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 Essential Architecture-  Florence

Florence Cathedral aka "The Duomo." "Santa Maria del Fiore"


Arnolfo di Cambio Dome added by Filippo Brunelleschi


Florence, Italy


1296 to 1462


Italian Rennaisance




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  The last Judgment under the dome
The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is the cathedral church, or Duomo, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Florence, noted for its distinctive dome. Its name (which translates as "Saint Mary of the Flower") refers to the lily, symbol of Florence, or to the old town name Fiorenza. But a 15th c. document on the other hand states that the "flower" refers to Christ.

The cathedral complex includes the church proper, the Battistero di San Giovanni (Florence), built in Florence after Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella.

It was built on the site of a previous cathedral, Santa Reparata, prompted by the magnificence of the new cathedrals in Pisa and Siena. At the end of the 13th century, the nine centuries old church of Santa Reparata was crumbling with age, as attested in documents of that time. Furthermore, it was becoming too small in a period of rapid population expansion. Prosperous Florence wanted to surpass in grandeur its Tuscan rivals Pisa and Siena with a most magnificent church, grander in size and more richly adorned at the exterior. This cathedral was, as a result, the largest in Europe when it was completed, with room for 30,000 people. It is now only exceeded in size by Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, Saint Paul's Cathedral in London and the Milan Cathedral.

The new church was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296 to be the largest Roman Catholic church in the world (although the design was altered several times and later reduced in size). Arnolfo di Cambio was also the famous architect of the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio. He designed three wide naves ending under the octogonal dome, with the middle nave covering the surface of Santa Reparata. The first stone was laid on September 9, 1296 by cardinal Valeriana, the first papal legate ever sent to Florence. The building of this vast project was to last 170 years, the collective efforts of several generations.

After Arnolfo died in 1302, work on the cathedral slowed or was suspended during thirty years. The building drive got a new impetus, when the relics of San Zanobius were discovered in 1330 in San Reparata. In 1331, the Arte della Lana (Guild of Wool Merchants) took over the exclusive patronage for the construction of the cathedral and in 1334 they appointed Giotto as overseer for the work. Assisted by Andrea Pisano, he continued along di Cambio's design. His major accomplishment was the building campanile, but he died in 1337. Andrea Pisano continued the building, until he was stopped by the Black Plague in 1348.

It was not until 1349 that work resumed on the cathedral itself under a series of architects, starting with Francesco Talenti, who finished the belltower and enlarged the overall project with the apse and the side chapels, but did not alter the outside. After 1359 he was succeeded by Giovanni di Lapo Ghini (1360ľ1369) who divided the center nave in four square bays. Other architects were Alberto Arnoldi, Giovanni d'Ambrogio, Neri di Fioravante and Orcagna. By 1375 the old church Santa Reparata was pulled down. The nave was finished by 1380, and by 1418 only the dome was left uncompleted.

The walls are covered in alternate vertical and horizontal bands with many-colored marble from Carrara (white), Prato (green), Siena (red), Lavenza and a few other places. These marble bands had to repeat the decorations of the Baptistery and Giotto's belltower. There are two lateral door, the Doors of the Canonici (south side) and the Door of the Mandorla (north side) with works of art of Nanni di Banco Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia. The six lateral windows, notable for their delicate tracery and ornaments, are separated by pilasters. Only the four windows, closest to the transept, admit light; The other two are merely ornamental. The clerestory windows are round, a common feature in Italian Gothic. The floor of the church was laid in marble in the 16th century.

During its long history, this cathedral has been the seat of the Council of Florence (1439), heard the preachings of Girolamo Savonarola and witnessed the murder of Giuliano de' Medici on 26 April 1478 (with Lorenzo the Magnifico barely escaping death).

The 42 m-wide dome had originally a wooden dome, built by Arnolfo di Cambio. The building of a stone cupola over the chancel posed many technical problems. There existed already a brick model from 1367 for the dome (as related in the "Life of Brunelleschi" by Antonio Manetti, ca. 1480)

In 1419 a competition was held to design a new dome (or cupola) for the cathedral. The two main competitors were Lorenzo Ghiberti (famous for his work on the "Gates of Paradise" doors at the Baptistery) and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi drew his inspiration from double-walled cupola of the Pantheon in Rome. He constructed a wooden and brick model with the help of Donatello and Nanni di Banco (on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo). Brunelleschi won by a nose. His model served as a guide for the craftsmen, but was intentionally incomplete, as to ensure his control over the construction.

