God, for whom nothing is impossible, will not abandon us Brunelleschi
If Florence's behemoth of a cathedral, this St Mary of the Floral Wallpaper, was created for no other reason than to serve as a base for its dome, it would be more than enough. Brunelleschi’s dome, more than any landmark, makes Florence Florence. The dome (cupola in Italian) repeats the rhythm of the surrounding hills, echoing them with its height and beauty; from those city streets fortunate enough to have a clear view, it rises among the clouds with all the confident mastery, proportions, and perfect form that characterize the highest aspirations of the Renaissance.
But if it seems miraculous, it certainly isn’t divine; unlike the dome of the Hagia Sophia, suspended from heaven by a golden chain, Florence’s was made by man – one man, to be precise. Not winning the competition for the Baptistry doors was a bitter disappointment to the hot-tempered Filippo Brunelleschi. His reaction was typically Florentine; not content with being the second-best sculptor, he turned his talents to a field where he thought no one could beat him. He launched himself into an intense study of architecture and engineering, visiting Rome and probably Ravenna to snatch secrets from the ancients.
When proposals were solicited for the cathedral’s dome in 1418, he was ready with a brilliant tour de force. Not only would he build the biggest, most beautiful dome of the time, but he would do it without any need for expensive supports while work was in progress, making use of a cantilevered system of bricks that could support itself while it ascended – surpassing the technique of the ancients with a system far more simple than that of the dome builders of the Pantheon or Hagia Sophia.
To the Florentines, a people who could have invented the slogan ‘form follows function’ for their own tastes in building, it must have come as a revelation; the most logical way of covering the space turned out to be a work of perfect beauty. Brunelleschi, in building this dome, put a crown on the achievements of Florence. The Pope himself came up to lead a vast procession of prelates and noblemen to celebrate its completion on Florentine New Year’s day, 25 March 1436. Nearly 600 years later it is still the city’s pride and symbol.
The best way to appreciate Brunelleschi’s genius is by touring inside the two concentric shells of the dome (see below), but before entering, note the eight marble ribs that define its octagonal shape; hidden inside are the three huge, horizontal stone chains that bind them together. Work on the balcony around the base of the dome, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, was halted in 1515 after Michelangelo commented that it resembled a cricket’s cage (Michelangelo could be an ass at times).
As for the lantern, the Florentines were famous for their fondness for Doubting Thomas, and here they showed why. Even though they marvelled at the dome, they still doubted that Brunelleschi could construct a proper lantern, and forced him to submit to yet another competition. He died soon after, and it was completed to his design by Michelozzo.
A door on the left aisle near the Dante fresco leads up into it (there are 463 steps. the climb is not too difficult, if occasionally claustrophobic and vertiginous). The complicated network of stairs and walks between the inner and outer domes was designed by Brunelleschi for the builders, and offers an insight on how thoroughly the architect thought out the problems of the dome’s construction. He inserted hooks to hold up scaffolding for future cleaning or repairs, and he even installed restaurants to save workers the trouble of descending for meals.
There is also no better place to get an idea of the dome’s scale; the walls of the inner dome are 12ft thick, and those of the outer dome six feet. These provide enough strength and support to preclude the need for further buttressing.
From the gallery of the dome you can get a good look at the lovely stained glass by Uccello, Donatello, Ghiberti and Castagno, in the seven circular windows, or occhi, made during the construction of the dome. Further up, the views through the small windows offer tantalizing hints of the breathtaking panorama of the city from the marble lantern.
The bronze ball at the very top was added by Verrocchio, and can hold almost a dozen people when it’s open. The ball fell off twice, most recently in the 17th century. There's a marker on the pavement of Piazza del Duomo where it landed the second time.
The Duomo was reconsecrated when the dome was completed. The ceremony took place on Florentine New Year's Day (25 Mar 1436), while all the city's newborns were in the Baptistry for their communal baptism. Pope Eugenius IV sent a golden rose to place on the altar, while the great Guillaume Dufay composed a motet for the occasion that is still played today: Nuper rosarum flores or, 'The rose lately blossoms.'
Piazza del Duomo
Hours Daily 8.30am-7pm. Entrance Porta della Mandorla. It's essential to book a time slot to visit the dome, which you can do online.
Adm the €18 cumulative ticket, €3 (ages 6-11), under 6 free. Tickets bookable online for a €2 fee per person. The ticket, wherever you purchase it, is good for 72 hours from your first entrance. The ticket includes Giotto’s Campanile, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Baptistry, the Cathedral Crypt.
Images by Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, Stuart Caie