Florence's remarkable Duomo is the city's most quintessential landmark. The monument, an impressive construction adorned with a white, pink, and green marble facade and elegant campanile (bell tower), dominates the city’s skyline. Filippo Brunelleschi's red-tiled cupola caps the building like a crown. Today, the cathedral holds the title of the 4th largest in the world (after St Peter’s in the Vatican, St Paul’s in London and the Milanese Duomo).
Visit Duomo Florence and witness the skill, artistry, and achievements with your own eyes… But before you go, learn a bit more about the events that shaped it, brick by brick.
Florentine cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore is a vast renaissance structure erected on the site of Santa Reparata church from the 7th century. In fact, you can still see its remains in the crypt. Its construction began in 1296 with an aim to demonstrate that Florence, which grew rich on finance as well as silk and wool trades, has a seat among the grand economic and cultural capitals of Europe. The construction started under the leadership and supervision of Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio.
Cambio's design was notably different from the church's structure we see today as the construction took over hundred and fifty years to complete; each architect and artist who worked on the completion of the church after him added his own touch. However, the length of the construction was not a sheer result of the cathedral’s size. There were several “hiccups” along the way, the biggest of them being cathedral's most famous feature, the Duomo.
The Duomo Odyssey
The committee in charge decided that the crowning element of the building will be the largest cupola in the world. Hence, the church would exert more beauty, power, and honor than any other ever built.
Unfortunately, the gigantic octagonal shape proved daunting to Tuscan architects and engineers. In other words, they knew their way around circular domed shapes like the Roman Pantheon. Those, however, were constructed using concrete, a recipe for which was lost somewhere in the Dark Ages. The former project left the dome unfinished. 120 years later only the polygonal base stood erected; the altar under was left without a roof and exposed to forces of nature for decades. No one seemed to know how to build a duomo 180 feet above the ground on the existing walls and nearly 150 feet in diameter.
You might wonder why didn’t they just adopt the techniques used in the grand gothic cathedrals. For instance, Notre Dame in Paris, France, relied for weight support on flying buttresses. Yes, it was a solution but not the kind the engineers of Renaissance were ready to accept. They were determined to stay away from opulent Gothic style or flying buttresses which were also applied on the Milan cathedral, the “arch-enemy” of Florence. Despite these being the only exisiting architectural solutions, the Renaissance masters wanted to honor the simple, clean lines of their Roman heritage. But could a dome weighing thousands of tons stand without them? Was there enough timber in the whole of Tuscany to build the scaffolding as well as masonry templates? Would it be possible at all to create a circular dome atop an octagonal floor plan without it collapsing inward? Nobody knew.
At last, in 1418, the Opera del Duomo announced an open contest for the perfect dome design. The winner would receive a glamorous prize of 200 gold florins as well as an opportunity for eternal fame. And so, leading architects of the time flocked to Florence presenting their ideas. Since the beginning, the cupola project bubbled with fears, doubts, civic pride, and creative secrecy. No wonder that soon, it was tightly wrapped in a legend. The story of the dome transformed into a parable about Florentine ingenuity, a myth of creation.
The first propositions and suggestions that came along fueled despair rather than hope for a viable solution. A rumor has it that one architect suggested supporting the cupola with a gigantic pillar rising from the center of the church; Another proposed to construct it using “sponge-stone” (a porous volcanic rock) to ease the weight; yet another proposed to build the scaffolding from dirt and coins. This way, the money-thirsty citizens of Florence would take the scaffolding apart, once the dome was done.
However, we know of another candidate, a hot-tempered and passionate goldsmith, Filippo Brunelleschi. He came to the committee with an outrageous plan to build two domes, one inside the other, and without the need for an expensive scaffolding. What was even more outrageous, he refused to explain how he intended to achieve it. He was too afraid a greedy competitor would steal his ideas. Brunelleschi’s stubborn determination to keep his approach secret led to many loud confrontations with the committee. Once even, the committee had him removed from the assembly by force while calling him something along a babbler and loudmouth.
