Il Duomo di Firenze
“Who would ever be so hard of heart or envious enough to fail to praise Filippo the architect on seeing here such a large structure, rising above the skies, ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people?” Leon Battista Alberti on Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome
There are many sites to visit in the Piazza del Duomo. It’s seen as the focal point of Florence, center of all the bustling within the city. The Duomo (or “Dome”) of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence announced to Europe the start of the Renaissance. Adjacent to the cathedral is Giotto’s Campanile, also known as Giotto’s Belltower. The saying goes, “it’s the most beautiful Belltower designed by the ugliest man in Florence.” The other major sites to visit in the area is the Battistero di San Giovanni and Il Grande Museo del Opera, the Duomo Museum, home to the original Gates of Paradise. Because no discussion of any of these sights isn’t complete without discussing the others, this page will be devoted to all four of these sites, intertwined in historical legacy.
Just follow the dome. It will magically appear through the small openings to the sky in the narrow Florentine streets.
CABEZA BEST THINGS TO DO
Il Grande Museo de Duomo Pass
If you’re wondering what you need to see in Piazza del Duomo, the answer is everything. The Il Grande Museo del Duomo Pass is a super combo ticket, and the best deal if you want to see everything the Duomo has to offer. For €15.00 (2016 price), you gain access to the Battistero, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Cathedral Crypt, and the brilliantly renovated Duomo Museum. Entry into the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral is free. Once activated, the pass is valid for one entry in each location for 48 hours.
The Baptistery of St. Giovanni
First up is the Battistero di San Giovanni. The Florentine legend is that the Baptistery was an ancient Roman building that was later repurposed as a baptistery. The current structure dates to circa 1000 CE to 1200 CE, and it is the most important religious building in Florence today. Dante Aligheri, the famous Florentine author of The Divine Comedy, was baptized here.
Pisano Doors, 1330
On the southern side of the Baptistery are the underappreciated doors of Andrea Pisano. These doors, originally on the east side, depict the life of Saint John the Baptist and are a virtuoso work of the International Gothic style. The ones you see standing outside the Baptistery are actually replicas; the original doors are in the Museo del Duomo.
Ghiberti Doors, 1401
In 1401 the Opera of the Cathedral held a competition for a new set of bronze doors for the Baptistery. The finalists for this competition were two of the greats: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Fillippo Brunelleschi. This ended up being a defining moment in history since the final, two panels they produced are considered by many art historians to be the beginning of the Renaissance. The humanity of the figures, the naturalness of the space—no big deal! (These two panels are in the Bargello Museum, so go check them out if you have the time. They’re not covered by the Museo del Duomo pass, but they are an absolute must-see). Ghiberti won The competition, perhaps because his work was prefered aesthetically, perhaps because his proposal involved less bronze, or perhaps for political reasons. Regardless, Ghiberti’s doors are a masterpiece in the history of art, as two-dimensional space expands into a third dimension. The doors were completed in 1424 and were placed on the east side…only to be moved to the north when the Gates of Paradise were completed. Find the originals in the Museo del Duomo.
Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, 1425
The genius of Ghiberti’s doors was not lost on his contemporaries as the Opera immediately ordered a new set of doors from him. His price was astronomical, his speed of execution was slow, but his art was magical—a duality of spiritual and natural illusionistic depth. It is impossible to overstate the artistic importance of this third set of doors. Never had such cohesive, yet complex compositions been achieved in sculpture. Never had such linear and atmospheric depth been accomplished in sculpture. Never had such humanity been infused into figures since the classical era. Much of the writings about the Renaissance concentrate on the incorporation of sculptural elements into painting, but the reverse is of equal importance. No sculptor better merged the depth and compositions of paintings into sculpture than Ghiberti. Twenty-seven years is a long time, but doors like these are worth the wait! But you don’t have to take our word for it. Forget our opinions here at Cabeza for a second, and consider none other than Michelangelo’s: “They are so beautiful, they might be the Gates of Paradise.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all the proof you need. The original doors are in the Museo del Duomo.
Tomb of the Anti-Pope
A pirate, a philanderer, and a pope buried in the most revered building in Firenze? Yup, we’re talking about just one person. Anti-Pope John XXIII was so corrupt he was arrested and charged with simony, relations with over 200 women, and having generally no knowledge whatsoever of the Bible. However, he had a connection to a very important family—the Medicis and he guaranteed that the Papal State accounts be managed by the Medici bank. Thus, it was of great political importance to the Medicis that this ilegitimate Pope be legitimized, hence his burial site in one of the most important buildings in Florence. The Anti-Pope also negotiated the gift of a finger of Saint John the Baptist in exchange for his burial plot. Sometimes reality is more bizarre than fiction!
These Gothic mosaics on such a large dome are what the Florentines would see as their young were baptized. After you’re done marveling at the splendor of the golden tiles, you’ll notice that this is not a message of love and comfort. Here is a Christ that demands obedience or you will suffer eternal damnation. Quite a fitting way for Dante to enter this world, don’t you think?
Climb Brunelleschi’s Dome
The story of Brunelleschi’s greatest achievement starts with a crushing defeat. Here’s the story: Brunelleschi lost the competition for the contract to complete the Baptistery Doors to his bitter rival Ghiberti in 1401 (see above). He was angry, dejected, and could not bear to stay in Florence to witness the triumph of his rival. He left thriving Florence for rough and tumble Rome for nearly 13 years, and used his time to study the art, architecture, and engineering of the Romans. Of particular importance was his study of the Pantheon and its monumental dome. The knowledge that Brunelleschi acquired as a result of his failure formed the foundation of the knowledge required to build dome in front of you. No dome of such a scale had been built since the Pantheon over 1300 years before. Brunelleschi’s dome announced in a more monumental and impactful way than any artwork or text Florence offered to the world—the Renaissance had arrived! It is the embodiment of genius. If you’re physically able, definitely climb up! As you do, you will understand that Brunelleschi actually built a dome within a dome. You will walk between both.
Cabeza Tip: Notice the herringbone brick design that was essential to distribute the incredible weight.
Giotto the famous painter designed this Bell Tower. Although the climb itself is not necessarily informative, it offers a spectacular view of Brunelleschi’s dome. The climb is long, when you think you’ve reached the top there’s probably more to go. As you climb the stairs, the tiny windows with bars or the larger ones with grating, offer hints of the absolutely breathtaking view of Florence from the top. It’s definitely worth it!
Museo del Duomo
This museum has been recently renovated, as have Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors. A magnificent new room with fantastic lighting is home to all three sets of doors with Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise in the center. Ironically, the copies currently on the Baptistery are often so swarmed, they are difficult to appreciate. But, the originals here are often easy to appreciate with very few fellow revelers. Take a seat, relax, and take in a work of art that forever changed the course of art towards humanism.
AUTHOR(S) AND LAST UPDATE
John William Bailly, Stephanie Sepulveda, and Corey Ryan 30 May 2016
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