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Florence Cathedral

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is the cathedral church (Duomo) of Florence, Italy. The basilica is notable for its dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, its exterior facing of polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white.

History

The basilica was built on the site of a previous cathedral, Santa Reparata (locals of Florence continued to call the Cathedral by this former name for some time after reconstruction), and was inspired by the new cathedrals in Pisa and Siena. By the end of the 13th century, the nine-centuries-old church of Santa Reparata was crumbling with age, as attested in documents of that time such as the Nuova Cronica of Giovanni Villani (1276–1348). Furthermore, it had become too small in a period of rapid population expansion. Prosperous Florence also wanted to exceed in size Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City, Saint Paul's Cathedral in London, the Seville Cathedral, and the Milan Cathedral.

The new church was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296 (although the design was altered several times and later reduced in size). Arnolfo di Cambio was also the famous architect of the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio. He designed three wide naves ending under the octagonal dome, with the middle nave covering the area of Santa Reparata. The first stone was laid on September 9, 1296 by Cardinal Valeriana, the first papal legate ever sent to Florence. The building of this vast project was to last 170 years, the collective efforts of several generations.

After Arnolfo died in 1302, work on the cathedral slowed for the following thirty years. The project obtained new impetus, when the relics of San Zanobius were discovered in 1330 in Santa Reparata. In 1331, the Arte della Lana (Guild of Wool Merchants) took over exclusive patronage for the construction of the cathedral and in 1334 appointed Giotto to oversee the work. Assisted by Andrea Pisano, Giotto continued along di Cambio's design. His major accomplishment was the building of the campanile. When Giotto died in 1337, Andrea Pisano continued the building until work was again halted due to the Black Plague in 1348.

In 1349 work resumed on the cathedral under a series of architects, commencing with Francesco Talenti, who finished the campanile and enlarged the overall project to include the apse and the side chapels. In 1359 Talenti was succeeded by Giovanni di Lapo Ghini (1360–1369) who divided the center nave in four square bays. Other architects were Alberto Arnoldi, Giovanni d'Ambrogio, Neri di Fioravante and Orcagna. By 1375 the old church Santa Reparata was pulled down. The nave was finished by 1380, and by 1418 only the dome remained incomplete.

The exterior walls are faced in alternate vertical and horizontal bands of polychrome marble from Carrara (white), Prato (green), Siena (red), Lavenza and a few other places. These marble bands had to repeat the already existing bands on the walls of the earlier adjacent baptistery the Battistero di San Giovanni and Giotto's Bell Tower. There are two lateral doors, the Doors of the Canonici (south side) and the Door of the Mandorla (north side) with works of art of Nanni di Banco, Donatello, and Jacopo della Quercia. The six lateral windows, notable for their delicate tracery and ornaments, are separated by pilasters. Only the four windows, closest to the transept, admit light; The other two are merely ornamental. The clerestory windows are round, a common feature in Italian Gothic. The floor of the church was laid in marble tiles in the 16th century.

During its long history, this cathedral has been the seat of the Council of Florence (1439), heard the preachings of Girolamo Savonarola and witnessed the murder of Giuliano di Piero de' Medici on Easter Sunday, 26 April 1478 (with Lorenzo Il Magnifico barely escaping death)in the Pazzi conspiracy.

Dome

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the drum of the church was built. However, the 42 meter wide space above the church's chancel still did not have the planned octagonal cupola, even though a brick model from 1367 already existed (as related in the "Life of Brunelleschi" by Antonio Manetti, ca. 1480).

In 1419, the Arte della Lana held a competition to design a dome and cupola for the cathedral. The two main competitors were Lorenzo Ghiberti (famous for his work on the "Gates of Paradise" doors at the Baptistery) and Filippo Brunelleschi who was supported by Cosimo de Medici, with Brunelleschi winning and receiving the commission.

The building of a stone dome posed many technical problems. Though Brunelleschi drew his inspiration from the great dome of the Pantheon in Rome, the use of concrete had long since been forgotten. He would have to build the dome out of bricks. To show what his dome was to look like, he constructed a wooden and brick model with the help of Donatello and Nanni di Banco (on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo). Brunelleschi won by a nose. His model served as a guide for the craftsmen, but was intentionally incomplete, as to ensure his control over the construction.