The Origins of Brunelleschi’s Genius
Who was Filippo Brunelleschi to come with such extravagant proposals? Already as a boy, during his early goldsmith apprenticeship, Filippo mastered all drawing, painting, carving, silver and bronze sculpture, stone setting, enamel work, and niello. Later on, he continued to study optics as well as gears, wheels, and motion, building several ingenious clocks in the process. He might have built what was the first alarm clock in history!
Furthermore, implementing his mechanical and theoretical knowledge in observation of nature, he came up with the rules of linear perspective all by himself. Before coming up with this idea for Florence Duomo, he spent years observing, measuring, sketching and deciphering secrets of the ancient monuments in Rome. In fact, Brunelleschi’s whole life seems like a long and challenging apprenticeship for building the most imposing dome in Italy. The kind of unmatched construction, beauty, and power Florence so dearly longed for.
Brunelleschi and the Egg
Despite the secrecy, the design did pique the committee's interest. A legend has it that Brunelleschi, frustrated by the requests to see his plans proposed a challenge. He proclaimed that only an architect who could make the egg stand upright should get the commission to build the cupola. Several engineers and architects attempted to do so but to no avail. When it was Brunelleschi’s turn, he took the egg, flattened it on one end with a gentle whack and placed it on the table upright. Naturally, the other architects rose in protest that anyone could have done such a simple thing. To that Brunelleschi replied that they could have built the dome, too, if he showed them how. The committee, impressed, awarded him the commission…
Well, the real story was a bit more complex. A year after the first meeting, the committee met with Brunelleschi several times, each time finding out a bit more about his plans. Little by little, they started to realize the brilliance and risk of this proposal.
His dome was to comprise two concentric shells; the one on the inside visible from within the cathedral and the taller one forming the external dome. For instance, to counteract the cylindrical stress that could cause the cupola to crack or collapse, Brunelleschi proposed to bind the walls with tension rings or iron, stone, and wood, similar to the hoops on a barrel. He intended to build 46 feet of stone and then continue with significantly lighter materials such as brick or spugna - all that without scaffolding. The committee was happy to welcome such enormous savings in labor as well as lumber.
At last, two years after the announcement of the public competition, in 1420, the committee agreed to make Filippo Brunelleschi the leader and supervisor of the project. However, being bankers and merchants who believed in competition as the best way to ensure quality control, they threw a challenging stipulation into the mix. The committee appointed Lorenzo Ghiberti, a fellow Florentine goldsmith and Brunelleschi’s “nemesis,” as project co-supervisor.
Why a nemesis? The two talented goldsmith rivaled since 1401 when they competed for another prestigious commission, the bronze doors for the Baptistery of the cathedral. Back then Ghiberti had won the contest a produced a door that Michelangelo came to call “the Gates of Paradise.” Hence, by 1420, Ghiberti was the most recognized and diplomatically connected artist in Florence. Although Brunelleschi won his dream commission, he was forced to work alongside his greatest rival. Unsurprisingly, this would lead to much unscrupulous bickering and plotting.
The construction of the cupola begun on this rather turbulent note and continued to be the main “drama” of Florence for the next sixteen years. The progress of the cupola became a reference point for life in the city. For instance, promises were agreed to be fulfilled “before the Dome was covered” and so forth. Its outline, unlike any Gothic building, came to symbolize freedom of the Florentine Republic from the dictatorial Milan as well as Renaissance liberation from the inhibitions of Middle Ages.
Before anything could be done, Brunelleschi needed to solve a tough technical issue: no existing lifting mechanisms could cope with raising the heavy materials like sandstone beams. However, Brunelleschi’s inner tinkerer truly outdid himself this time. Out of necessity, he invented a three-speed hoist equipped with a complex system of gears, screws, pulleys, and driveshafts, was powered by a yoke of oxen turning a wooden tiller.
