In this age of technological wonders, it’s easy to forget that ours is just the latest in a long line of innovative periods through history. For every new marvel to come along, there’s likely an equally striking precedent in the past. Perhaps no period demonstrates this better than the Renaissance, whose luminaries upended the medieval ideas of their day and spanned the gap to our own modern times.
Of all the monuments to Renaissance ingenuity, one in particular has held my interest ever since I saw it in person years ago. The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy, otherwise known as the Duomo, is a towering achievement in architecture. Its octagonal dome, which is 140 feet wide and more than twice as high, remains the largest one ever built with bricks and mortar—no small feat considering it was completed nearly 600 years ago.
As awe-inspiring as the cathedral is to behold, the story behind its construction is just as remarkable. Legend has it that architect Filippo Brunelleschi received the commission to build the dome by winning a competition to see who could successfully stand an egg upright. While others tried to balance their eggs in vain, Brunelleschi smashed his on end. This act of bravado foreshadowed the daring design to come.
Whether the story’s apocryphal or not, there’s no doubt Brunelleschi was a man of rare talent. Yet often overlooked is the fact that he already had a foundation to build upon. Brunelleschi’s breakthrough was the culmination of a process that had begun more than a century earlier with architect Arnolfo di Cambio, who called for a dome of similar scope in his drawings. No one at that time knew how to construct such a dome, but that did not deter di Cambio or the builders who followed him. For decades they continued laying the groundwork, confident that someone would eventually finish what they had started.
That to me is the most inspirational part of the story. For all the originality of Brunelleschi’s dome, it could not have happened without the vision of those who came before him. As di Cambio showed, innovation is as much about planning as it is flashes of brilliance.
All these centuries later, the same is true at Owen, where innovative ideas, such as the ones highlighted here, are founded upon a farsighted commitment that stretches back to Vanderbilt’s beginnings. The education and research of today are made possible by the forethought, guidance and generosity of previous generations. As Chancellor James Kirkland once said, “In building a university there is never an occasion for finishing touches. The task is always one of laying foundations.”
Vanderbilt’s success lies in those very foundations Kirkland described. Much like the Duomo, the university can rise only as high as its base allows. The stronger the support, the more opportunities there’ll be to upend conventional thinking and push knowledge further and further—until someone comes along one day and spans the distances that once seemed impossible.