Brunelleschi's solutions were ingenious and unprecedented: the distinctive octagonal design of the double-walled dome, resting on a drum and not on the roof itself, allowed for the entire dome to be built without the need for scaffolding from the ground.

This enormous construction weighs 37,000 metric tons and contains over 4 million bricks. He made several models and drawings of details during the construction. Brunelleschi had to invent special hoisting machines and lewissons for hoisting large stones. These specially designed machines and brilliant masonry techniques were Brunelleschi's spectacular contribution to architecture. The ability to transcribe a circle on a cone face within the innermost double shelled wall makes the self-sustaining "horizontal" arch construction possible, since geometrically, a circular plan is needed for such an erection.

The dome also used horizontal reinforcements of tension chains of stone and iron - paving way to the imaginations of iron and steel structural reinforcements, such as reinforced concrete in later centuries.

Ghiberti, appointed coadjutator, mocked these plans and called them unfeasible. Brunelleschi, deeply offended, then pretended a sickness and left for Rome, giving the project in the hands of Ghiberti. But Ghiberti soon had to recognize that the whole project was beyond him. In 1423 Brunelleschi was back in charge and took over sole responsibility.

Work started on the dome in 1420 and was completed in 1436. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugene IV on March 25, 1436 (the first day of the year, according to the Florentine calendar). It was the first 'octagonal' dome in history (The Roman Pantheon, a circular dome, was built in 118-128 C.E. without support structures) to be built without a wooden supporting frame, and was the largest dome built at the time (it is still the largest masonry dome in the world). It had been one of the most impressive projects of the Renaissance.

Brunelleschi's ability to crown the dome with a lantern was questioned and he had to undergo another competition. He was declared the winner over his competitors Lorenzo Ghiberti and Antonio Ciaccheri. His design was for an octogonal lantern with eight radiating buttresses and eight high arched windows (now on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo). Construction of the lantern was begun a few months before his death in 1446. Then, during 25 years, it got stuck and didn't make much progress due to alterations by several architects. Finally it was completed by his friend Michelozzo in 1461. The conical roof was crowned with a gilt copper ball and cross, containing holy relics, by Verrocchio in 1469. He had used a hoisting machine specially designed by Leonardo da Vinci. This brings the total height of the dome and lantern to 114.5 metres. This copper ball was struck by lightning on 17 July 1600 and fell down. It was replaced by an even larger one two years later.

The decorations of the drum gallery by Baccio d'Agnolo were never finished after being disapproved by no one less than Michelangelo.

A huge statue of Brunelleschi now sits outside the Palazzo dei Canonici in the Piazza del Duomo, looking thoughtfully up towards his greatest achievement, the dome that would forever dominate the panorama of Florence. Only 150 years later would this dome be surpassed by Michelangelo's dome of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City.

The building of the cathedral had started in 1296 with the design of Arnolfo di Cambio and was halted in 1469 with the copper ball on the lantern by Verrocchio. But the facade was still unfinished and would remain so for a long time.


The original fašade, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and usually attributed to Giotto, was actually begun twenty years after Giotto's death. A mid-15th c. pen-and-ink drawing of this so-called Giotto's facade is visible in the Codex Rustici, and in the drawing of Bernardino Poccetti in 1587, both on display in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. This fašade was the collective work of several artists, among them Andrea Orcagna and Taddeo Gaddi. This original fašade was only completed in its lower portion and then left unfinished. It was dismantled in 1587-1588 by the Medici court architect Bernardo Buontalenti, ordered by Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici, as it appeared totally outmoded in Renaissance times. Some of the original sculptures are on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo, behind the cathedral. Others are now in the Berlin Museum and in the Louvre. The competition for a new fašade turned out into a huge corruption scandal. The wooden model for the fašade of Buontalenti is on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo. A few new designs have been proposed in later years but the models (of Giovanni Antonio Dosio, Giovanni de' Medici with Alessandro Pieroni and Giambologna) were not accepted. The fašade was then left bare until the 19th century.

