Florence 9: Santa Maria del Fiore

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

Beyond all the art and history in Florence, the big thing is the Florence Cathedral, formally known as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, but usually called simply il Duomo, “the dome.”

Walking around the narrow streets of Florence, it is hard to see il Duomo until you are right in its square. When I rounded a corner and first encountered the cathedral on my first full day in Florence, I was stunned. Bear in mind that this was just a day after I had seen Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the flowers) is not large by modern standards, as a football stadium or industrial plant. It is, however, the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London), running 153 metres (502 feet) long, 90 m (295 feet) wide at the crossing, and 90 m high from the floor to the bottom of the lantern atop the dome.

If I had to use one word to describe the Florence Cathedral, it would be ornate.

West side, south doorway
Just one of the doors on the west facade of Santa Maria del Fiore. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

But ornate hardly begins to describe the intricate ornaments that bedazzle practically every facet of the exterior. Consider the just one of the doorways. The instructions to the builder must have been something like this: first, some marble, with little faces carved at each hinge point. Surround this with a carved border of a leafy vine-like thing, with little musical cherubs and birds every foot or so. The edges of this strip of marble should be scalloped. Next, some kind of a fake pillar, but make it helical. Oh, and not just plain marble: decorate it with bits of green marble and carve some studs along its edges. Between the helix and the previous border, do some more scallop-y stuff. Now, outside the helix, do a much wider border of white marble, with sculptures of angels every couple of feet. In between these angels, maybe some more flowery stuff or leafy bits with lions. Finally another helix, but make it bigger and winding in the opposite direction. Still with the green marble inlays, though. Oh and maybe a thin border of green marble with little pink diamonds around that. Then some more flowery scrollwork, and perhaps one more border inlaid with pink marble to set the whole thing off. Above the door, a row of marble flowers, in the white, pink, and green you’ve been using, then some more scrollwork, and we’ll get somebody to do a nice painting to fill the arch. Above that, after a bit more scrollwork and all the other helixes and such you put beside the door, maybe a couple of statues of saints or something. The top of the top should be pointy, and in the space between the point and the arch, maybe another sculpture in a circle, with a gold-leaf mosaic behind it, the usual borders, and then fill the remaning spaces with some more sculptures. Oh, and surround all that with another border in that pink, green, and white floral motif. And if there’s any space left over, just fill that in with something fancy. Got it?

(Or, more likely, “We need a frame around this door in white marble, with pink and green bits. We’ll pay you 2 florins a month until it’s finished. Make it nice, yeah?”)

Although construction on the cathedral’s structure (designed by Arnolfo di Cambio) began in 1296 and concluded in 1436 with the completion of the dome (by Filippo Brunelleschi; more on that aspect in a future post), the facade is actually a relatively recent addition. The original Gothic facade was only half finished by the 1580s when Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici decided it was out of style, and ordered it dismantled. Apparently, the competition to replace it blew up into a huge scandal, and the front of the church was left bare until the late 1800s. In 1871, Emilio de Fabris won a competition with a Gothic and Renaissance hybrid design which coordinated with the baptistry and campanile. The new facade was installed between 1876 and 1887.

Apart from a few short steps en route to the stairway up to the dome, I didn’t manage to see the inside of the basilica. If you want to do that, (like many of the premier attractions in Florence) you really need to get there first thing in the morning, before the line snakes halfway around the cathedral. I simply ran out of first-thing-in-the-mornings.

Click the thumbnails below to see some of my photos of il Duomo.

You can find all of my stories and pictures of Florence here.


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