Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Description, photos.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (La Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore)

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is a Florentine temple, one of the most important monuments of Italian and world architecture. The history of its construction is linked to the iconic names for art – di Cambio, Giotto, Brunelleschi. Conceived as the cathedral of the city at the end of the 13th century it was built and reconstructed up to the beginning of the 20th century. The mosaics, frescos, carved doors and bas-reliefs amaze the visitors with the magnificent Italian marble facade cladding, stained glass windows, mosaics and frescos. Located in Piazza Duomo, along with the baptistery and Giotto’s bell tower, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is among the UNESCO-protected monuments of Florence’s historic center.

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The history of the famous long-running building

Back in the 5th century, the church of St. Reparata, who took a martyr’s death in the 3rd century, was built on the site of the future temple. Together with St. Zinovius, the martyr became the patroness of Florence. Because of the imperfect building technology by the XIII century the cathedral was just falling apart from the old age, besides, it could no longer accommodate all wishing to attend the service. The main cathedrals of Siena and Pisa had the same problem, and new, more spacious churches began to be built in these cities. Florence, always in competition with its neighbors, immediately entered the race. The project was commissioned to Arnolfo di Cambio, who had already built the Basilica of Santa Croce and who later added Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, to his list of masterpieces.

The architect designed a building consisting of three nave divisions under an octagonal dome. The central nave rested on the foundations of the Church of Santa Reparata. The first stone of the future temple was solemnly laid by the papal envoy Valerian in 1296. Construction proceeded vigorously until 1310, then di Cambio died, and the pace slowed dramatically for 30 years. Santa Maria del Fiore awaited the fate of the cathedrals of Pisa and Siena, never completed had it not been for a suspiciously timely discovery. In the ruins of Santa Reparata were discovered the remains of St. Zinovius, the city’s first bishop. Immediately, inspired by the miracle, sponsors were found – a guild of wool merchants. They hired Giotto, who had already become popular. He continued di Cambio’s project in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and built an unusual bell tower with bright marble cladding nearby. After Giotto’s death, his assistant Andrea Pisano carried out the master’s ideas until the pandemic plague swept through Europe. When the continent recovered from the many deaths, the work was carried out by lesser-known specialists.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in the 15th century

It was only by 1418 that the builders had dealt with the main building – they only had to erect the dome. At the same time, the city authorities announced a competition for the renovation of the doors of the XII century baptistery that stood next to it. The competition was won by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the bronze doors of the baptistery were the best of the master’s career. Filippo Brunelleschi took part in the competition along with him, but he lost, but later he was allowed to take on a more ambitious project – the construction of the dome over the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction began in 1420. On March 25, 1436, the cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugene IV. The date was not chosen randomly: according to the Florentine calendar until 1750, the Annunciation at the end of March was the day of the beginning of the new year.

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History of exterior decoration and interior of the church

The building’s facade was decorated from the 15th to the 19th century, while the floor was paved with marble tiles in the 16th century. Finishing material was taken from the best Italian deposits: white marble was brought from Carrara, green – from Prato, red – from Siena. The interiors and facades were decorated by sculptures by Donatello and other Florentines. Paolo Uccello, Donatello and Gaddi were invited to furnish the stained glass windows. Continuous construction work did not interfere with the turbulent church life. In the XV century, the XVII Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church took place in the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, when Western theologians unsuccessfully tried to enter into an alliance with the Orthodox. Savonarola preached his sermons within its walls, here rebels murdered Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother and nearly stabbed the duke himself.

Architectural features of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The grandeur of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, which reaches 153 meters in length, 38 meters in width, and 90 meters at the cross, is astounding. The building’s arches are 23 meters high and the cathedral with its dome and cross is 114.5 meters high. Today the temple is a spectacular building with rich decorations, the visual center of Florence, but contemporaries perceived it differently. Each new stage of construction was a revelation in the history of architecture. Arnolfo di Cambio achieved unprecedented proportions, Giotto rejected medieval proportions and incorporated the first Renaissance elements into the design, Brunelleschi created a huge brick-clad dome without using a complex scaffolding system.

