As you approach the heart of Florence from one of the many side streets, the sight that awaits you is unforgettable – the city’s Duomo (cathedral), an architectural masterpiece. Its dome dominates the skyline, dwarfing visitors who flock to see it. It’s a piece of architecture so wonderfully ground-breaking in its design, it’s as impressive today as it was when it was built over 700 years ago.
The moment I saw the Duomo for the first time will forever be etched in my mind. I was out in Florence for a couple of weeks, studying the art and architecture of the city as part of my degree course. I was walking down Via de’Cerretani towards the Duomo on a freezing January morning and as it slowly appeared from behind the buildings, the scale and detail blew me away – it was something images had not been able to capture.
Standing in front of the entrance, you’re greeted by an array of pink, green and white marble, before your eyes are drawn to the beautifully detailed sculptures placed around the façade of the building. One sculpture intended to sit among them was Michelangelo’s David, but it was deemed too beautiful to be seen from a distance, so instead it was placed in front of the town hall. While David didn’t make it onto the Duomo, this is one example of how the building wasn’t one artist’s achievement, but a collaborative effort by artists and architects over centuries (even Leonardo Da Vinci was said to have helped with the building process).
Today, as you stand back and observe the construction as a whole, there is one element that cannot be ignored – the dome. This terracotta-coloured masterpiece still stands as the largest masonry dome in the world, with an incredible width of 42 metres. But building it wasn’t an easy feat – in fact, the building sat for nearly 200 years without a dome. Lacking modern materials, architects at the time had not been able to find a way of constructing a dome of such a huge size that would support itself.
In 1418, the Opera del Duomo (an organisation put together to oversee the construction) decided to hold a competition in which architects could submit their designs, and the winner would see their vision brought to life. Filippo Brunelleschi’s ground-breaking design won him the competition. His design was ingenious – in very simple terms, he created an interior dome out of wood that almost acted as a skeleton which would support the weight of second dome made out of masonry. Today, it stands in all its glory, soaring above the skyline of the city. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can climb to the top for one of the best views in Florence; the stairway is the same used by Brunelleschi’s workers!
Going inside, you feel as if you’ve escaped the outside world and you’re protected by the huge stone walls that encapsulate you. The simple design mixed with the gentle echo of voices moving around the room gives a sense of peace. That is until you approach the altar and you catch a glimpse of Vasari’s incredible fresco of The Last Judgment, which adorns the dome. It was one of the largest frescos ever created, and while Vasari started the work, he died before its completion and Federico Zuccari was asked to complete it.
If you’re interested in the art and architecture of the Duomo then it’s well worth visiting the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where you’ll see precious works of art and uncover some of the history behind the Duomo. The famous baptistery also sits opposite the Duomo, where you’ll see some incredible bronze doors designed by Brunelleschi’s rival, Ghiberti. Finally, if you want a different viewing point, a trip to the Piazzale Michelangelo is well worth it. You get incredible views across the city and at the heart you see the glorious Duomo.