Brunelleschi's solutions were ingenious and unprecedented: the distinctive octagonal design of the double-walled dome, resting on a drum and not on the roof itself, allowed for the entire dome to be built without the need for scaffolding from the ground, the first large dome ever to be built without centering But, because the dome rested on a drum with no external butresses supporting it, there could be no lateral thrusts at the base of the dome. To ensure this, Brunelleschi used horizontal tension chains of wood and iron set at the base of the dome.

This enormous construction weighs 37,000 tons and contains over 4 million bricks. He made several models and drawings of details during the construction. Brunelleschi had to invent special hoisting machines and lewissons for hoisting large stones. These specially designed machines and brilliant masonry techniques were Brunelleschi's spectacular contribution to architecture. The ability to transcribe a circle on a cone face within the innermost double-shelled wall makes the self-sustaining "horizontal" arch construction possible, since geometrically, a circular plan is needed for such an erection.

Ghiberti, appointed coadjutator, mocked these plans and called them unfeasible. Brunelleschi, deeply offended, then pretended a sickness and left for Rome, leaving the project in the hands of Ghiberti. But Ghiberti soon had to admit that the whole project was beyond him. In 1423 Brunelleschi was back in charge and took over sole responsibility.

Work started on the dome in 1420 and was completed in 1436. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugene IV on March 25, 1436 (the first day of the year according to the Florentine calendar). It was the first 'octagonal' dome in history (The Roman Pantheon, a circular dome, was built in 117–128 C.E. with support structures) to be built without a wooden supporting frame and was the largest dome built at the time (it is still the largest masonry dome in the world). It had been one of the most impressive projects of the Renaissance. During the consecration service in 1436, Guillaume Dufay's similarly unique motet Nuper rosarum flores was performed. The structure of this motet was strongly influenced by the structure of the dome.

Brunelleschi's ability to crown the dome with a lantern was questioned and he had to undergo another competition. He was declared the winner over his competitors Lorenzo Ghiberti and Antonio Ciaccheri. His design was for an octagonal lantern with eight radiating buttresses and eight high arched windows (now on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo). Construction of the lantern was begun a few months before his death in 1446. Then, for 15 years, little progress was possible, due to alterations by several architects. The lantern was finally completed by Brunelleschi's friend Michelozzo in 1461. The conical roof was crowned with a gilt copper ball and cross, containing holy relics, by Verrocchio in 1469. This brings the total height of the dome and lantern to 114.5 metres (375 ft). This copper ball was struck by lightning on 17 July 1600 and fell down. It was replaced by an even larger one two years later.

The commission for this bronze ball [atop the lantern] went to the sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, in whose workshop there was at this time a young apprentice named Leonardo da Vinci. Fascinated by Filippo's [Brunelleschi's] machines, which Verrocchio used to hoist the ball, Leonardo made a series of sketches of them and, as a result, is often given credit for their invention.

Leonardo might have also participated in the design of the bronze ball, as stated in the G manuscript of Paris "Remember the way we soldered the ball of Santa Maria del Fiore

The decorations of the drum gallery by Baccio d'Agnolo were never finished after being disapproved by no one less than Michelangelo.

A huge statue of Brunelleschi now sits outside the Palazzo dei Canonici in the Piazza del Duomo, looking thoughtfully up towards his greatest achievement, the dome that would forever dominate the panorama of Florence. Only 150 years later would this dome be surpassed by Michelangelo's dome of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City.

The building of the cathedral had started in 1296 with the design of Arnolfo di Cambio and was completed in 1469 with the placing of Verrochio's copper ball atop the lantern. But the façade was still unfinished and would remain so until the nineteenth century.