In contrast, the nineteenth-century architects who completed the facade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore sought to stay within the bounds of tradition and work in harmony with the old masters.

Facade and main entrance

The design of the façade is attributed to Giotto, although in fact the decoration work began two centuries later. It is the collective work of several masters, among them Andrea Orcagna and Taddeo Gaddi. They built the entrance part of the temple extremely slowly, in the end the Tuscan Duke Francesco I ordered Bernardo Buontalenti to dismantle the finished wall at all, because it did not correspond to the Renaissance concept of beauty. Some of the sculptures that originally adorned it later ended up in the museum behind the cathedral, some in the Berlin Museum and the Louvre. This was not the end of the misadventures of the front wall: the contractors and the city authorities quarreled over money, and until the 19th century the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore stood bare until Emilio de Fabris began to design it. He created a neo-Gothic façade of white, green and red marble dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Colleagues generally approved of the work, although some found the main entrance to the cathedral overly decorative.

In the front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, visitors see three massive bronze doors by Augusto Passaglia, installed at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The semicircular lunettes above the entrances are lined with mosaics designed by Nicolo Barabino, a 19th-century religious artist. In keeping with Renaissance tradition, he included in the subjects of the mosaics not only the figures of Christ, Mary and John the Baptist, but also images of Florentine artists, patrons of the arts, scholars and merchants. A bas-relief by his contemporary, Tito Sarroccchi, of the Virgin Mary on a throne with a scepter adorned with flowers is on the pediment of the central door. At the top of the facade is a series of niches with the 12 apostles; in the center is the Madonna and Child. At the very top of the building, between the rose window and the triangular tympanum, are busts of great Florentine artists.

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The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore has been without a dome for more than a hundred years since construction began. There were several reasons for the delay: banal lack of funds, problems with materials and, finally, and most importantly – no one knew how to build a dome of such magnitude that it would not collapse and kill the builders and parishioners. Gothic half arches, which took some of the weight, were considered obsolete by this time. The architects wanted to achieve the simplicity and lightness of the dome of the Roman Pantheon, made of cement using lost technology. Brunelleschi studied the experience of antiquity, but came to the conclusion that there would not be enough wood reserves from all over Tuscany to furnish the scaffolding. Relying on his own intuition, he decided to use chain arches of stone and iron, holding the octagonal dome firmly in place. On the inner ribs of the dome, recesses were installed for the platforms that replaced the scaffolding. Facing bricks were also laid unconventionally, herringbone, otherwise the parts would fall down until the mortar would set. The builders needed a total of 4 million bricks, and the architect invented a special machine to lift them to the dome. After Brunelleschi’s death the finishing work remained to be completed. A copper ball from Verrocchio’s workshop was placed atop the dome. It is believed that an apprentice named Leonardo da Vinci took part in its manufacture.

Interior of the cathedral

Many elements of the decor have been lost over time or moved to the cathedral museum, including the choir pulpits by Donatello and Luca della Robbia. Some frescoes were transferred to canvases in the nineteenth century to avoid loss, such as the image of Dante reading the Divine Comedy to Florence by Domenico di Michelino. Outstanding tombstones are housed inside the cathedral – these are pictorial equestrian statues of the condottieri Niccolò Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno and John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello. Above the main entrance is a liturgical clock by Paolo Uccello with 24 digits on the dial.

The walls are decorated with 44 stained glass windows from the 14th and 15th centuries. One of the oldest, by Gaddo Gaddi, depicts Christ crowning Mary and is located directly above the clock. From the nave we can see only one stained-glass window by Donatello, dedicated to the coronation of the Virgin. The dome, according to Brunelleschi’s plan, was to be covered with gilding on the inside, but then they decided to save money and limit themselves to whitewashing. Later its surface was painted by a team of artists, including Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccaro, in various techniques.

