Giotto's Bell tower

It was in 1334 when construction began in Florence, on the bell tower in the piazza of the cathedral. The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is not yet finished, while the Baptistry of Saint John has already, for many years now, acquired its final look. The religious center of the city is slowly gaining that spectacular aspect of a film set that we know today but is still missing some of its principal elements. To direct the construction site of the bell tower, the Opera del Duomo, the guiding committee of the cathedral, calls the artist who is probably the most authoritative of the period: Giotto.

The construction of the bell tower will go on for 25 years. Giotto will be involved for only three of them, the last three years of his life. However, the tower is known today as “Giotto’s bell tower”, an indication of the particular affection the city holds for this spectacular protagonist of the art of all time.

Giotto dedicates himself totally to the bell tower, to the point of neglecting the worksite of the cathedral that, in the meantime, had also been entrusted to him. As always, even in his paintings, Giotto shows particular attention to architecture and, for the first time in the 13th century, utilizes perspective. Images of cities, towers, castles and defensive walls are not simply placed as backgrounds but as true spatial compositions, unforgettable for their vivid and intense colors.

For the bell tower, Giotto dreams up a truly ambitious project: dominating the piazza and aligned with the cathedral’s facade, the tower should have soared 115 meters above the city – a record for the times. But in 1337, at the artist’s death, the bell tower was no more than a massive square base, reinforced at the corners with robust pillars. The Giotto touch is, however, unmistakeable anywhere you look – in the white, red and green marble covering and in the magnificent figurative cycle of its decorations.

One of the many legends that have sprung up around the life of the artist has it that Giotto died of the pain he suffered after realizing that he had made the walls of the bell tower too thin; in fact, when Andrea Pisano took over the direction of the works, he discovered that he had to resolve certain serious structural scarcities: the base was indeed not thick enough to support a tower even half the height called for in the original design. Pisano thus came up with an ingenious solution, that of setting the halls in the higher levels not upon the walls but on the vaulted ceiling of the halls below. He also put the two sets of stairs in the central well instead of carving out space in the walls, that would definitely have been too weakened.

Into the two levels set onto the base, Pisano inserted four niches per side, into which were to be placed full-sized statues. The statues were finished in later periods and some of them are considered among the finest expression of Renaissance sculpture, like the famous Abacuc of Donatello, on the western side. This is a fundamental work: Abacuc, eighth of the twelve minor prophets of the Bible, is shown as a bald, old man, with a slim but still vigorous physique. The drawn face, deep-set eyes that look downward and the bitter expression are rendered with incredible realism by Donatello and it must have seemed revolutionary to the eyes of his contemporaries.

After a brief interruption due to the spread of the plague, the worksite reopened under the direction of Francesco Talenti. He is the one who completed the work in 1359 and gave it its definitive look. The bell tower, with its 84 meters of height and characteristic slim profile and elegant, refined lines, is one of the finest examples of 14th century Gothic art and is still today one of the images profoundly tied to the city.

The Florentine bell tower too, like the great cathedrals of Siena and Orvieto, is given a magnificent set of decorations, to which have contributed some of the greatest artist of the time: Andrea Pisano, Luca della Robbia, Donatello. These works together make the bell tower above all a decorative monument, so much so that one can forget its real function.

The bell tower’s extraordinary decoration is actually an encyclopedia of medieval knowledge, in which is translated into images the philosophical and theological thought of the period. In the 56 reliefs of the base and the 16 large statues of the upper levels is narrated the history of human destiny and redemption. The arrangement is what is usually used in medieval churches: on the first level there is the creation of Adam and Eve, together with images of the principal forms of human work – such as sheepherding or building. They are the activities that allow Nature to be dominated and society to be organized. On the upper level are the 7 planets – the Moon, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus – ordered according to the ptolemaic model in use during the Middle Ages, with the Earth standing solidly at the middle of the solar system.

Then there are the theological and cardinal virtues and naturally, the seven liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium: these are the most noble of the arts, those that teach man and that represent the highest quest – such as grammar, music and astronomy. In other words, all the wisdom to which man can aspire besides divine revelation. And even though, as tradition dictates, all the activities are shown through their respective personifications, the reliefs offer a true slice of Florentine 13th century life. There is the doctor with his “matula”, typical glass container that held urine to be analyzed. There is also the astronomer with his quadrant and the mathematician with compass and try square.

To preserve this immense patrimony, the entire set of decorations has been moved to the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. What you see today on the faces of the bell tower are in fact, copies of the originals.

Despite the fact that it is the result of a mass of various interventions and of a worksite that lasted nearly forever, the bell tower is a work of great balance in which the Gothic taste for slim and elegant forms melds perfectly and harmoniously with the Renaissance penchant for solid and well-proportioned shapes. The simplicity and clarity of the figure and chromatic choices for the exterior decorations attune the building perfectly with the rest of the piazza. Cathedral, baptistry and bell tower form a scene that is absolutely unique in the world and immediately recognizable. A place with a powerful identity that, still today, is noticeable and, more than anything, will move and impress you.

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 25 Jun 2023

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