With its huge, almost outsized, bulk, the Florence cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, makes its presence felt, framed by the spectacular surroundings of the religious center of the city, complete with the Baptistry and Giotto’s bell tower. When it was finished, in the 1400s, it was the largest church in Europe, and today it is the fifth largest, behind Saint Peter’s, Saint Paul’s in London, the cathedral of Seville and that of Milan.
It’s the result of 170 years of work as well as the combined, impassioned efforts of many generations of artists and architects. What you see today is the product of an endless series of transformations: enlargements, additions and modifications that have given life to one of the most exciting stories ever in the history of art.
At the end of the 13th century, Florence is the main actor in a story of expansion without precedent, backed by a rich and enterprising middle class. The population grows quickly and the city has five times the square area of its ancient walls. With the construction of the Palazzo Vecchio, a new civic center is taking shape, and in the religious center of town, the final decoration work is being finished on the Baptistry of Saint John. But the city still doesn’t have a cathedral worthy of its prestige: the old church dedicated to Santa Reparata can’t bear the comparison with the nearby Baptistry and anyway, it’s become too small to contain the numerous population of the faithful.
So, on September 8, 1296, in front of a festive crowd, the first stone is solemnly placed and the new construction site is begun. The work has been entrusted to Arnolfo di Cambio, the great architect who is redesigning the new face of Gothic Florence. As Giorgio Vasari wrote, “Nothing of importance was considered without his consent”. Arnolfo was directing both the building site of Palazzo Vecchio and that of the church of Santa Croce at the same time. He certainly must have been held in great respect since, for his contributions to the city, Florence decided to waive tax payments from him.
His project is an ambitious one: a church rich with marble and decorations – and of dimensions that would make the eternal rival cathedrals of Siena and Pisa pale in comparison. It is the Florentine people who are footing the bill: a medieval cathedral is a symbol of a city’s power, in which the civic virtues of this industrious community are celebrated.
As with all the other great European cathedrals, this too, is dedicated to the Madonna, with the name “Santa Maria of the flower”: the attribute refers not only to the cloverleaf floor plan, with the three large chapels opening onto the apse, but is an homage to Christ, the “flower” growing from the divine “stem” and, naturally, is also a reference to the flower that is the symbol of the city, the fleur-de-lis.
At Arnolfo’s death, the work stops but, with the discovery under the old cathedral of a reliquary containing the remains of the venerated bishop Saint Zenobius, the building site gets a fresh dose of enthusiasm. The direction of the works passes to Giotto – also responsible for the bell tower – then to Andrea Pisano and on until another great architect, Francesco Talenti, will finally determine the definitive look of the church.
The worksite headed by Talenti is a dynamic community in feverish activity: workers and foremen labor in teams, animatedly discussing solutions and, when Talenti leaves the premises, the workers even resort to threats to get him back onsite.
The long, difficult work on the facade went on for centuries: in the 1800s, the cathedral still had its temporary brick exterior ordered by the grand duke Francesco I at the end of the 1500s. Finally, in 1867, a public competition decided the definitive design but also started an endless series of arguments: at a certain point, two different versions of the facade were put up so that the Florentine people could decide through a popular referendum.
This episode reminds us of the republic’s glorious past when active participation of the people took shape and contributed to that grandiose work of art that is a sort of summing up of all the art contained in the city. Today, as in the past, the Duomo strongly maintains this connection and its presence is still an unmistakeable symbol of man’s genius and spirit.
The cathedral finally takes shape: for the sumptuous exterior decorations —white marble from Carrara, green from Prato, red from Siena. The design takes up the theme of the Baptistry and the Bell tower and, though it may appear simplified, it is only to limit the extraordinary expenses.
Inside, the spectacle has no equal: the nave is an enormous empty space that widens with the slow succession of its massive pillars. The dimensions are astounding: the height alone at the top of the dome is 90 meters, as high as a thirty-storey building. The gigantic size of the construction is the cause of an infinite series of structural problems: the weight of the vaults made it necessary to add flying buttresses along the sides that, not pleasing to the Florentines, had to then be hidden behind extensions rising from the exterior walls.
With Talenti’s death, the building had only just begun: the naves were finished at the end of the 1300s and the three chapels of the apse would have to wait until the beginning of the next century. In the meantime, the solution still remained to be found for the biggest problem of all: construction of the enormous dome. 125 years would pass from the beginning of the works and, of course, the addition of Brunelleschi’s genius, before Florence could be adorned by its unmistakeable outline. It was built in sixteen years and still today is the largest masonry-built dome anywhere.
The church reveals a mix of civic and religious meanings: the cathedral’s decorations as a whole aim at celebrating the spiritual greatness and dignity of the human being.
In the side naves, man’s civic virtues find sober expression in two famous frescoes, the equestrian portraits of John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello, and of Niccolò da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno. There are also busts of Giotto and Brunelleschi, besides that of Dante holding the Divine Comedy in his hand. An ideal path, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, goes from pole to opposite pole through the church: the assumption of Mary to Heaven is both in the mosaic over the main entrance as well as in Donatello’s work in the round window of the main altar.
The Duomo of Florence is the richest church in Italy in terms of stained glass windows: out of a total of 55 windows, there are a good 44 that are magnificently decorated and are among the most important works of their kind in Italy. They were based on designs of the principal artists of the period – among them Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno. In all, the church’s interior look was inspired by the ideal of rigorous austerity that mirrored the intense spirituality of the great religious Florentines.