania in less than an hour, and in those pre-Covid 19 days the checks were minimal, with the barest of glances at our passports.

Sarande takes its name from the Greek Agioi Saranda, or Forty Saints, recalling the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, a group of Roman soldiers who were martyred in the year 320. Before World War II, the town was known to occupying Italians as Santiquaranta, until Mussolini changed the name to Porto Edda to please his eldest daughter.

During the Cold War, Albania was one of the most closed countries in the world, isolating itself from both east and west. In 1967, Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheistic state.

Until the Covid-19 outbreak, Sarande was enjoying a steady growth in tourism, and Albania has become a diverse, multi-faith and pluralist society.

In classical Greek times, Sarande was Onchesmos. Albania’s first synagogue was built in Onchesmos in the fourth or fifth century by the descendants of Jews who arrived on the southern shores of Albania around 70 CE after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Albania’s first synagogue was built in Onchesmos (Sarande) in the fourth or fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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Today, the four major faith groups in Albania are the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Sunni Muslims and Bektashis. The Bektashis are little known outside the Balkans, but their importance is greater than their small numbers suggest. They blend elements of Islam, Christianity and even Buddhism in an esoteric, mystical mixture. Today, Bektashis believe they can be a bridge between Christians and Muslims.

The bells and the bell tower of the Orthodox Church of Saint Charalambos in Sarande (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The City Mosque or Xhamia Sarande in the heart of the city is a relatively small building, with a dome and one, tall slender minaret. Its size compared with the much larger and more impressive Orthodox Church of Saint Charalambos, with its large dome and bells, shows clearly that Sarande is a mainly Orthodox city. It is said that when Saint Charalambos was martyred in the year 202, he was 113 years old.

Inside the City Mosque in Sarande (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church had notices outside in both Albanian and Greek, but many ethnic Greeks have left this part of south Albania – often known to Greeks as Northern Epirus – and moved to Greece.

Almost all Jews in Albania were saved from the Holocaust during World War II. It is a remarkable record that cannot be claimed in any other occupied country in Europe, and it is all the more remarkable in some people’s eyes because Albania is Europe’s only country with a Muslim majority.

Resisting Nazis in Poland

A group of Jewish people are moved from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers on 19 April 1943

One city-break that has been cancelled already this year was a mid-week visit to Warsaw at the end of May. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and World War II. Since childhood, I have been haunted by the photograph of the unnamed boy with his hands raised high as the Nazis cleared Jews out of Warsaw following the suppression of the Ghetto Uprising.

I have already visited Kraków, and I wanted to see the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and the surviving synagogues. However, this is not the first but the second time in recent years that circumstances have cancelled a planned visit to Warsaw.

Bishop Edward O’Rourke … the Polish count with Irish ancestors who as Bishop of Danzig was a vocal opponent of the Nazis

The Irish diplomat Sean Lester (1888-1959) played an heroic role as the League of Nations High Commissioner in pre-war Free City of Danzig (Gdansk), but for many Irish people the abiding Irish connection with Poland is Casimir Markievicz, the self-styled Polish count who was married to Constance Gore-Booth.

But an oft-forgotten hero in 20th century Poland with an Irish background is Edward O’Rourke (1876-1943), the first Bishop of Danzig and an outspoken opponent of the Nazis.

O’Rourke, who was known in Polish as Edward Aleksander Władysław O’Rourke, was born Eduard Alexander Ladislaus Graf (Count) O’Rourke in Minsk, in present-day Belarus. He was a member of an aristocratic family of Irish ancestry. The O’Rourkes held titles in the Russian Empire and of the Holy Roman Empire, and Tsar Nicholas I legitimised their titles as Irish counts in 1848. However, as there are no Irish counts as such, many genealogists question the origins and legitimacy of the titles.

Edward O’Rourke studied in Riga, Freiburg and Innsbruck. He was ordained priest in Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1908, and became Professor of Church History at a seminary in Saint Petersburg and parish priest of a multilingual congregation.

After the February Revolution in Russia, O’Rourke was appointed administrator of the Diocese of Minsk and interim head of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia. With the proposed independence of Latvia, he became Bishop of Riga in 1918, but resigned in the face of calls for an ethnic Latvian bishop.

O’Rourke was then appointed titular Bishop of Canea and Apostolic Delegate for the Baltic States in 1920. Canea or Chania in Crete was once a Venetian diocese, and the title was previously held by the church historian Nicholas Donnelly (1837-1920), an Auxiliary Bishop in Dublin (1883-1920).

The old harbour of Chania … Edward O’Rourke was the titular Bishop of Canea from 1920 to 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, the Free City of Danzig was separated from Germany under the Treaty of Versailles, and its autonomy was recognised in International Law. O’Rourke became the Apostolic Administrator of Danzig in 1922, with the title of Bishop of Pergamon, one of the seven churches named in the Book of Revelation.

He visited Co Leitrim in 1920s to research his Irish ancestry and later published a history of the O’Rourke family. When the Diocese of Danzig was formed in 1925, outside the hierarchies of Poland and Germany, O’Rourke became the first bishop.

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An international crisis unfolded when the Nazis took over Danzig and tried to absorb the city into Nazi Germany. Sean Lester repeatedly protested to the Germans at the persecution of the city’s Jews and O’Rourke and Lester became personae non grata.

The two found a common affinity in their respect for human rights, their opposition to the Nazis and their Irishness. Lester recalls that on their first meeting the bishop arrived ostentatiously carrying an Irish magazine and patriotically forcing himself to smoke ‘Irish’ cigarettes over his preferred Russian brand.

When the Nazis forced Lester to leave in 1937, O’Rourke became the last independent voice in Danzig until the Nazi-controlled senate forced him to resign and he moved to Poznan in Polanad. In Poland, O’Rourke was appointed titular Bishop of Sophene, a former diocese in Mesopotamia, and became a Polish citizen.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, O’Rourke was on his way to Estonia. He travelled through Warsaw and Königsberg (Kaliningrad) to Berlin, and then to Italy. The Nazis refused him a visa to return to Poland and he died in Rome on 27 June 1943. He was reburied in the cathedral in Gdansk in 1972. Today, Edward O’Rourke is regarded as one of the heroes of Polish resistance to the Nazis.

A statue of Constance Markievicz in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin … her husband was a self-styled Polish count (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This feature was first published in July 2020 in the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough)

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