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The crypt of the cathedral

Extensive archaeological excavations in the 1960s and 1970s showed how the cathedral of Santa Reparata with its early medieval mosaic multicolored floor and Santa Maria del Fiore successively succeeded each other. In the crypt, the cathedral’s dungeon, is the simple tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi. In addition to the architect, there are buried in the temple Zinovius of Florence, the first bishop of Florence, Conrad II, medieval king of Germany and Italy, Giotto, who became the first figure of the Proto-Renaissance, and several medieval popes. Incidentally, the legend of Giotto’s burial in the cathedral has held steady since the artist’s death, but his remains have never been found, nor have the graves of Arnolfo di Cambio and Andrea Pisano. Since 1974 the crypt has been open to the public for a fee.

Information for tourists

Entrance to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is free, through the right-hand door of the central facade, and is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 19:00, and on Saturday from 8:30 to 17:40. The actual schedule is arbitrary, depending both on the schedule of church services and on the weather – it is forbidden to climb the dome in strong winds. It is advisable to consult the official site of the Duomo for details. Wheelchair users can enter the cathedral from the right side of the building. All facilities – toilets, checkrooms, and cafes – are located in the museum.

Sightseeing for a fee

Visit the dome and crypt of the crypt is paid – a complex ticket costs 15 euros, for children 6-11 years – 3 euros. It entitles for 6 days from the date of purchase to see the sights of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the bell tower on the right side of the temple, the baptistery in front of its main entrance and the museum behind it. The ticket is valid for 48 hours from the time of admission to the first site; you cannot see the same thing twice. To climb the 463-step staircase to the dome, you must book a time in advance. If you do not arrive on time, you cannot reschedule your visit – there are too many people who want to be on the best observation deck in Florence.

How to get there

Finding the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is not difficult, as it is the most imposing building in the historic center of Florence. To reach it from Santa Maria Novella train station, get off at Via Panzani and then turn onto Via Cerretani. From Florence airport to the train station, take the shuttle Volainbus, that runs from 5:30 to 0:30 (from 5:30 to 21:30 buses leave every half hour, from 20:30 to 0:30 buses leave every hour; travel time is about 20 minutes, ticket costs 6 euro). If you are going from outlying areas, buses 6, 14, 17, 22, 23, 36, 37, and 71 are available.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence

One of the most famous masterpieces of medieval architecture, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence is the fifth largest cathedral in Europe after St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul in London, the Cathedral of Seville and Milan Cathedral. Thanks to the courage of its creators, the splendor of its decorations and its author’s uniqueness the cathedral was recognized in 1982 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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History of the cathedral and its construction

In 1285 in Florence it was decided to enlarge the old and already dilapidated church of Santa Reparata, built in the 6th century, whose function between the 9th and 11th centuries was that of a baptistery. The project was entrusted to the architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (14th century), who laid the foundation stone in 1296. The new cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and consecrated in 1412 in honor of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction of the building took almost two centuries, not counting the construction of the current façade, which was not completed until the nineteenth century.

The plan of the Florentine cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is a longitudinal building with three naves and four bays in a total octagonal space. The three sides of the octagon open with niches topped in turn by chapels.

This design is the result of Arnolfo’s careful study of classical architecture: its octagonal form refers to late antique structures, and the theme of the connection between the longitudinal body and the central one recalls the Roman Pantheon.

Giotto’s bell tower

In 1334 work began on the bell tower. The artist Giotto was commissioned to design this magnificent tower. Giotto, already an established artist at the time, was also appointed architect and was responsible for the construction of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. This was the first time in history that such important responsibilities had been entrusted to an artist.

The tower, separated from the body of the church, has a square structure and a compact construction, reinforced at the corners by strong buttresses with an octagonal section. Its construction, which after Giotto’s death reached its first frame, was continued by Andrea Pisano and finished in 1357 by Francesco Talenti and Neri di Fioravante. Outside, both the cathedral and the bell tower are clad in polychrome marble, with a subtle pattern on the tower corresponding to Giotto’s design and a larger one on the cathedral walls that mimics the banded motif that adorns the Baptistery.

