If your arriving in Florence via the train station, you’re more than likely going to be making your way straight to one of the most famous spaces in the city – Piazza del Duomo, which is made up of the Cathedral, its’ famed dome, Giotto’s bell tower and the Baptistery.
Despite walking past it every day, the complex never ceases to amaze me. Whatever the Florentine weather may be doing it definitely requires a photo stop – from against a brilliant blue sky, to angry tumbling black clouds in the background, its’ striking beauty always takes my breath away.
First off, Duomo is the Italian word for Cathedral, and not to be confused with the name for Brunelleschi’s dome sat on top of the naive. Construction of Santa Maris del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower) began in the 13th century by Arnolfo di Cambio, who we also have to thank for the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio. It was built on the site of the 5th century church of Santa Reparata (the remains of which can be visited in the crypt). The dome was added in the 15th century by Brunelleschi (more about this later) – look out for the statues of these 2 very important Florentines on the right of the Cathedral, both admiring their work.
It took almost 2 centuries for the Cathedral to be deemed finished due to a number of issues faced. The death of Arnolfo was one of the first encounters, which almost halted the work, but the discovery of the relics of Saint Zenobius helped gained momentum once again. Giotto stepped in to oversee the work from 1334 (with help from Andrea Pisano), and is most known for his construction of the bell tower. After this death Pisano took the reign, but work was yet again suspended with the arrival of the Black Death in 1348. Work continued after the epidemic under a number of architects, which saw the overall enlarging of Arnolfo’s original design and a number of small changes made throughout. In August 1418, the Arte della Lana (wool guild) announced a competition for the design of the dome, the 2 main competitors were the goldsmiths Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Ghiberti had previously been the winner of a competition for the construction of the bronze doors for the Baptistery in 1401. Brunelleschi won the competition – despite not giving away how he actually planned to construct the (enlarged) dome. The 2 architects worked together in the initial phase of construction, until the bitter Brunelleschi, constantly outshining and outsmarting Ghiberti, was given sole responsibility. Work started in 1420, and was completed in 1436, which led to the consecration of the Cathedral on March 25 1436 – the first day of the year according to the Florentine calendar. The façade remained unfinished until the 19th century, when Emilio De Fabris was awarded the task. The dome quickly gained global importance and was the worlds first octantal dome to ever have been built without support from a wooden frame. It’s the face of Florence, and probably the most impressive work from the Renaissance period.
Exterior – Decoration to the exterior began in the 14th century, but wasn’t completed until 1887 when Emilio De Fabris completed the façade. It’s an intricate design (taken from the earlier Baptistery and Bell Tower) of vertical and horizontal sections of polychrome marble from Carrara (white), Siena (red) and Prato (green). There are 2 side doors, the south Doors of the Canonici and the north Door of the Mandorla with sculptures by Donatello, Jacopo della Quercoa and Nanni di Banco.
Interior – A visit inside the cathedral is free (but you may have to queue!) but there are a few interesting things to see. On your left as you enter there are 2 frescoes (transferred to canvas) of 2 condottieri on horseback by Andrea del Castagno (1456) and Paolo Uccello (1436). Castagno depicts an Equestrian statue of Niccolò da Tolentino, whilst Uccello depicts a funerary monument of the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood. Dante Before the City of Florence by Domenico di Michelino (1465) is further on the left, which shows a scene of the then present day Florence. Frescoes by Giorgio Vasari (and his student Frederico Zuccari) show the Last Judgement (1572-9) on the ceiling of the dome, and the working clock above the entrance is by Paolo Uccello (1443).
Giotto’s campanile – Work started on the bell tower in 1334, according to Giotto’s design. Look up to the lower floor, to see the 3 sides of bas-reliefs in hexagonal panels (7 on each side) showing the story of Genesis- these were completed by Giotto himself, and some by Andrea Pisano. The originals can be seen close up in the Museo dell’Opera. Andrea Pisano went on to further enhance the design of Giotto and added a second fascia and 2 more levels. The 2nd level is decorated with lozenge shaped panels of allegorical representations by Pisano, and the 3rd has statues by Pisano, Maso di Banco, Donatello, and Nanni di Bartolo. The Black Death meant construction was temporarily stopped, with Francesco Talenti being head architect of the Cathedral and finishing off the bell tower. He went on to construct the top three levels which was completed in 1359. Climb the 414 steps to see a spectacular view over Florence.
Baptistery – The Baptistery of Saint john is in fact one of the oldest buildings in the city, built between 1059 and 1128. It’s most famous for the 3 sets of bronze doors – the south being created by Andrea Pisano, the north and east being by Lorenzo Ghiberti. It was the east doors (facing the Cathedral) which were described by Michelangelo as the Gates of Paradise. On the exterior you can see statues by Andrea Sansovino (above the Gates of Paradise), Giovan Francesco Rustici and Vincenzo Dante (above the south doors). Inside the Baptistery is the stunningly intricate ceiling mosaic – a real thing of beauty. Completed around 1225, possibly by craftsmen such as Cimabue in the Byzantine style with iconic figures on a gold background. It shows the Last Judgement with the gigantic Christ surrounded by Angels and hideous beasts, the Book of Genesis, the stories of Mary and Saint John the Baptist.
Events – The Cathedral has been the backdrop for a number of historical events in Florence, from the preachings of Savonarola, to the murder of Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici as part of the Pazzi conspiracy, I’m sure the walls have a story or 2. Nowadays the Cathedral remains an important symbol of Florence, and many events take place in the Piazza. If your visiting in April make sure to watch the Scorpio del Carro on Easter Sunday. The explosion of a cart is a tradition which dates back almost 400 years, where a dove shaped rocket initiates a series of fireworks.
Make sure you visit the wonderful Museo dell’Opera for a really interesting insight into the Cathedra complex. It’s home to the original sculptures and decorations for the Cathedral, Baptistery and the Bell Tower, and also a great place to learn a little more on the history and construction of the Dome.