Façade

The original façade, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and usually attributed to Giotto, was actually begun twenty years after Giotto's death. A mid-15th century pen-and-ink drawing of this so-called Giotto's façade is visible in the Codex Rustici, and in the drawing of Bernardino Poccetti in 1587, both on display in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. This façade was the collective work of several artists, among them Andrea Orcagna and Taddeo Gaddi. This original façade was only completed in its lower portion and then left unfinished. It was dismantled in 1587-1588 by the Medici court architect Bernardo Buontalenti, ordered by Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici, as it appeared totally outmoded in Renaissance times. Some of the original sculptures are on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo, behind the cathedral. Others are now in the Berlin Museum and in the Louvre. The competition for a new façade turned into a huge corruption scandal. The wooden model for the façade of Buontalenti is on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo. A few new designs have been proposed in later years but the models (of Giovanni Antonio Dosio, Giovanni de' Medici with Alessandro Pieroni and Giambologna) were not accepted. The façade was then left bare until the 19th century.

In 1864, a competition was held to design a new façade and was won by Emilio De Fabris (1808-1883) in 1871. Work was begun in 1876 and completed in 1887. This neo-gothic façade in white, green and red marble forms a harmonious entity with the cathedral, Giotto's bell tower and the Baptistery, but some think it is excessively decorated.

The whole façade is dedicated to the Mother of Christ.

Main portal

The three huge bronze doors date from 1899 to 1903. They are adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna. The mosaics in the lunettes above the doors were designed by Niccolò Barabino. They represent (from left to right): Charity among the founders of Florentine philanthropic institutions, Christ enthroned with Mary and John the Baptist, Florentine artisans, merchants and humanists paying homage to the Faith. The pediment above the central portal contains a half-relief by Tito Sarrocchi of Mary enthroned holding a flowered scepter

On top of the façade is a series of niches with the twelve Apostles with, in the middle, the Madonna with Child. Between the rose window and the tympanum, there is a gallery with busts of great Florentine artists.

Interior

The cathedral is built as a basilica, with a nave and two aisles, forming a Roman cross. The nave and the aisles are divided by wide pointed arches with composite pilasters, dividing the nave into four square bays.

Its dimensions are enormous: length 153 metres (502 ft), width 38 metres (124 ft), width at the crossing 90 metres (295 ft). The height of the arches in the aisles is 23 metres (75 ft). The height from pavement to the opening of the lantern in the dome is also 90 metres (295 ft).

The Gothic interior is vast and gives an empty impression. The relative bareness of the church corresponds with the austerity of religious life, as preached by Girolamo Savonarola.

Many decorations in the church have been lost in the course of time, or have been transferred to the Museum Opera del Duomo, such as the magnificent cantorial pulpits (the singing galleries for the choristers) of Luca della Robbia and Donatello.

As this cathedral was built with funds from the public, some important works of art in this church honour illustrious men and military leaders of Florence:

  • Dante and the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino (1465). This painting is especially interesting because it shows us, apart from scenes of the Divine Comedy, a view on Florence in 1465, a Florence such as Dante himself couldn't have seen in his time.
  • Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello (1436). This almost monochrome fresco, transferred on canvas in the 19th c., is painted in terra verde, a color closest to the patina of bronze.
  • Equestrian statue of Niccolò da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno (1456). This fresco, transferred on canvas in the 19th c., in the same style as the previous one, is painted in a color resembling marble. However, it is more richly decorated and gives more the impression of movement. Both frescoes portray the condottieri as heroic figures riding triumphantly. Both painters had problems when applying in painting the new rules of perspective to foreshortening: they used two unifying points, one for the horse and one for the pedestal, instead a single unifying point.
  • Busts of Giotto (by Benedetto da Maiano), Brunelleschi (by Buggiano - 1447), Marsilio Ficino, and Antonio Squarcialupi (a most famous organist). These busts all date from the 15th and the 16th century.

Above the main door is the colossal clock face with fresco portraits of four Prophets or Evangelists by Paolo Uccello (1443). This one-handed liturgical clock shows the 24 hours of the hora italica (Italian time), a period of time ending with sunset at 24 hours. This timetable was used till the 18th century. This is one of the few clocks from that time that still exist and are in working order.

The church is particularly notable for its 44 stained glass windows, the largest undertaking of this kind in Italy in the 14th and 15th century. The windows in the aisles and in the transept depict saints from the Old and the New Testament, while the circular windows in the drum of the dome or above the entrance depict Christ and Mary. They are the work of the greatest Florentine artists of their times, such as Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno.