As the construction progressed, he also designed other lifting machines such as the castello: a 65-feet-high crane with several counterweights and hand screws. It allowed moving loads laterally after they’d been lifted to the desired height. It is worth noting that Brunelleschi’s tools were so ahead of their time that their equals didn’t appear until the Industrial Revolution. However, they did fascinate many inventors that followed including Leonardo da Vinci.
Once the question of tools was resolved, dome became Brunelleschi’s sole point of focus. In fact, the roof itself featured many impressive technical innovations such as:
As the project progressed, Brunelleschi started spending more and more time on the construction site going way beyond his duties. For instance, he personally:
Besides having to construct a cupola the world has never seen, Brunelleschi also hat to put up with a lot of intrigues and schemes orchestrated but none lesser than Lorenzo Ghiberti himself, his greatest rival and Duomo co-supervisor.
What was worse, despite Filippo Brunelleschi being the sole conceptual and operational leader of the project, Ghiberti enjoyed the same annual wages (36 florins) for his intrigues. However, it did n0t go on forever! Brunelleschi found a smart way to outsmart Ghiberti. In the summer of 1423, Brunelleschi got ill and took to his bed. This was just before the wooden tension ring was to be implemented into the structure. When the confused workers asked how to position the beams of the ring, Brunelleschi sent them straight to his rival.
Ghiberti managed to install only a few of the beams when Filippo miraculously healed. He returned and declared Ghiberti’s work incompetent and dangerous to the structure, so much so that the workers had take off and reinstal the beams. Nobody can confirm if the story is true. However, that year the official records changed listing Brunelleschi the sole inventor and director of the cupola. Also, later his wages rose to 100 florins a year, while Ghiberti continued receiving the former 36 florins.
This only fueled Ghiberti’s animosity. He continued to undermine Brunelleschi in every way possible. For instance, in 1426 he submitted an incredibly long parchment together with detailed descriptions and drawings of criticising Brunelleschi's incompetent work. He also went as far as giving his hatred artistic form, disguising a rude personal attack in the form of a sonnet. The poem calls Brunelleschi a miserable and imbecile beast or a wellspring of ignorance whose plans are destined to fail. Ghiberti was so sure of his conviction that, in the sonnet, he promised to commit suicide if Brunelleschi succeeded. Anyway… Filippo replied with a simple sonnet of his own that simply asked Lorenzo to destroy his literary attempts as they will feel foolish once the Duomo is standing.
Finally, in March 1436, Pope Eugene IV with an assembly of cardinals and bishops consecrated the completed cathedral; An act that was celebrated and cheered by all proud Florentines. One decade later, another team of devoted workers finished the decorative marble structure atop the Duomo which Brunelleschi designed to crown his life’s work.
Filippo Brunelleschi passed away from a sudden illness in April 1446, and Florence gave him the farewell he deserved. He was buried inside the cathedral, in the crypt, where the memorial plaque talks about his “divine intellect.” This a grand honor as before Brunelleschi, architects, no matter how gifted, were considered not more than humble craftsmen in the eyes of divinity.
While Brunelleschi's Duomo is the most renown element of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, it’s not the only gem in the grandiose complex.
Giotto’s Bell Tower is one of the four principal monuments of the complex. Rising over 84 meters and stretching 15 meters wide, it represents an ideal example of 14th-century Gothic architecture in Florence. It was designed by Giotto (hence the name) in 1334. Though he had started the construction, he passed away in 1337 only completing the first part of the campanile up to the hexagonal panels. Andrea Pisano overtook the project following Giotto's design up the first two levels. However, Francesco Talenti, was the architect to finish the job in 1359. He changed the design slightly to add two large windows in the upper levels which gave the Campanile a brighter and lighter look without affecting architectural and design integrity.
Similarly to the cathedral, the campanile features white, green, and pink marble. Furthermore, famous Renaissance artists including Donatello, Pisano, and della Robbia decorated it with reliefs, tiles, and sculptures. Its most playful aspect are the seven large bells, each sounding a different note.
