“And when I thought of Florence, it was like a miracle city embalmed and like a corolla, because it was called the city of lilies and its cathedral, Saint Mary of the Flowers” – Marcel Proust
For my all-time favorite building the world, I felt it necessary to dedicate a whole post to il Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, aka the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, aka the Florence Cathedral, aka the Duomo. On my first visit to Florence when I was 20, the first major sight my group happened upon was the cathedral. I was so bowled over by the beauty and absolute enormity of the building, it felt like I was slapped in the face – but in the best connotation I could ever possibly describe.
The history of this building and complex is a very long one, but vitally important not only to Florence and Italy, but to Catholicism, art, architecture, sculpture, culture, and some might state, to the world. There are so many features and art-historical achievements within the complex of the Piazza del Duomo that some people miss, or see but might not realize the importance or context. Some people don’t even know the building’s real name! The name “Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower” refers to the Virgin Mary, and the flower mentioned is a lily. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that she would be mother to the son of God, he placed a lily in front of her which symbolizes chastity and purity. This scene is called the Annunciation, and is the subject of countless old master paintings. The dedicated name reinforces the adopted relationship that Florence has with the Annunciation.
So now that we have some context in place, let’s get on to the history of the cathedral complex. The first structure built was the baptistry. Il Battistero di San Giovanni, or the Baptistry of Saint John, was built from 1059-1128. That’s 70 years from start to finish, and was designed in the Romanesque style with a geometric pattern of white cararra and green prato marbles. The name Romanesque implies the connection to Roman architecture, specifically to Roman arches. However, unlike Roman arches that were prized for their beauty and architectural strength, Romanesque arches are purely decorative and provide no structural support (the most famous work of Romanesque architecture is actually the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for a reference!). The baptistry is one of the oldest buildings in Florence at 960 years old! Countless notable Florentines have been baptized here, including Dante Alighieri and members of the Medici family.
When viewed from the piazza, one of the first features to be noticed are the small windows. That is because the knowledge to make large-scale windows while still allowing for the building’s internal structural support wasn’t known at the time (a problem that gothic architecture would soon solve), but the inside is perfectly lit due to the deep window recesses and the lantern at the top. The interior is incredibly opulent with an entirely byzantine-styled mosaic ceiling that tells the life of Christ, centered around a Last Judgement (I highly recommend going inside!!)
The three sets of bronze doors on the north, south, and east side of the building are an incredible feat of artistry, technique, and history. In 1329, Andrea Pisano received a commission to create the first set of doors, on the recommendation of his artistic contemporary and friend Giotto. The project took just more than six years to have been completed in 1336. Pisano created twenty-eight quatrefoil panels; twenty feature scenes from the life of Saint John, and final eight have figures of the virtues on the bottom panels. The second and third set were made by smith and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. The first set illustrates important scenes from the the life of Jesus, and the third set interperet scenes from the Book of Genesis. You can read all about the importance and significance of the doors in my article on le Porte del Paradiso (must read).
The whole summer I was making a joke about “Italian time”, and how it doesn’t strictly adhere to the clock in the way that other cultures do. I think a great example of “Italian time” is represented by the cathedral, which, from the first brick lay to the crowning of the lantern on top of the dome took one-hundered and forty years … let that sink in. The cathedral we see today is actually on the location of a previous church, dedicated to Santa Reparata. The crypts of the old church are still accessible by a special ticket within the cathedral, and are certainly worth seeing.
The church we see today (not the nineteenth-century facade however) was designed by the foremost Florentine architect of the Italian-gothic period, Arnolfo di Cambio. Di Cambio had previously designed the Basilica di Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio, two of the oldest and most important buildings in the city. His designs for the new cathedral were approved by the city council in 1294, and the first stone was laid on September 9, 1296 by Cardinal Valeriana. After di Cambio died in 1302, work on the cathedral slowed for almost 50 years. In 1331, the Arte della Lana, the wool merchants gild, took over patronage for the construction and appointed Giotto to oversee the work in 1334. Assisted by his friend Andrea Pisano, Giotto faithfully continued di Cambio’s vision for the cathedral. Another major accomplishment of his was the building of the campanile. When Giotto died on January 8, 1337, Pisano led the project until work was again halted by the spread of the Black Death in 1348. A year later, construction was resumed and would be completed under a series of architects. Under Francesco Talenti the campanile was finished and the project was expanded to include the apse and the side chapels. Ten years later in 1359, Talenti was succeeded by Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, and subsequent architects were Alberto Arnoldi, Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Neri di Fioravante and Andrea Orcagna. The nave was finished by 1380, and the body of the church was completed in 1418 (we’re in year 122 of the 140 years of completion). Only one aspect of the cathedral was missing: the dome.
