Florence 10: il Duomo

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A panoramic view of il Duomo looking east from the Campanile. Completed in 1436, the iconic symbol of Florence remains the largest masonry dome every constructed. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

As mentioned in my previous post, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is best known as il Duomo for the huge octagonal dome at its apex. The cupola, 45 metres (147 feet) in diameter, remains the largest masonry dome ever built. With the lantern on top, the whole structure is nearly 115 metres (375 feet) tall.

Construction of the dome was the crowning achievement for architect Filippo Brunelleschi. His novel double-shell design and his invention of innovative hoisting equipment made possible what many thought could not be done. Work began in 1420 and—some 4 million bricks later—was finished in 1436. You can read more about the construction of the dome and the rivalry between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti (he of the “gates of paradise” doors) in National Geographic, so I won’t elaborate on that here. Needless to say, it is impressive.

I tackled the 463-step climb to the top of the dome first thing in the morning, avoiding most of the congestion that occurs later in the day. After a few steps through the church on the main floor, the route to the top primarily passes through narrow passageways and well-worn spiral staircases inside the walls of the church. At the top of the drum (or if you prefer, the bottom of the dome) tourists continue along a narrow walkway just inside the ceiling, with an unparalleled view of the fresco inside the dome. This fresco, initiated by Giorgio Vasari in 1568 and completed by Federico Zuccari in 1579, covers an astonishing 3600 m² (38,750 sq. ft.). I’m sure I read somewhere that it was the largest fresco in the world, but I can’t find that citation right now.

After walking about a quarter of the way around the dome, the tourist trail ducks in between the two shells of the dome for the second half of the ascent. The stairways get narrower, with just the occasional porthole letting in air from the outside. One final, especially steep flight and you pop out at the top of Florence.

The balcony gives visitors a 360° view as they walk around outside the lantern, looking at the rest of Florence and the hills of Tuscany. On a nice day, it is well worth the climb.

The descent from the dome is very similar in style, although thankfully most of the route uses different passageways. There is a brief part of the route, though, with two-way traffic on a set of stairways that are really only wide enough for one person at a time. Patience, courtesy, and the opposite of claustrophobia are recommended while you squeeze to the side waiting for a break in the opposing traffic.

In addition to another view of the fresco inside the dome, the descent includes a room with reconstructions of some of the equipment Brunelleschi invented for the project. Finally, back at the bottom, visitors get another few steps through the inside of the church before heading outside.

Click the thumbnails below to see other photos of/from the dome.

You can find all of my posts about Florence here.