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The Duomo
The Duomo

The massive Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly referred to as the Duomo, and associated structures, comprise the spiritual center of Florence, and their lengthy and eventful construction contributes a significant piece to the history of art and architecture.  The Duomo itself is 502 feet long and 295 feet wide at its widest.  On top of the Duomo is the world’s largest masonry dome (more than 143 feet in diameter), which has occupied its position, basically unchanged, since 1436.  The dome, with its surmounting lantern, rises to a height of 375 feet.  The elaborate (some have said excessively elaborate) fašade wasn’t added until the late 19th Century.

The Dome
The Dome
The Fašade
The Fašade

The Fašade
The Fašade
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The multicolored marble used on the fašade was selected to coordinate with the detached campanile standing next to the Duomo.  This campanile is 276 feet tall, and was completed in 1359.  Across from the Duomo is the large, octagonal Battistero di San Giovanni, or Baptistery of St. John.  The baptistery was completed in 1128, replacing an earlier baptistery which had stood on the same spot since the 9th Century or earlier.  Decorating the baptistery are a number of statues, as well as bronze doors which are masterworks of the genre.

The Campanile
The Campanile
The Baptistery
The Baptistery

Work on the Duomo began in 1296, according to a design by Arnolfo di Cambio, and continued for the ensuing century.  The artist Giotto, named to head the project in 1334, designed the campanile, which was completed more than 20 years after his death.  A design for the dome, which had been vague up to this point, was submitted in 1367 by Neri di Fioravante.  The design called for the largest dome that had ever been built, octagonally sectioned and with no external buttressing (common in Gothic architecture) to support it.  Everyone loved the design, but hadn’t a clue as to how to build it.  The only existing dome approaching this size was that of the Pantheon in Rome (more on this when we get to Rome).  Nobody knew how the ancient Romans had done it, but it had obviously included the liberal use of concrete, a material whose formulation had died along with them.  Not quite knowing what to make of the problem, those in charge (the Guild of Wool Merchants) did what bureaucrats have always done – they put it off until later, possibly hoping it would go away, but definitely making sure that it would be someone else’s problem.

Jumping ahead to 1401, the Wool Merchants, still in denial about the dome, decided the baptistery needed a new set of bronze doors, with 14 panels per door, each depicting a scene from the Old Testament.  A competition was announced in which artists were to submit a panel depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac, and a panel of 34 judges would award the commission to the artist whose panel was judged to be the best.  The two finalists were two young goldsmiths named Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Lorenzo Ghiberti
Lorenzo Ghiberti (left)
Filippo Brunelleschi
Filippo Brunelleschi

Ghiberti and Brunelleschi didn’t like each other very much, and the ensuing years would not bring any improvement to this situation, but as events unfolded, they would find each other unavoidable, pretty much for the remainder of their careers.  Ghiberti’s creative process for the 1401 competition was to show his progress to other artists, several of whom were on the panel of judges, and solicit and include their suggestions.  He’d mastered the difficult art of bronze casting, and was able to produce his submission as a single piece.  Brunelleschi, on the other hand, was very secretive with his work, a pattern he would follow throughout his career.  His technical ability with the casting was probably not as advanced as Ghiberti’s, and his submission came in multiple pieces.  However, the artistic quality of his submission was such that the judges found themselves with a very difficult choice.  Their eventual conclusion was to award the commission to Ghiberti, with Brunelleschi to assist.

Brunelleschi responded by departing for Rome, where he spent much of the next 15 years.  Ghiberti was left to complete the commission on his own, though he had some talented help in his workshop, which included the young Donatello.  In Rome, Brunelleschi did a lot of goldsmith work, as well as some clockmaking, and in his spare time studied architecture, particularly of the ruins remaining from the ancient Romans.  Ghiberti and workshop worked on the doors (which the Wool Merchants had decided would depict New Testament scenes instead) for the next 21 years, finally producing two beautiful doors which were promptly installed on the baptistery.  The doors remain in place to this day, though they have been moved from the east side to the north side of the baptistery, the entrance for most visitors.

