Taking almost 150 years to complete, and dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florence Duomo Cathedral now stands proudly at the heart of the city. So, what’s the story of how it was built?
The Florentine City State
Back in the 14th century, Italy existed as many city states, each one ruling and governing themselves. There wasn’t one supreme authority over the whole country – save for Christianity, the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire, whom no one wanted to displease! Florence – or Firenze, as it is still known in Italian – was one of the most powerful cities in the country. It was considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, which spread throughout Europe. It was a banking, commercial, and cultural capital, and one of the first cities to function as a true republic. Sounds great, right?
With all that money and status though, comes a bit of ego. Wealthy Florentines would become patrons of the art, to show off their success to their peers. The Medici were one of the most powerful families in the city, the de facto rulers, though it was officially a republic – remember that name though, it’ll come up a few more times! And the Italian city states did the same, showing off to one another. The most popular way to do this: build something amazing. Something huge, requiring time, money, manpower, and most importantly, innovative design.
Florence‘s first cathedral, the Basilica di San Lorenzo dates from 393, and is where most of the Medici are buried. The second was Santa Reparta, from the 7th century. But both were now too small for the growing city so, it was time for an upgrade!
Building the Cathedral
Arnolfo di Cambio is the man who took on the job, designing the Cattedrale of Santa Mario del Fiore that we see today, as well as other buildings in Florence before then. It’s actually built on top of Santa Reparta, enlarging the original structure, but remains of the first can still be seen in the crypt. He designed the church inspired by the Gothic style of the time – but unlike the elaborate flying buttresses of, say, Notre Dame de Paris in France, he took a slightly different approach. He looked back in time, to the simple, classical style of Ancient Rome. This style, combining Gothic with Romanesque, would become essential to the Renaissance. Di Cambio designed the cathedral with three wide naves, finishing with an octagonal dome at the end. The outside would be covered in geometric patterns made of marble, typical of Tuscany.
The city approved his design in 1294, and construction began in 1296. Cardinal Valeriana, in Florence to represent the Pope, laid the first stone. Due to the sheer size of the building though, work was slow. It is roughly 153m long and 90m wide, and today is still the fourth largest church in the world. As a result, di Cambio knew he would not live to see his project completed. After his death in 1310, work continued under Giotto di Bondone (usually known only by his first name – think like Beyoncé), who also designed the Campanile (bell tower). He didn’t see that completed during his lifetime either! Over the years, the project continued on and off, supervised by half a dozen different architects. Eventually, by 1418, it was pretty much finished… except for the Dome.
Designing the Dome
The word ‘duomo’ is now used to nickname the cathedral, because of its iconic Dome structure. But, for the first 100 years of its existence, no one could figure out how to build such a dome without it collapsing! It had to span 140m over the east end of the nave, a width never achieved before without the support of buttresses. Florence had rejected that idea in 1367, marking the break from Gothic design and moving into the Renaissance. Eventually, in 1418, the city held a competition to design the structure. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi won, but it was the latter who actually completed it. He also had the backing of the de facto ruler, Cosimo de Medici. The two had previously competed to design the bronze doors of the Baptistery, in 1401. Ghiberti won that time around, as well as contributing to other areas of the Cathedral.
Brunelleschi’s solution was ingenious, a breakthrough of the time. Instead of one dome, he decided to build two. The inner is made of sandstone and marble, and the outer is brick and mortar, with ribs between them. This was the first octagonal dome in the world built without using wooden supports! Instead, each brick was carefully designed to support the Dome as construction progressed – it was still a risky undertaking though! Also, Brunelleschi finished the Dome with a point, instead of a smooth top, to reduce pressure and keep the weight in the sides. Work began in 1420, and was completed in 1436 – a speedy effort, in comparison with the rest of the building! At last, after 140 years, the Florence Duomo Cathedral was finished.
In the Details
Well, nearly. As soon as work finished on the Dome, the Pope himself, Eugene IV, came from Rome to consecrate the Florence Duomo Cathedral in 1436. Much work was still to be done inside the church though! Many frescoes now adorn the side walls, added in the 15th century and include works by artists such as Domenico de Michelino, Paolo Uccello, and Andrea del Castagno. The latter two contributed to designs for the stained glass windows as well, as did Ghiberti and Donatello. There are 44 windows in total, also added during the 15th century, depicting saints and Bible stories. The floor is quite the attraction too, having been relaid with marble tiles during the 16th century, in ornate mosaic designs, coloured to match the exterior.
