For all its importance and prosperity, Florence was one of the last medieval cities to plan a great cathedral (duomo). Work began in the 1290s, with the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio in charge, and from the beginning the Florentines attempted to make up for their delay with sheer audacity. ‘It will be so magnificent in size and beauty’, according to a decree of 1296, ‘as to surpass anything built by the Greeks and Romans.'
Arnolfo planned what in its day was the largest church in Christendom, on the site of the older, much smaller duomo dedicated to Florence's original patron Santa Reparata. He confidently laid the foundations for an enormous octagonal crossing 146ft in diameter, and then died before working out a way to cover it, leaving future architects the job of designing the biggest dome in the world.
Beyond its presumptuous size, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore shows little interest in contemporary innovations and styles; a visitor from France or England in the 1400s would probably have found it somewhat drab and architecturally primitive. Visitors today often don’t know what to make of it as they circle its grimy, ponderous bulk. Instead of the striped bravura of Siena or the elegant colonnades of Pisa, they behold an astonishingly eccentric green, white and red pattern of marble rectangles and flowers – like Victorian wallpaper or, as one critic better expressed it, ‘a cathedral wearing pyjamas’. On a sunny day, the cathedral under its sublime dome seems to sport festively above the dun and ochre sea of Florence; in dismal weather it sprawls morosely across its piazza like a beached whale with a lace doily front.
The fondly foolish façade cannot be blamed on Arnolfo. His original design, only one-third completed, was taken down in a late 16th-century Medici rebuilding programme that never got off the ground (there's a model of it in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo). The Duomo turned a blank face to the world until the present neo-Gothic extravaganza, designed by local architect Emilio de Fabris, was stuck on in 1888. Walk around to the north side to see what many consider a more fitting door, the Porta della Mandorla, crowned with an Assumption of the Virgin in an almond-shaped frame, or mandorla, made by Nanni di Banco in 1420.
After the façade, the austerity of the Duomo interior is almost startling. There is plenty of room; contemporary writers mention 10,000 souls packed inside to hear the hellfire and brimstone sermons of Savonarola. Even with that in mind, the Duomo hardly seems a religious building – more a Florentine building, with simple arches and a counterpoint of grey stone and white plaster, packed full of old familiar Florentine things.
One of those old familiar things is the great Orologio (1443), above the central door. Though it has undergone many restorations and repairs over the centuries, this is one of the oldest working clocks in existence. It keeps time in the 24-hour ora italica system, in use at the time, in which a new day beings at sunset; the differing lengths of days and nights over the course of the year meant that the clock required constant adjustment. The seven-foot clock face was painted by Paolo Uccello; who the four mysterious characters in the corners might be is anyone's guess (the scholars guess they're Old Testament prophets).
Besides the clock, on the West Wall there is a trecento mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin (over the main portal), and what's left of the ambitious 1321 Tomb of Bishop Antonio d'Orso by the Sienese sculptor Tino di Camaino, after many reconstructions and displacements.
Two things to look at all through the Duomo are the fine inlaid stone pavement, designed by Baccio d'Agnolo and others, and the stained glass windows, for which most of the great artists of Florence contributed designs; Ghiberti (on the west front and in the apsidal chapels), Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, Uccello and others.
On the Left (north) Wall, posed inconspicuously, are the two most conspicuous monuments to private individuals ever erected by the Florentine Republic. The older one, on the right, is to Sir John Hawkwood, the famous English condottiere whose name the Italians mangled to Giovanni Acuto. Essex man Hawkwood was a legendary commander who served Florence for many years, and is perhaps best known to English speakers as the hero of The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle. All along, Hawkwood had the promise of the Florentines to build him an equestrian statue after his death; it was a typical Florentine trick to pinch pennies and cheat a dead man—but they hired that greatest master of perspective, Paolo Uccello again, to make a fresco that at least looked like a statue (1436).
Twenty years later, they pulled the same trick again, commissioning another great illusionist, Andrea del Castagno, to paint a fresco of the non-existent equestrian statue of another condottiere, Niccolò da Tolentino, victor of the battle of San Romano and friend of Cosimo il Vecchio.
A little further down, Florence commemorates its own secular scripture with Domenico di Michelino’s well-known fresco of Dante, a vision of the poet and his Paradiso outside the walls of Florence.
The Right (south) Wall hasn't much: busts of Florentine notables including Giotto (by Benedetto da Maiano), the mystic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, and Brunelleschi (by his delinquent adopted son Andrea Cavalcanti), overlooking his tomb.
There is surprisingly little religious art throughout—the Florentines for reasons of their own have carted most of it off into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The only really conventional large religious decorations are the scarcely visible frescoes high in the dome (some 295ft up), the tepid work of Vasari and his student Federico Zuccari. As you stand there squinting at them, try not to think that the cupola weighs an estimated 25,000 tons.
A singular icon of Florence’s fascination with science can be seen in the pavement of the left apse, a gnomon fixed by the astronomer Toscanelli in 1475. A beam of sunlight strikes it every year on the day of the summer solstice. Many great churches in Italy have such things; this one was the first.
In the central apse, a beautiful bronze urn by Lorenzo Ghiberti contains relics of the 4th-century Florentine bishop, St Zenobius. The high altar and much of the sculpture around it are by Baccio Bandinelli.
Under the dome are the doors to the two sacristies, under terracotta lunettes by Luca della Robbia; The Resurrection over the north sacristy is one of his earliest and best works. He also did the bronze doors, with tiny portraits on the handles of Lorenzo il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano de’ Medici, targets of the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478—the fateful attempt to assassinate them took place here.
God, for whom nothing is impossible, will not abandon us Brunelleschi
Yet if this 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.'
For building the great dome, Brunelleschi was accorded a special honour – he is one of the few Florentines, and the only artist, to be buried in the cathedral. His tomb, underneath the Duomo floor, may be seen in the Excavations of Santa Reparata.
Arnolfo di Cambio’s cathedral was constructed on the ruins of the ancient church of Santa Reparata, which lay forgotten until 1965. Excavations have revealed not only the paleo-Christian church and its several reconstructions, but also the remains of its Roman predecessor – a rather confusing muddle of walls that have been tidied up in an ambience that resembles an archaeological shopping centre. A coloured model helps explain what is what, and glass cases display items found in the dig, including the spurs of Giovanni de’ Medici, who was buried here in 1351. In the ancient crypt of Santa Reparata are 13th-century tomb slabs, and in another section there’s a fine pre-Romanesque mosaic pavement.
Piazza del Duomo
Hours: Open daily 10am-5pm (Thurs, Sat and Sun until 4.45pm). The dome is open daily 8.30am-6.20pm; closed the first Tues of each month. Note: it's essential to book a time slot online to visit the dome.
Adm The Duomo itself is free. For the rest, the Biglietto Unico including all the Duomo sights costs €15 (Campanile, Dome, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and Santa Reparata). It's good for 48 hours and can be purchased online, which allows you to avoid the queues at the ticket booths. You can also purchase them from the ticket machine in Piazza San Giovanni near the Baptistry.
Images by: woo from Irvine, CA; Creative Commons License, Sailko, PTG Dudva, Creative Commons License, Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, PD Art, PTG Dudva, Craetive Commons License