Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Florence's Undervisited Great Museum

Donatello's Cantoria

This splendidly, recently renovated museum is one of Florence’s finest, and houses both relics from the actual construction of the cathedral and the masterpieces that once adorned it. Part of the building was once a farmhouse, renovated by Brunelleschi in 1432 as his headquarters and used by Michelangelo to sculpt the David.

The museum's new entrance is off small sky-lit courtyard, adorned with sculptures on the life of St John the Baptist by Girolamo Ticciati, a pupil of Giovan Battista Foggini commissioned in the 1730s by the Arte di Calimala, or Cloth Merchants' Guild for the Baptistry (note the reliefs of eagles, the symbol of the Evangelist, clutching bales of cloth in their claws).

Down the corridor, the Galleria dellla Sculture contains several fragments of the ‘Porta della Mandorla’ on the north side of the Duomo and Also in this room are two statues known as The Profetini, which once stood over the door and are attributed to the young Donatello and Nanni di Banco, and the insides of Ghiberti's North doors and the the Gates of Paradise

Here too are fragments of sculptures by the 14th-century Sienese master, Tino di Camaino that originally stood over the Gates of Paradise, and, most intriguingly, a small 16th-century Hemispherical Dome discovered in 2012 during the enlargement of this very building. Done in the same herringbone (opus spicatum) brickwork that Brunelleschi used to make his mighty Cathedral Dome stand without any support, it looks like a model he made have built while living here, except it was carbon-dated to the early 1500s. Perhaps it was the work of an admirer.

Salone del Paradisio

This holds the original two sets of Baptistry doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, both the North Doors that bagged him the commission in the competition of 1401 and the Gates of Paradise.

Other works with the marble group, the Baptism of Christ by Andrea Sansovino that used to be directly over the doors. Also here are statues made in the early 1300s by the cathedral’s architect Arnolfo di Cambio and his workshop.

Arnolfo's original ornate, sculpture-filled façade was but a quarter completed when the Medici had it removed in 1587. including the unusual Madonna with Glass Eyes, flanked by Florence’s original patron saints, the virgin martry Reparata and first bishop (337–417) Zenobius. Then there's Arnolfo's nasty old Boniface VIII, sitting stiffly on his throne like an Egyptian god and small collection of ancient works – Roman sarcophagi and an Etruscan cippus carved with dancers.

Next up is the Sala dei Frammenti with other bits and bobs from Arnolfo di Cambio's original cathedral façade.

Sala della Maddalena

This is named after its centrepiece: Donatello’s wooden statue of Mary Magdalene the Penitent (c. 1455), surely one of the most jarring, harrowing figures ever sculpted, ravaged by her own piety and penance, her sunken eyes fixed on a point beyond this vale of tears.

Around the walls are 14th-15th century statues and paintings of SS Reparata and the stern Bishop Zenobius, and an early 15th-century Crucifixion with hinged armes by Giovanni di Balduccuio that once hung by the Gates of Paradise. Legend has it is carved from an elm that once stood by the Baptistry and miraculously burst into bloom when the body of Bishop Zenobius was carried past.

The next room, the octagonal Cappella delle Reliquie Note the 16th-century ‘Libretto’, a fold-out display case of saintly odds and ends, all neatly labelled. The Florentines were never enthusiastic about the worship of relics, and long ago they shipped San Girolamo’s jawbone, John the Baptist’s index finger and St Philip’s arm across the street to this museum. The star here is the intricate golden 11th-12th-century Passion or Grand Duchess's Crucifix, made by Byzantine goldsmiths, containing a sliver of the True Cross and thorn from the Crown of Thorns.

Tribuna di Michelangelo

Michelangelo's Pieta

The Pietà (1547-55) was the work Michelangelo intended for his own tomb. Increasingly cantankerous and full of terribilità in his old age, he became exasperated with it and took a hammer to the arm of the Christ – the first known instance of an artist vandalizing his own creation. His assistant Tiberio Calcagni repaired the damage and finished part of the figures of Mary Magdalene and Christ. According to Vasari, the hooded figure of Nicodemus (according to legend, a sculptor) is Michelangelo’s self-portrait.

After his death, the statue was acquired by the Bandini family in Rome, who sold it to Duke Cosimo III in 1671. It was placed in San Lorenzo as Michelangelo's memorial, then moved to the Duomo until 1981, when it was relocated to the museum.