Cathedral facade

The current facade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is not Gothic, but neo-Gothic, as it was built in the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century in Italy there were competitions to complete some famous unfinished medieval monuments: San Petronio in Bologna, the Cathedral of Milan, the Cathedral of Amalfi. In 1864, in Florence, it was decided to complete the facade of the Cathedral of Arnolfi, designed by Emilio de Fabris (1807-1883). The façade was completed between 1880 and 1888, designed by Emilio de Fabris (1807-1883).

The structure, made of polychrome marble, harmonizes chromatically with both the side elevations of the Cathedral and the surrounding buildings, that is, the bell tower and the baptistery. The modernity of the facade, which is in almost perfect harmony with the entire cathedral, betrays only the excessive presence of decorations. In addition, compared to the sides of the cathedral, the facade is dominated by “red Sienese” marble, chosen for patriotic reasons. These were the years of Italian unification, and the tricolor façade served as a manifesto for the new state.

Brunelleschi’s dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

A symbol of the Renaissance and a monument to human ingenuity, Brunelleschi’s Dome was the largest in the world at the time of its construction and is still the largest stone dome ever built.

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The daunting task

Considering that Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral is a gigantic building: 153 meters long, designed to seat 30,000 people, with a dome reaching 43 meters in diameter, building the dome was no easy task, even though the example of the perfectly preserved dome of the Roman Pantheon is available. The fact is that the ancient Romans built their dome of concrete, but the technique of such construction was long lost. The dome of the Florentine cathedral had to be built like the vaults of Gothic cathedrals of stone or brick. But the construction of a wooden support frame for the vault, which would start from the ground and rise 93 meters in height equivalent to a 30-story building, was considered impossible and too expensive. In addition, no type of wood could support the weight of such a large and heavy covering until it was completed.

Brunelleschi’s design

The 1418 competition set out to solve the problem with the construction of the dome. Filippo Brunelleschi, 1377-1446, was among seventeen architects who submitted designs and was the only one to be selected. His idea was ingenious in its simplicity: a “self-supporting” structure capable of supporting itself at every stage of construction.

Brunelleschi’s dome structure consists of two separate domes, one inside the other. It is a strong frame of twenty-four ribs connected by horizontal arches, which reinforce the inner dome and break the very wide facets of the outer dome into three parts.

The inner dome carries the main structural load and is a framework of rebars and connecting parts. The outer dome is lighter and has a decorative function. The lower part of the dome was built of stone as long as the curvature of the walls allowed it, then bricks were used, which were laid out “herringbone” to maintain the balance of the entire structure.

The final stroke of genius was the cladding of the dome. Brunelleschi did not want his dome to resemble existing structures of the 14th century. To this end, he created its simple but clearly distinctive feature with a chromatic effect, noticeable even at a distance of many kilometers. The surface of the structure was covered with red tiles and divided by eight rows of white marble arranged on angular ridges. These ridges, which converged at their base in a latern, had no load-bearing function, but gave the appearance of a light umbrella-like framework, which made the walls look like stretched membranes.

Laterna domes and dead stands

Lanterna

Many years after the completion of the dome, Brunelleschi undertook the construction of the Laterna (1438-60) and the four semicircular edicles known as the “dead stands” (1438-70). The Laterna, which connected the white marble ribs with volutes, was conceived as a real small temple and harmoniously completed the majestic structure of the dome. Its architectural value is undeniable, with its large-scale dimensions (the bronze ball on top of the dome is over 2 meters in diameter) it creates a unique image of Florence’s panorama.

The dead grandstands

At the base of the drum of the dome, the Dead Tribunes were built with a static containment function, replacing the austere Gothic arches. They prop up the four sides of the octagon, not reinforced by the arches of the three apses. Their open large niches, decorated with huge shells, represent one of the clearest forms conceived by the architect.

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