North Door (upper)
North Door (upper)
North Door (lower)
North Door (lower)
Resurrection and Pentecost Panels
Resurrection and Pentecost Panels
Flagellation and Jesus Before Pilate Panels
Flagellation and Jesus Before Pilate Panels
Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and Last Supper Panels
Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and Last Supper Panels
Chasing the Merchants and Walking on Water Panels
Chasing the Merchants and Walking on Water Panels

Skipping to 1418, the construction on the Duomo was nearly finished, except for the Elephant in the Room – the big open space where there was supposed to be a dome.  The Wool Merchants could no longer avoid the issue, so they announced another competition.  Ghiberti, though he was still working on the doors and had limited architectural experience, had some ideas and entered the competition.  And, back from Rome, so did Brunelleschi.  They presented their ideas, with Ghiberti being vague on the engineering challenges and Brunelleschi being deliberately incomplete on some of his details, because he didn’t want people stealing his ideas.  The Wool Merchants weren’t quite sure what to do and dithered for awhile, and instead of presenting a clear award, eventually told Ghiberti and Brunelleschi to work together on it.

Ghiberti and Brunelleschi both held their noses and began work, and it quickly became apparent that Brunelleschi had a much better handle on the job than Ghiberti.  The dome would have to be made from bricks and mortar.  Filippo had a great many bricks cast in a particular way, and devised animal-driven, counterweighted contrivances to move the bricks up and down between the ground and the great heights at which the bricklayers would be working.  There was not enough wood in all of Tuscany to build scaffolding to support the dome during construction, so Brunelleschi had the bricks laid in a herringbone pattern that was self-supporting.  At a critical point in 1426, Brunelleschi, who felt he wasn’t receiving sufficient respect (and pay), feigned an illness and temporarily turned over full leadership to Ghiberti.  Ghiberti wasn’t sure what the next step should be (Filippo was less than helpful) and had the workers do something which would have been disastrous if it had been allowed to continue.  But then Brunelleschi had a miraculous recovery, shrieked in horror at what Lorenzo had done, undid all of it and redid it correctly.  After this, Brunelleschi received a raise and Ghiberti’s role in the project was greatly diminished.  But in 1425, Ghiberti, recognized as the preeminent bronzecaster of his time after the completion of the baptistery doors, was awarded another commission for another set of baptistery doors with Old Testament scenes, this time being granted more artistic freedom.

The two artists worked on their respective projects (as well as some smaller ones) over the next several years, and the dome was completed in 1436.  There was another competition involving both artists for the lantern atop the dome, but Brunelleschi was the clear winner of this one.  He died in 1446, shortly after the start of construction on the lantern, which wasn’t completed until 1461.

The Dome
The Dome
The Lantern
The Lantern

A commission was awarded in 1469 to Andrea del Verrocchio for a large ball and cross to be placed atop the lantern.  Brunelleschi’s hoisting devices were used in the placement, and an apprentice in Verrocchio’s workshop named Leonardo da Vinci sketched pictures of them, as he thought they were really cool.

In the meantime, Ghiberti toiled for 27 years on the new baptistery doors, and they were installed on the east side, facing the Duomo (the previous doors being moved 90 degrees to the north) in 1452.  The new doors only displayed ten panels, but multiple scenes were shown in each panel.  They were revolutionary in the field of bronzework, making use of the recent rediscovery (by Brunelleschi) of linear perspective, with a result that was much more three-dimensional than anything done in bronze to this point.  They received rave reviews, with people calling them “perfect” and the greatest artwork ever.  Decades later, no less a critic than Michelangelo pronounced them fit to be the “Gates of Paradise”, a name which has been applied to them ever since (one can imagine a scene in Heaven, or wherever Ghiberti and Brunelleschi are, in which Lorenzo elbows Filippo, points and says “See?”).