Next is the Lapidarium Storico, with 12th-13th century marble panels once used to decorate the Baptistry's octagonal font,

Upper Floor

Donatello's 'Zuccone'

Upstairs, the first room is Galleria della Campanile featuring the original, weathered sculptures from the façade of Giotto's great belltower. The panels on the Spiritual Progress of Man by Andrea Pisano and his workshop, and sculptures, many by Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo; one of the finest is their collaboration on the Sacrifice of Issac. Two of Donatello's prophets are simply known as the 'Thoughtful' and the 'Bearded', since no one can remember who they are supposed to represent. According to Vasari, while carving the most famous one, the bald Habbakuk (nicknamed lo Zuccone, ‘baldy’), Donatello would mutter ‘Speak, damn you. Speak!

Next, the Galleria della Cupola is devoted to Brunelleschi's masterpiece, with his model of the dome and lantern, which he was never to see, as well his death mask. Here too are acollection of pulleys and other instruments used in the construction of the cathedral, and two new models by Franco Gizdulich, a wooden one of the dome that reveals many of the techniques used in its building, and a wooden model of the marble Cathedral Choir, commissioned by Cosimo I in 1547 from Baccio Bandinelli, one of his finest works, although in 1842 it was partly dismantled as being too lavish and ornate for austere Florentine taste.

The Galleria dei Modelli follows, proposed carved wooden models for the Duomo's façade, from the 16th-century versions by Don Giovanni de' Medici (priest, engineer, and half brother to Grand Dukes Francesco and Ferdinand) and by Bernado Buontalenti, and a pair of 17th-century equally rejected proposals.

Beyond is the Belvedere della Cupola with a window cleverly gives a close-up view of the cupola itself topped. Next is a room dedicated to a changing collection of priestly copes and chasubles, followed by the Panoramic Terrace.

Works the Sala delle Navate that once adorned the Duomo's nave, including a gold ground Madonna and Saints by the great 14th-century Sienese painter, Bernardo Daddi; a St Sebastian triptych (1370s) by Giovanni del Biondo that may well be the record for arrows; the poor saint looks like a hedgehog, and the funeral monument (including a Roman sarcophagus) of Condottiere Piero Farnese (d. 1363).

Sala delle Cantorie

Luca della Robbia's Canoria

Here, facing each other, are the two magnificent Cantorie, two marble choir balconies with exquisite bas-reliefs. They were sculpted in the 1430s by Luca della Robbia and Donatello. and removed from the Duomo in 1688 to make room for a bigger choir for the wedding of Prince Ferdinand.

Both cantorie rank among the Renaissance’s greatest productions. Della Robbia’s delightful horde of laughing children dancing, singing and playing instruments is a truly angelic choir, Apollonian in its calm and beauty, perhaps the most charming work ever to have been inspired by the forms of antiquity. Donatello’s putti, by contrast, dance, or rather race, through their quattrocento decorative motifs with Dionysian frenzy.

Among other pieces sharing the room are two intricate Byzantine mosaics, masterpieces of the miniature; a Lunette of the Madonna, Child and Angels by Andrea della Robbia, commissioned for this very building.

The next room, the Sala del Coro Bandinelliano has the original Mannerist marbles from the choir of Baccio Bandinelli (1572). Beyond is the Tesoro, with treasures from the Baptistry. especially the recently restored lavish silver altar (14th–15th century), made by Florentine goldsmiths, portraying scenes from the life of the Baptist. Antonio Pollaiuolo used the same subject to design the 27 needlework panels that once were part of the priest’s vestments.

Next up is the Museo dell'Ottocento, with walls filled with drawings of the Duomo from the 1875 competition to design the façade.

Returning downstairs, there's a room dedicated to music, with the beautiful illuminated choral books and parchments that still belong to the Duomo (most of the others were transferred into the Biblioteca Laurentana), displayed on a rotating basis.

Practical Info

Piazza del Duomo 9

Hours 9am-9pm, closed first Monday of the month. Avoid queues by booking a visiting time on line

Adm €15 cumulative ticket, bookable online. This includes the Baptistry, Giotto's Campanile, the Cathedral Crypt, Brunelleschi's Dome and the film The Courage to Dare covering the exhibits in the museum in the Teatro Niccolini. Valid for 48 hours after the first entry.

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