Built on the ancient sacred area of the Roman castrum, the Basilica of Santa Reparata, together with a number of other religious buildings, formed the original nucleus of what was to become the religious heart of today's Florence. There was almost certainly a Baptistery as evidence of the ancient connection with the Cathedral.
What is certain is that between the XI and XIII centuries this area was enlarged and embellished as part of the city's more generalised economic and cultural rebirth. The Basilica of Santa Reparata was enlarged and the Baptistery was probably entirely rebuilt to become what we can see today. In that same period, the city's walls were enlarged, Palazzo Vecchio was built (then called 'of the Priors) and so were two monumental churches: Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce.
Some buildings linked to social solidarity grew up around the Cathedral, that is the Arch-confraternity of Mercy, the Bigallo Orphanage, the Hospital of St John Evangelist. The latter, a hospital complex that would make Florence famous, is now completely lost. Before all these exceptional scale changes, the old Cathedral though enlarged was decidedly inadequate for the new city image that Florence was building for itself.
The need to build a new Cathedral was born, something that could rightly represent the power and stability of the Florentine Republic: thus a civic value to be assigned to a religious monument.
The new Cathedral, built by the official Municipal architect, Arnolfo di Cambio (builder of Palazzo Vecchio), was born as public works and financed by the Town Hall itself, 'so that the industry and power of men cannot invent nor ever undertake something that is bigger or more beautiful'. A new dedication was decided on: no longer to the oriental martyr, Saint Reparata, but to the Virgin Mary and the reference to the Fiore (Flower), symbol of Christ, seemed to want to unite the Cathedral to its city, whose ancient name was Florentia, in a sacred bond.
In 1296, Arnolfo solemnly laid the first stone. His project was highly innovative: a church with ample spaces, as a reminder of classical architecture, with three naves and a wide choir surrounded by a "three-leafed clover" of asps (another flower reference) then covered by a huge cupola. Arnolfo's death was followed by a long period of abandon. Giotto was put in charge of the works, but dedicated himself to the Bell-tower and it was only when Francesco Talenti took over, from 1349 to 1359, that the church plant was to be completed, following a plan that was even more ambitious than the Arnolfo one.
In 1380 the naves were finished and Florence had its great Cathedral. Just the cupola to be placed over the huge octagonal drum built by Talenti was missing.
This (not easy as it had to cover a space 42 meters wide) was built by Filippo Brunelleschi, 'inventor' of the perspective and of a conception of new architecture as opposed to medieval tradition. The Brunelleschi Cupola, built in just sixteen years, is an absolute engineering masterpiece, with a clever game of joints in the walls balancing a really huge mass. The Cupola, seen from kilometres away, immediately became not just the city's symbol, but also that of renaissance culture.
The celebration of man, a rational individual at the centre of the world, is the basis of humanistic and renaissance culture and the key to understanding the inside of the church. Where the portraits of famous characters celebrate man's civic gifts: courage, dignity, creative genius at the Republic's service. We find two famous leaders, John Hawkwood, the work of Paolo Uccello (1436) and Niccolò da Tolentino, by Andrea del Castagno (1456).
We then find the portraits of Dante, Giotto, Brunelleschi. The sober, austere internal architecture anticipates the renaissance conception which saw spirituality better represented by the harmonious balance of simple forms, by the rationality of pure geometry.
When walking down the church naves, you cannot feel the cupola presence immediately. You only realise that you are immerged in this huge, dilated space when you are under the vault and it is then that you become aware of the whole building's gigantic scale. High up the Vasari frescos, done for Cosimo I dei Medici from 1572 to 1579, cover a surface of 3600 square meters, portraying the Universal Judgement.
Outside what affects you most is the whole religious complex's uniformity, due to the coherence of the architectural concept and the marble coverings. In fact, the Cathedral facade was not built at the same time as the rest of the church, but much later between 1871 and 1884 by Emilio de Fabris, to complete centuries of projects.