Climbing to the top of this lovely bell tower is one of the many fun things to do in Florence. Beware! There are 414 steps and no elevator! Many travelers ask whether it is better to climb Giotto’s Campanile or the Duomo…
Well, both offer a unique experience. The big plus of climbing the tower is being able to enjoy the Duomo as part of the Florentine skyline. However, climbing the Duomo lets you see the bones of this architectural marvel, that is to experience the construction from between its two cupolas. All in all, the architectural aspect makes the Duomo climb a bit more attractive, yet, if you have issues with heights, the campanile climb feels much safer and protected.
Baptistery of St. John stands right in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and belongs among the most important monuments in Florence. Though not the grandest of structures, it expresses its onlookers with decor shaped by geometry and color. Although it’s origins are a bit unclear, historians believe it stands on ruins of a Roman temple devoted to Mars from 4th-5th century AD. The consecration of the structure as the Baptistery in 1128 which makes it the oldest religious monument in Florence.
The Baptistery has an octagonal plan as well as an octagonal lantern with a cupola. The facade, similarly to the rest of the cathedral, features colored marble. However, its most famous feature is the bronze doors, Gates of Paradise. They are so famous that very few people realize the Baptistery has three sets of exquisite doors:
Opera del Duomo, otherwise known as OPA, is the cathedral works committee established by the Republic of Florence in 1296. Its main role was to oversee the constructions and related works on the cathedral and its campanile. After finishing the last missing piece of the complex, the dome, OPA’s main function became preserving the monuments, sculptures and other artworks within the complex. The museum was founded in 1891 to shelter the works which have been removed for preservation. Today, the museum comprises 6000 square meters of showroom space, over 750 pieces of art scattered over 25 room and 3 floors. The main rooms include:
The museum is also where you can find the largest gift shop inside the Duomo complex. You can find it at the museum entrance. Other, smaller souvenir shops are by the entrance to the Campanile and the Crypt of Santa Reparata.
The crypt of Santa Reparata is, in fact, the archaeological site of the first Florence cathedral. It was built in the 6th century and is considered to be one of the first crucial signs of Christianity in Florence. Historians believe the cathedral was to honor the epic victory of Christians over the King of Goths in the 5th century.
The today’s cathedral stands atop of Santa Reparata ruins. It wasn’t until the 70s when the archeological digs enabled people to visit the ruins of the former cathedral. In addition to the ruins, the crypt also showcases several finds from Roman and Medieval periods such as decoration fragments and tombs.
The entrance to Florence cathedral is for free. However, you will need a ticket to access the rest of the monuments within the Duomo complex. The official Duomo ticket includes entries to all of them:
The pass allows you to visit the monuments within 48 hours since entering the first one (beginning March 1, 2018, the validity limit increases to 72 hours). Be sure to make the most of your time inside the monuments as you can visit each only once.
If you plan on climbing the Duomo, the reservation is compulsory as the queues to access the cupola are the longest and slowest. Also, climbing the 463 steps up a narrow staircase is quite challenging (elevator not available), hence, people suffering from heart problems, claustrophobia or vertigo should forgo the experience. Last admissions are no later than 40 minutes before closing time.
Climb the Duomo:
Giotto’s Bell Tower:
Opera del Duomo Museum:
BEWARE: All opening hours are subject to change since some of the buildings serve religious services. Please visit the official Duomo Complex website to double-check specific dates.
To visit Duomo Florence without any hassle or disappointment, you need to comply with the dress code. Since the Duomo is a religious site, you need to wear respectful clothing. For instance, you can't enter if you are wearing a tank top, short shorts, sandals, hat or sunglasses. In general, you have to cover your knees, shoulders, and toes. The code applies to both men and women.
Each monument within the Duomo complex has many stories to tell. In other words, if you are not ready, information overload can take you by surprise. While guided tours are not always the answer, in this case, they offer the best experience both regarding quick access as well as the compactness of information. It's not often you get to visit Florence. So, when you are there, make the most of it!
Florence Duomo Tour and Climb up to Dome with Aperitif