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Scene with angels on a bronze door

In 1864 a competition was held to design a new fašade and was won by Emilio De Fabris (1808-1883) in 1871. Work was begun in 1876 and completed in 1887. This neo-gothic fašade in white, green and red marble forms a harmonious entity with the cathedral, Giotto's belltower and the Baptistery, but it is excessively decorated.

The whole fašade is dedicated to the Mother of Christ.

The three huge bronze doors date from 1899 to 1903. They are adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna. The mosaics in the lunettes above the doors were designed by Niccol˛ Barabino. They represent (from left to right): Charity among the founders of Florentine philantropic institutions, Christ enthroned with Mary and John the Baptist, Florentine artisans, merchants and humanists paying homage to the Faith. The pediment above the central portal contains a half-relief by Tito Sarrocchi of Mary enthroned holding a flowered scepter

On top of the fašade is a series of niches with the twelve Apostles with, in the middle, the Madonna with Child. Between the rose windowand the tympanum, there is a gallery with busts of great Florentine artists.

The cathedral is built as a basilica, with a nave and two aisles, forming a Roman cross. The nave and the aisles are divided by wide pointed arches with composite pilasters, dividing the nave into four square bays.

Its dimensions are enormous: length 153 m (about 500 ft.), width 38 m (128 ft.), width at the crossing 90 m (almost 300 ft.). The height of the arches in the aisles is 23 m (75 ft.). The heigth from pavement to the opening of the lantern in the dome is also 90 m (300 ft).

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Dante and the Divine Comedy

The Gothic interior is cavernous and gives an empty impression. The relative bareness of the church corresponds with the austerity of religious life, as preached by Girolamo Savonarola.

Many decorations in the church have been lost in the course of time, or have been transferred to the Museum Opera del Duomo, such as the magnificent cantorial pulpits (the singing galleries for the choristers) of Luca della Robbia and Donatello.

As this cathedral was built with funds from the public, some important works of art in this church honour illustrious men and military leaders of Florence :

Dante and the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino (1465). This painting is especially interesting because it shows us, apart from scenes of the Divine Comedy, a view on Florence in 1465, a Florence such as Dante himself couldn't have seen in his time. 
Equestrian statue of John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello (1436). This almost monochrome fresco, transferred on canvas in the 19th c., is painted in terra verde, a color closest to the patina of bronze. 

Equestrian statue of Niccol˛ da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno (1456). This fresco, transferred on canvas in the 19th c., in the same style as the previous one, is painted in a color resembling marble. However it is more richly decorated and gives more the impression of movement. 
Both frescos portray the condottieri as heroic figures riding triumphantically. Both painters had problems when applying in painting the new rules of perspective to foreshortening : they used two unifying points, one for the horse and one for the pedestal, instead a single unifying point.

Busts of Giotto (by Benedetto da Maiano), Brunelleschi (by Buggiano - 1447), Marsilio Ficino, and Antonio Squarcialupi (a most famous organist). These busts all date from the 15th and the 16th century. 
Above the main door is the colossal clock face with fresco portraits of four Prophets or Evangelists by Paolo Uccello (1443). This one-handed liturgical clock shows the 24 hours of the hora italica (Italian time), a period of time ending with sunset at 24 hours. This timetable was used till the 18th century. This is one of the few clocks from that time that still exist and are in working order.

The church is particularly notable for its 44 stained glass windows, the largest undertaking of this kind in Italy in the 14th and 15th century. The windows in the aisles and in the transept depict saints from the Old and the New Testament, while the circular windows in the drum of the dome or above the entrance depict Christ and Mary. They are the work of the greatest Florentine artists of their times, such as Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno.

"Christ crowning Mary as Queen", the stained-glass circular window above the clock, with a rich range of coloring, was designed by Gaddo Gaddi in the early 1300s.

Donatello designed the stained-glass window (Coronation of the Virgin) in the drum of the dome (the only one that can be seen from the nave).

The beautiful funeral monument of Antonio d'Orso (1323), bishop of Florence, was made by Tino da Camaino, the most important funeral sculptor of his time.