Christ crowning Mary as Queen, the stained-glass circular window above the clock, with a rich range of coloring, was designed by Gaddo Gaddi in the early 14th century.

Donatello designed the stained-glass window (Coronation of the Virgin) in the drum of the dome (the only one that can be seen from the nave).

The beautiful funeral monument of Antonio d'Orso (1323), bishop of Florence, was made by Tino da Camaino, the most important funeral sculptor of his time.

The monumental crucifix, behind the Bishop's Chair at the high altar, is by Benedetto da Maiano (1495-1497). The choir enclosure is the work of the famous Bartolommeo Bandinelli. The ten-paneled bronze doors of the sacristy were made by Luca della Robbia, who has also two glazed terracotta works inside the sacristy: Angel with Candlestick and Resurrection of Christ.

In the back of the middle of the three apses is the altar of Saint Zanobius, first bishop of Florence. Its silver shrine, a masterpiece of Ghiberti, contains the urn with his relics. The central compartment shows us one his miracles, the reviving of a dead child. Above this shrine is the painting Last Supper by the lesser-known Giovanni Balducci. There was also a glass-paste mosaic panel The Bust of Saint Zanobius by the 16th century miniaturist Monte di Giovanni, but it is now on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo.

Many decorations date from the 16th century, under patronage from the Grand Dukes, such as the pavement in colored marble, attributed to Baccio d'Agnolo and Francesco da Sangallo (1520-26). Some pieces of marble from the facade were used, topside down, in the flooring (as was shown by the restoration of the floor after the 1966 flooding).

At first, it was suggested that the interior of the 45 metre (147 ft) wide dome should be covered with a mosaic decoration to make the most of the available light coming through the circular windows of the drum and through the lantern. Brunelleschi has proposed the vault to glimmer with resplendent gold, but his death in 1446 put an end to this project, and the walls of the dome were whitewashed. Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici decided to have the dome painted with a representation of The Last Judgment. This enormous work, 3,600 metres² (38 750 ft²) of painted surface, was started in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari and would last till 1579. The upper portion, near the lantern, representing The 24 Elders of Apoc. 4 was finished by Vasari before his death in 1574. Federico Zuccari and a number of collaborators, such as Domenico Cresti, finished the other portions: (from top to bottom) Choirs of Angels; Christ, Mary and Saints; Virtues, Gifts of the Holy Spirit and Beatitudes; and at the bottom of the cuppola: Capital Sins and Hell. These frescoes are considered Zuccari's greatest work. But the quality of the work is uneven because of the input of different artists and the different techniques. Vasari had used true fresco, while Zuccari had painted in secco.

Crypt

The cathedral underwent difficult excavations between 1965 and 1974. The subterranean vaults were used for the burial of Florentine bishops throughout the centuries.

Recently the archaeological history of this huge area was reconstructed: remains of Roman houses, an early Christian pavement, ruins of the former cathedral of Santa Reparata and successive enlargements of this church. Close to the entrance, in the part of the crypt open to the public, is the tomb of Brunelleschi. That the architect was permitted such a prestigious burial place is proof of the high esteem he was given by the Florentines.

Also buried in the former cathedral of Santa Reparata was Conrad II of Italy.

Footnotes

References

  • Bartlett, Kenneth R. (1992). The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance. Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company. ISBN 0-669-20900-7 (Paperback).
  • King, Ross (2000). Brunelleschi's Dome. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-200015-9.
  • Jepson, Tim (2001). The National Geographic Traveler, Florence & Tuscany. National Geographic Society. ISBN 90-215-9720-9.
  • Henry A. Millon (ed.) (1994). Italian Renaissance Architecture: from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27921-7.
  • Montrésor, Carlo (2000). The Opera del Duomo, Museum in Florence. Mandragora.
  • Wirtz, Rolf C. Kunst & Architektur, Florenz. Köneman, 2005. ISBN 3-8331-1576-9.
  • Marica S. Tacconi, Cathedral and Civic Ritual in Late Medieval and Renaissance Florence: The Service Books of Santa Maria del Fiore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 13 978-0-521-81704-2

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