Giotto di Bondone was a venerated painter throughout Italy (see my article on la Capella degli Scrovegni), and now he would test his architectural knowledge to leave his mark on Florence. Work began in July 1334, and his design for the bell tower was made to match the patterns and colors of the baptistry and the cathedral, but Giotto also introduced the pink stone into his bell tower. The tower is titled il Campanile di Giotto, or Giotto’s Bell Tower, and is one of the tallest points in the city!
I said previously that il Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is my favorite building in the world, but it is the dome that I am truly in love with. More than 100 years after the start of building, the dome was still incomplete. While Arnolfo di Cambio intended for a large dome to crown the nave, he did not know how to execute such an ambitious design without external support, called buttresses. The commitment to reject traditional gothic buttresses was one of the first events to herald in the Italian Renaissance.
The competition to build the dome was initiated by the Opera del Duomo (the cathedral works administration), and was announced in 1418 with a prize of 200 gold Florins for the winning design. In came Filippo Brunelleschi after his two-year sabbatical in Rome, with extensive architectural knowledge from studying the ancient monuments (read Roman Weekend, Part 2 and scroll down to read about Brunelleschi’s trip while he studied the Pantheon: this is practically imperative 😂). He won the commission without any formal architectural training, and building began on August 7, 1420, and was completed in only sixteen years in 1436. Brunelleschi as the capomaestro (chief architect) developed new methods of external building, since the construction site was too high to be built from traditional-interior scaffolding. Brunelleschi invented a series of levels, pullies, and cranes operated by men and oxen on the ground to build the dome, and his inventions went unsurpassed until the industrial revolution nearly 400 years later. What remains of Brunelleschi’s inventions are on view in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The external dome takes an egg-like shape, and for support Brunelleschi employed three smaller, double-supporting domes around each side along with an internal dome to solve the quandary of not using buttresses for external support. Using 4 million bricks, weighing over 40,000 tons, covering half a football field across the base, and standing over 10 stories high, the Duomo is still the largest masonry-made dome in the world! It has survived countless earthquakes, lightning strikes, and Hitler’s bombings during World War II.
I joke that Brunelleschi’s ego was as big as the dome he built, and a hilarious example came when he suddenly and seriously fell ill mid-project. The project couldn’t stop, so the Opera del Duomo appointed Lorenzo Ghiberti (and Brunelleschi’s nemesis after he didn’t win the commission for the baptistry doors), to step in and oversee the project while Brunelleschi was absent. After several weeks, Brunelleschi fully and miraculously recovered and returned to his project to find Ghiberti at the site. He deemed the work that was done with Ghiberti’s oversight so inadequate, that he demanded the workers pull out everything and rebuild now that he had returned! In another stroke of vanity and pride, Brunelleschi didn’t leave any notebooks, documents, building plans, drawings, or letters behind for others to learn from. For centuries, the dome was a mystery to scholars and architects who theorized how it was built.
Nineteenth century façade:
Once the body was finally completed, the accounts actually ran out of money and didn’t have a façade! This was a common occurrence with building projects back then, and you’d be surprised to know that many church facades in Florence were done in later centuries, or are still unfinished! Emilio De Fabris designed the the elaborate, almost “frosted” façade in the Neo-gothic style, and was built from 1876-1887.
And there you have it: the full history of the cathedral complex in the Piazza del Duomo. I am so obsessed with this city and this building, and I wanted so much to share the knowledge and stories that I have built up over the past several years with you. I hope you enjoyed reading, and that you’re only half as exhausted reading this as I was writing it! 😂😂😂