One Hundred and Forty Years in the Making

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in January 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

I first fell in love with the Florence Duomo through a book. My high school AP Art History book had a tiny picture of it, showing its multicolored façade, and explaining the significance of the building, both as a social gathering place and a place of worship. Not to mention how difficult it had been to finish the consarned thing.


Though its formal name is Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower), it is also known as the Duomo di Firenze, or Florence Duomo, duomo being a term derived from the roman “domus” which meant house, but came to be reserved for God’s House — “domus dei.” As such, it came to refer to the most important church in any given area, which soon came to mean the local cathedral, seat of the bishop of the diocese. (As an aside, duomo is not to be confused with “dome,” the Italian word for this being cupola.)

Allow me to get sidetracked for a moment here — I don’t know what this church looks like today because it’s effectively been over five years since I visited, but I am flabbergasted at the difference in the grime that covers some areas of it. At the time of my visit the dirty bits were, of course, at the back, whereas the front façade of it was immaculate.

The cathedral is built on the site of what was the city’s second cathedral, dedicated to Saint Reparata, and which you might remember as having deposed the Basilica di San Lorenzo for the honor. The building, however, was decrepit — probably because it dated from the fifth century. The City Council of Florence then decided to commission Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of the Palazzo Vecchio and Basilica di Santa Croce, to create a new church for the city in 1294. It wasn’t until 1436 that it was finally completed.

Di Cambio died in 1302, and so leadership of the project passed on to Giotto, with the help of Andrea Pisano. Giotto’s name lives on to this day in the church’s belltower, which is known as Giotto’s Campanile.

Pisano continued the work when Giotto passed away in 1337, though work halted due to the Black Death in 1348 and was not picked back up until 1349, at the hand of Francesco Talenti, who finished the campanile and enlarged the building. More architects followed suit — Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, Alberto Arnoldi, Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Neri di Fioravante, and Andrea Orcagna. The nave was finally finished by 1380, and the building was complete save for one small detail — it did not have a dome.

On August 19th, 1418, the Arte della Lana (Wool Guild), announced a competition to create an architectural design to erect Neri’s dome. Though many joined, the true competition was between two master goldsmiths: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. It is worth noting that Cosimo de Medici was a supporter of the latter.

Work on the dome took sixteen years to complete, beginning in 1420 until its completion in 1436, and to this day it continues to be one of the tallest domes in the world. Part of the problem had been, of course, the sheer size of the planned dome, as well as the additional challenge of having no flying buttresses to help support its weight throughout the building, as the use of this architectural feature was, politically, forbidden in Florence. Brunelleschi drew inspiration from the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, but this structure was a single concrete shell, and the formula for this had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Neri’s design had the dome constructed as a double shell, which added the support of the inner dome, and which Brunelleschi followed, but it lacked a solution for the spread of the weight. Brunelleschi finally solved this by adding a set of four internal stone and iron chains which are embedded inside the inner dome. He also included a set of vertical ribs set on the corners of the octagon at the dome base, which themselves are supported by 16 concealed ribs. The dome had to be built without a scaffold, as Florence did not have enough timber for such a large feat, and using bricks, which were set in a herringbone pattern in order to spread out the weight. With the help of Donatello and Nanni di Banco, Brunelleschi created a wooden and brick model for the craftsmen to use, but which was intentionally kept incomplete so that the project could not be taken from him.

What’s most outstanding is that a true understanding of physics was only achieved centuries later, so that Brunelleschi really was working just out of intuition and what he could learn from creating large scale models of the project. He also invented hoisting machines to lift the building materials up to the dome. His innovations are what makes his name, and not Neri’s, be associated with the structure, even though Brunelleschi was working on a design handed to him and created years prior.

The decoration of the exterior of the cathedral was not completed until 1887, its polychrome marble a design by Emilio de Fabris.

In stark contrast with the exterior, the interior of the church is Gothic and meant to appear quite sparse, a reflection of the austerity of religious life, especially as preached by Girolamo Savonarola.

The dial of this mechanical clock, one of the oldest still functional, was painted by Paolo Uccello. Instead of marking the time from midnight to midnight, it uses a system dubbed the “Italic hour,” and measures the time from sunset to sunset, where the 24th hour is the setting of the sun.

Dante Before the City of Florence by Domenico di Michelino

It was Brunelleschi’s hope that the interior of the dome would be covered in gold mosaics, which would have made the most of the available light coming in through the circular windows and the lantern at the cusp. After his death, however, that part of the project was scrapped, and the dome’s interior walls were whitewashed. It was Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici who decided to commission Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari to cover it with a representation of the Last Judgment. The quality of the work is uneven because while Vasari used true fresco (which painted onto wet plaster), Zuccari used in secco (which painted onto it dry).

Today, you may climb the dome if you so wish (you can also climb Giotto’s Campanile, but my lungs can only do so much), though keep in mind that the path to climb it was not created for tourists, and so it is less… hospitable than one might hope.

I remember the experience as slightly claustrophobic, with very narrow passages which served both as the way up and the way down. People were, thankfully, few in number and polite enough to allow each other to pass without much issue, and it was cold outside (though wasn’t misty, so at least I didn’t have a repeat of Bologna). I would not want to imagine this on an August afternoon with a multitude of tourists around me trying to get through.

Even with all the huffin’ and puffin’, it’s undeniable that the view is worth the climb.

Basilica di San Lorenzo
Palazzo Vecchio & Loggia dei Lanzi
Giotto’s Campanile
Basilica di Santa Croce

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