The Gates of Paradise
The Gates of Paradise
Adam and Eve Panel
Adam and Eve Panel
Cain and Abel Panel
Cain and Abel Panel
Abraham and Sacrifice of Isaac Panel
Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac Panel
Noah Panel
Noah Panel
Esau and Jacob Panel
Esau and Jacob Panel
Joseph Panel
Joseph Panel
Moses Panel
Moses Panel
David and the Battle with the Philistines Panel
David and the Battle with the Philistines Panel
Joshua and the Fall of Jericho Panel
Joshua and the Fall of Jericho Panel
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba Panel
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba Panel
The Gates of Paradise
The Gates of Paradise
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We dropped by the Duomo on two occasions.  The first, as mentioned above, was on the evening of our arrival in the city.  Before going to dinner we walked around the baptistery, admiring Ghiberti’s sets of bronze doors.  And across the piazza, we were dazzled by the fašade of the Duomo, brilliantly lit by the setting sun.  High atop the campanile next to the Duomo, people could be seen.  Connie and Bob longed to be two of those people.  Philip and Nella, not so much.  Unlike the campanile we’d seen in Venice, this was an original 14th Century structure, and this being the case, had no elevator.  There were hundreds of narrow, dimly-lit steps, though, worn smooth by centuries of feet.  Connie and Bob paid their 6 Euros apiece and made the ascent, stopping briefly for breath at the two landings/viewpoints on the way up.  From the top there was a gorgeous view of the city.

The Campanile
The Campanile
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South Face of Duomo
South Face of Duomo
View Through Campanile Window
View Through Campanile Window
A Bell
A Bell
Bob at the Top
Bob at the Top
Connie and Dome
Connie and Dome
Base of Dome
Base of Dome
View to Southeast
View to Southeast
Dome, Santa Croce Church and Bargello
Dome, Santa Croce Church and Bargello
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View Southward
View Southward
Pitti Palace
Pitti Palace, Across River
View to Southwest
View to Southwest
View to South and Southwest
View to South and Southwest
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View to Northwest
View to Northwest
HD Video (16.6 MB)  SD Video (8.6 MB)

It’s normally possible to walk to the top of the dome instead (and Connie indicated a desire to do just that), but there weren’t any people on the dome, indicating that it was probably closed for the day.  The dome viewpoint is a little higher than the campanile, but it costs a couple of Euros more and normally has a longer and slower line.  And from the top of the dome, you don’t really get a very good view of the dome.  The view from the campanile was more than satisfactory.

Our second visit to the Duomo was on the following morning – the Duomo itself had been closed the previous evening, so we took this opportunity to explore the interior.  As one would expect, the church is cavernous, but the ornamentation is surprisingly subdued when compared to other Italian churches, especially those of this significance.  Subdued but not absent, as there are paintings, stained glass and a liturgical clock which has been running for hundreds of years.

Inside the Duomo
Inside the Duomo
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Dante and the Divine Comedy
Dante and the Divine Comedy, Domenico di Michelino (1465)
Liturgical Clock
Liturgical Clock
Stained Glass
Stained Glass
Main Altar
Main Altar
Stained Glass
Stained Glass

Connie and Candle Holder
Connie and Candle Holder

There is also a colorful fresco large enough to cover the inner surface of the dome.  This fresco, The Last Judgment, covers more than 38,000 square feet and was painted from 1568 to 1579 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari.  The two artists used two different fresco techniques (true fresco vs. in secco), and there are those who have said the difference fragments the work, but we didn’t notice anything.  But we didn’t have that great a view, either, as people were fenced off from the spot directly beneath the dome.

Altar and Dome Fresco
Altar and Dome Fresco
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Dome Fresco
Dome Fresco, Vasari & Zuccari (1568-79)

Entry to the Duomo is free, but for a small fee one can visit the crypt, the final resting place of a number of bishops, as well as of Filippo Brunelleschi.  For hundreds of years, nobody knew where Brunelleschi was buried, but his simple tomb was discovered here during excavations in 1972.

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