The monumental crucifix, behind the Bishop's Chair at the high altar, is by Benedetto da Maiano (1495-1497). The choir enclosure is the work of the famous Bartolommeo Bandinelli. The ten-panelled bronze doors of the sacristy were made by Luca della Robbia, who has also two glazed terracotta works inside the sacristy: Angel with Candlestick and Resurrection of Christ.

In the back of the middle of the three apses is the altar of Saint Zanobius, first bishop of Florence. Its silver shrine, a masterpiece of Ghiberti, contains the urn with his relics. The central compartment shows us one his miracles, the reviving of a dead child. Above this shrine is the painting Last Supper by the lesser-known Giovanni Balducci. There was also a glass-paste mosaic panel The Bust of Saint Zanobius by the 16th c. miniaturist Monte di Giovanni, but it is now on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo.

Many decorations date from the 16th century, under patronage from the Grand Dukes, such as the pavement in colored marble, attributed to Baccio d'Agnolo and Francesco da Sangallo (1520-26). Some pieces of marble from the facade were used, topside down, in the flooring (as was shown by the restoration of the floor after the 1966 flooding).

At first, it was suggested that the interior of the 45 m-wide dome should be covered with a mosaic decoration to make the most of the available light coming through the circular windows of the drum and through the lantern. Brunelleschi has proposed the vault to glimmer with resplendent gold, but his death in 1446 put an end to this project, and the walls of the dome were whitewashed. Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici decided to have the dome painted with a representation of The Last Judgment. This enormous work, 3,600 square metres of painted surface, was started in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari and would last till 1579. The upper portion, near the lantern, representing The 24 Elders of Apoc. 4 was finished by Vasari before his death in 1574. Frederico Zucchero and a number of collaborators, such as Domenico Cresti, finished the other portions : (from top to bottom) Choirs of Angels; Christ, Mary and Saints; Virtues, Gifts of the Holy Spirit and Beatitudes; and at the bottom of the cuppola: Capital Sins and Hell. These frescoes are considered Zuccari's greatest work. But the quality of the work is uneven because of the input of different artists and the different techniques. Vasari had used true fresco, while Zuccari had painted in secco.


Tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi

Tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi

The cathedral has undergone difficult excavations between 1965 and 1974. The subterranean vaults were used for the burial of Florentine bishops throughout the centuries. Recently the archeological history of this huge area was reconstructed : remains of Roman houses, an early Christian pavement, ruins of the former cathedral of Santa Reparata and successive enlargements of this church. Close to the entrance, open to the public, is the tomb of Brunelleschi, as proof of the high esteem he was given by the Florentines.

Artists who have produced work for the cathedral include:

Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano (panelling in the sacristy) 
Andrea del Castagno (fresco of Niccol˛ da Tolentino on the north wall) 
Luca della Robbia (reliefs of the Resurrection and Ascension above the sacristy doors; work on the sacristy door with Michelozzo; choir loft, now in the Museo del Duomo) 
Domenico di Michelino (Dante Explaining the Divine Comedy on the north wall) 
Donatello (heads of a prophet and a sibyl on the south side of the exterior; choir loft, now in the Museo del Duomo) 
Davide and Domenico Ghirlandaio (mosaic of the Annunciation on the south side of the exterior) 
Michelozzo (work on the sacristy door, with Luca della Robbia) 
Nanni di Banco (relief of Assumption of the Virgin on south side of exterior) 
Paolo Uccello (decoration of west wall clock; fresco of Sir John Hawkwood on the north wall; two stained glass windows) 
Giorgio Vasari and Federigo Zuccaro (frescoes of The Last Judgement in the interior of the dome) 

Tim Jepson: The National Geographic Traveler, Florence & Tuscany, National Geographic Society, 2001. ISBN 90-215-9720-9. 
Rolf C. Wirtz: Kunst & Architektur, Florenz, K÷neman, 2005. ISBN 3-8331-1576-9. 
Carlo MontrÚsor: The Opera del Duomo, Museum in Florence, Mandragora, 2000. 
Henry A. Millon (ed.): Italian Renaissance Architecture: from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994. ISBN 0-500-27921-7.