The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Florence Duomo, is the most notable landmark in Florence. Its unmissable dome and its white, green, and pink geometric patterned façade dominate the city’s skyline, from the many beautiful viewpoints dotted around. The Duomo complex, which includes the Baptistery of Saint John and Giotto’s Campanile, is one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Site’s in Italy. With roughly 15.8 million people visiting Florence a year, it’s one of the top visited attractions in the country.
Construction of the Duomo span for well over 100 years with various architects overseeing the process. It began with Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296, who started building the new cathedral on the site of the old cathedral of Santa Reparata. After di Cambio’s death, several architects stood up to the plate, but ultimately, construction had slowed considerably. During the mid-1300s, the original project had spiralled – now, they wanted a dome. The dome that would become synonymous with the Florence skyline.
We wonder if they had known, back then, what an influential piece of architecture that would be. It almost nearly didn’t happen – it was a huge feat, it’d never been done before, and no technology existed to create a dome with such a wide base. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that when they released a competition to help find a design, they were close to giving up the idea of the dome. While many took part in the competition, the main competitors were Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti. They were both already renowned in Florence, Ghiberti most notably for the Baptistery doors, but it was Brunelleschi and his ambitious designs that won him the deal. But he was certainly a controversial choice.
At the time, Filippo Brunelleschi was a revered sculptor and goldsmith – he wasn’t considered to be a world-class architect, like Lorenzo Ghiberti was. Brunelleschi’s ambitions involved using patterns and creating structures that had never been done before. He even had to invent and create whole new tools, including new kinds of cranes. His idea was to build two domes on top of each other, using a herringbone brick pattern and a horizontal chain – this was all without scaffolding or modern technology, so many thought Brunelleschi to be out of his depth.
Legend has it that Brunelleschi demonstrated his revolutionary two dome idea with an egg trick. He asked the commission to make an egg stand upright on the table, and when none of them could do it, he cracked the egg into two parts and placed on half of the shell on top of the other. When it worked, they had no choice but to trust in his plans. But even so, the commissioners didn’t fully trust him, so they appointed Ghiberti as co-superintendent.
From the year construction began, the Florence Duomo wouldn’t be consecrated for over 140 years. And even when the cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugene IV in 1436, it wasn’t actually complete. Most of the structure was finalised, but the finishing touches would sadly not be completed until after Brunelleschi’s death. His idea for the dome’s golden cap, designed to admit light, was one of them.
In the late 17th century, talks began to decorate the cathedral’s façade. It still had several features of the medieval cathedral, and the Grand Duke Cosimo III decided to commission a large mural painting on the exterior. This lasted nearly 200 years until the Lorraine dynasty wanted to modernise and iconify the monument. After several competitions, attempts, and countless conversations, the façade was finally finished on May 12, 1887. The three large bronze doors replaced the wooden ones in 1903, finalising the Florence Duomo as we know it today.
The cathedral draws from both Gothic and Romanesque artistic styles, paving the way for the new Renaissance period. Brunelleschi was hailed as the main who “renewed Roman masonry work”, but the façade itself is neo-Gothic. It might look like the intricate details are too advanced for the 15th century, and that’s because it was redecorated in the 19th century.
Given the success of the original dome competition, the commission ran further competitions to find the architect for the job. After a few rounds, it was Emilio De Fabris that won. He devised a neo-Gothic idea that celebrated Mary and the Saviour, with coats of arms that were nods to the families that helped fund the construction, intertwining religion with Florentine history. Construction finally started in 1876 and was officially inaugurated in 1887. Unfortunately, De Dabris died in 1883, not living to see his vision come to life.
The whole cathedral is a piece of art, but it’s the dome that really makes a mark. It signifies the beginning of Renaissance architecture – it’s an important symbol of Florence and art. It inspired countless artists during the Renaissance period and continues to do so today. At the time, the cities in Italy resembled states, with their own identities. Each state wanted to be the most beautiful and the most artistic – places in the northern Italy were particularly serious about competing for the most impressive architecture and artwork. But it was Florence that became the symbol of the early Renaissance.
The best times to visit the Florence Duomo are during March, April, May, September, and October. The weather isn’t overly sweltering, but it’s still warm enough to enjoy the Florentine atmosphere and explore the cathedral with ease. This is especially true if you want to climb the dome – the spring and early autumn months should bring sunny, clear days.
There is a dress code to enter the cathedral. It’s a religious site and those not dressed appropriately won’t be granted entry. Be sure to keep your knees and shoulders covered – if it’s a hot day, then it’s best to keep take a light scarf to wrap around you just in case. However, this is only necessary to enter the basilica – to climb the steps to the base of the dome, we would simply advise wearing sensible shoes. There are 463 stairs, after all!
The Florence Duomo is absolutely worth the visit. It’s hard to miss when you’re in Florence, and as one of the most significant architectural achievements of the Renaissance, it’s a piece of staggering history. Even if you’re not a history buff, we can’t imagine wouldn’t be impressed with the sheer size and intricate details of this building. And if you’re wondering if it’s worth going inside the Duomo, it would be a resounding yes – there are long queues to get in, but you can always skip the line.
The dome, baptistery, museum, and belltower require pre-booked tickets. An all-encompassing ticket would cost €37 – if you’d like some wine and snacks at the end of your visit to the Duomo complex, that’d be €45. The cathedral itself is free to visit, although the queues can be very long. If you don’t feel like waiting an hour to get in, you could skip the line instead. These vary in price, the queue jump ticket (with an online tour guide) will cost you around €25.
The Florence Duomo is famous for several things. It was the largest church of its time, built to hold 30,000 worshippers, and is an architectural marvel. It’s also one of the best (and most beautiful) examples of Italian Renaissance architecture.