The most famous part of the interior though, is the fresco painted inside the Dome. Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici commissioned the work, a descendant of his namesake mentioned earlier. The fresco depicts ‘The Last Judgement’, and was started in 1572 by Giorgio Vasari. After his death in 1574, Federico Zuccaro continued the piece, completing it in 1579. The Dome is 115m in height, so that must have been some precarious work!
Meanwhile outside, the facade of the church, started in the 14th century, went unfinished until 1887. The final pattern of green, red, and white marble tiles was designed by Emilio de Fabris, more in line with the Gothic Revival fashion of that time. So the church started Gothic, moved into Renaissance, and returned to Gothic!
While its construction was a long and eventful process in itself, the Florence Duomo Cathedral has played host to some other important events over the years since. In 1489, during the reign of Lorenzo ‘The Magnificent’ de Medici, the Pazzi, a rival banking family, tried to assassinate him. They plotted the murder to take place during Easter Mass, inside the Cathedral. Lorenzo escaped, but the Pazzi killed his brother, Giuliano, on holy ground. The Pazzi’s actions were terrible, but their chosen date and location made it all the more shocking!
Girolamo Savonarola, a puritanical friar and the de facto ruler of Florence after the Medici were ousted in 1494 (later restored in 1512), preached inside. He defied the Pope by seeking Church reforms, and so was excommunicated, and later burned at the stake in Florence’s main square. However, his teachings were later influential to the 16th century Reformation in much of Western Europe.
The Cathedral’s crypt is the burial site of Brunelleschi and Giotto, both key figures in the Cathedral’s construction. This honour shows the importance of their contributions, and their roles as founding fathers of the Renaissance. Other religious figures are also buried here, including two popes. Despite the important role of the Medici in funding and supporting the Cathedral, they continued to use the Basilica di San Lorenzo for their burials.
The Florence Duomo Cathedral
When visiting Florence, the Cathedral is at the heart of the city, a magnificent structure that you cannot miss! It’s easy to see the outside, from various viewpoints around the city, or up close in the Piazza del Duomo itself. Admire the marble facade, with the white tiles from Carrara, green from Prato, and red from Siena.
Entering the church, most visitors find it to be quite plain, compared to the grandeur of the exterior. This aligns with the ideas of religious austerity of the time. Look out for the clock above the inner entrance, designed by Paolo Uccello, and which still works today. The three naves have high arched, Gothic ceilings, and the church can fit up to 30,000 worshippers at once. You will see the frescoes along the walls, those on the left being the most famous (by the artists mentioned above!). And of course, gaze skywards at ‘The Last Judgement’, inside the Dome itself. There are various sculptures inside as well, by 15th and 16th century Renaissance artists, though many have now been moved to the museum. Audio guides are available to rent, to learn more during your visit.
Piazza del Duomo
The main building is joined by the Campanile di Giotto, and the Baptistery of St John. All three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers the historic centre of Florence. While entry to the Cathedral itself is free, you can buy a cumulative ticket to access other areas and buildings. This allows you to climb the Dome, and the Campanile for views over Florence. Be aware that there are over 400 narrow stairs in each of them, and no lift options. The ticket also includes entrance to the Baptistery, the Crypt, and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The Baptistery is an octagonal, Romanesque building, from the 12th century, with ornate mosaics inside. It contains Ghiberti’s bronze doors, named the ‘Gates of Paradise’ by Michelangelo. The museum houses almost 1,000 pieces of art and sculpture moved over from the Cathedral and Baptistery. Inside the Crypt, you can see the remains of Santa Reparta church, and Brunelleschi’s tomb.
Entry: Cathedral – free
Cumulative ticket – €18, valid for 72 hours from first use, must be purchased in advance from second link above, time slot must be reserved for the Dome.
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10.00-16.30, Sun 13.30-16.45
Times for the Dome, Campanile, Baptistery, Museum, and Crypt vary. Please check the second website above for the most up to date times.
As a sign of respect, visitors are asked to cover their knees and shoulders and remove hats when visiting the Cathedral. It is still a working church, as part of the Roman Catholic faith, and is the Archdiocese of Florence. As such, Sunday Mass takes place every week, as well as other ceremonies throughout the year. Check the first website link for more details of these.
Have you visited the Florence Duomo Cathedral before? Leave a comment about your experience!