An Impossible Task

Miele was more interested in how things worked; if there was no tool or device available to make the piece he was working on, he designed and made what he needed.  Recently he had become interested in buildings and taken to hanging round the stonemasons working on the cathedral. He knew of the problem that no one was sure how the vast apse could be domed and had taken to making sketches in chalk and charcoal on the walls of his father's bottega, where he was still apprenticed to him as goldsmith.

The dragon panel had to be worked on after hours, when everyone else had gone home. Miele would hurry back to his parents' house and gulp down a quick supper then return to the workshop, entrusted with the keys, and work on, sometimes till dawn.

'That boy's digestion will never recover from this competition,' his mother said, shaking her head.

And she was right, for Miele's dyspeptic disposition was made much worse at this time, both from snatched meals and from hearing his rival's work praised wherever he went. It was Young Ottavio this and Dear Altamonte that all over the city. Rumours were circulating that the younger man was sure to win: his Maddalena was a miracle of beauty, bending over the dragon so realistically that you could swear you saw the tear fall.

Miele spent his time drawing the little lizards that dozed on the hot paving stones in the yard, until he had perfected his knowledge of how their scales fitted into the pattern of their elegant skins. 'Dragons in miniature,' he called them. But when Girolamo had finished the first model for his panel, Gabriele saw that the dragon was to be immense.

It dominated the scene, towering over the Saint, who was not beautiful; she was a small, weary woman, whose tears must have dropped on no higher part of the beast than the clawed foot he was extending to her.

'It will be your masterpiece,' said Gabriele. 'You are bound to get the commission. And be known as the greatest sculptor of the fifteenth century.' He felt no jealousy as he said it; fine artist though he was himself, he was awed by his friend's great talent.

But the committee decided differently. The great efforts made by Ottavio to get its influential members on his side had paid off. And his panel was undeniably very fine, in a style the judges were familiar with. They saw Miele's as ugly and possibly subversive: hadn't he shown the dragon much larger than the Saint? No, Altamonte was the safer choice and so the florins went to him.

Exile and Return

Miele was so disgusted that he would not stay in Giglia another day. He packed a bundle of tools, told his father his apprenticeship was over, and set out for Remora. On the road, he was overtaken by his old friend Gabriele.

'I am bound for Remora too,' he said. 'I find the air of Giglia does not agree with me at present.'

Nineteen years the two men stayed in Remora, studying the old Reman ruins, digging up broken statues and measuring the remains of fine buildings. They had lodgings in the contrada of the Lady and news reached them often from their home city, where Ottavio was working on his doors and growing rich on other commissions.

In all this time, Miele did not cast another bronze or make another statue. But he built two churches and was designing a third when momentous news came from Giglia. There was to be another competition and this time it was to build the dome for the cathedral.

'It's an impossible task,' objected Gabriele.

'Exactly!' said Miele, his eyes gleaming. 'That is why is must be me that takes it on.'

So the two friends re-entered the city they had left nearly twenty years before. Miele's father had died and the workshop had been sold but the two men had enough money from their Reman ventures to buy another, even closer to the east end of the cathedral, where the cupola would rise above them.

Gabriele's reputation as a sculptor had grown in his absence and commissions were soon coming into the bottega for him. Miele did nothing but sketch and make models for the dome, spending more time in the unfinished cathedral than in the workshop. He had heard that Ottavio was making a model too and he was determined not to be beaten again. And this time the prize was 200 silver florins.

While the Giglians had been away Ottavio had finished the bronze doors and was now one of the richest artists in the city. He wore silver-trimmed velvet and jewelled rings, while Miele and Gabriele preferred homespun and kept their hands unadorned so that they could work the better.

When Miele's full-scale model of the dome was built, out of real bricks, Gabriele lent it all his skills of ornamentation, even down to a miniature Giglian flag flapping from the top of the cupola's lantern. The dome was divided into sections separated by ribs to be clad in white marble. But the secret ingredient was hidden inside it: the method by which it was to support itself without scaffolding as it rose from the existing building. Miele wouldn't tell anyone that — not even Gabriele.

How to support the dome was exercising Ottavio's ingenuity too. He knew that was the important issue. Most people in Giglia did not believe the dome could be built without internal scaffolding. But to get enough wood to build the centring would be almost impossible. So in the end, he decided to be as mysterious as his rival.

The big day of decision came and the field was as before narrowed down to two: Girolamo Miele and Ottavio Altamonte. Miele was more confident than last time; he knew he could build the dome. But unfortunately his confidence came across as arrogance. Ottavio, on the other hand, was all smiles and charm.

The new dome committee became more and more alarmed as Miele explained his model. He waved his arms about wildly and the words came tumbling out in the wrong order, falling over each other and tripping up his tongue. The committee didn't even let him finish before asking Ottavio to explain his plans. And at the end, they asked the younger man to build the dome.


This time, Miele didn't run away. He got married instead. Gabriele was surprised how calm his friend was after his disappointment about the competition. He was normally so fiery and proud about his work. Instead, he accepted a commission to build the Ospedale della Misericordia and proposed marriage to Beata, the daughter of his housekeeper.

It was a fine match for the girl but the artist was more than twice her age and not much to look at. She began by being a little afraid of him but soon learned that he had a good heart and in time realised what a great mind he had too. Fear turned to respect and then to love, particularly when she saw him with their first child.