Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (il Duomo), Florence

Florence is famous throughout the world for both its culture and history, and it is full of amazing buildings. It’s the capital of Tuscany with rail connections to Pisa, Bologna, and Rome.

Florence was originally a Roman city. It then developed into one of the most important cities in the world in Medieval times. Most historians consider Florence to be the birthplace of the Renaissance movement. Many famous people have lived in Florence including, Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli, Lorenzo Medici, Dante, Galileo, Brunelleschi and Raphael.

The Duomo is an imposing sight in the heart of the historic centre of Florence. The building is a clear landmark and is visible from miles around. Easy to spot it stands above all the other medieval buildings. The distinctive terracotta-tiled dome is one of the most famous symbols of Florence. The Duomo is Europe’s fourth-largest church.

The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore to give it its full name sits in the crowded Piazza Duomo. The Piazza is only a short walk from the railway station.

History of the Duomo

Florence’s Cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin of the Flowers. The original Cathedral on this site, Santa Reparata was built in the 4th-century. Built on the same site the current building replaced the crumbling, ancient structure. It was initially designed in 1296 by Arnolfo di Cambio. The outstanding feature is the huge dome based on the designs of Filippo Brunelleschi.

The façade was started on September 8, 1296, and is made of bands of green, white, and red marble. This was facade was never finished properly and was replaced by an entirely new one in 1887. The style of this is in keeping with the rest of the building.

The Duomo is massive, 502 ft long, 295 ft wide and 295 ft high. When it was originally built it was the largest church in the world. St Peters Basilica in Vatican City in 1615 robbed it of that honour.

The Dome

Building the dome was at the time a very ambitious engineering and architectural feat. Construction had been brought to a halt for a while because it was thought that building the large cupola would not be possible without the use of flying buttresses. However, Brunelleschi had a deep understanding of physics and geometry and solved this problem.

Brunelleschi’s controversial and innovative plans involved an inner and an outer shell held together with a ring and rib system. Additionally, he used a herringbone pattern to keep the bricks of the dome from falling to the ground. These techniques are used all the time now. At the time though this was quite revolutionary. In total, about 4 million bricks were used in its construction.

Work on the dome began in 1420. It wasn’t completely finished until after Brunelleschi’s death in 1446. A copper sphere and cross containing holy relics, designed by Andrea del Verrocchio were added in 1466. A vast fresco of The Last Judgment was painted on the inner shell of the dome between 1572 and 1579. This work was started by Giorgio Vasari and finished by Federico Zuccari.

Il Duomo

Entry to the cathedral itself is free. If you want to climb the dome, visit the crypt, the baptistery, and the campanile, you will need to purchase a combined ticket for entry to these buildings. The ticket office is in Piazza San Giovanni 7. It is open every day from 8:15am to 6:45pm.

The Cathedral is usually open from 10:00am to 4:30pm, Monday through Saturday. Of course, visiting hours on Sundays are restricted. It’s not permitted to enter during mass. Remember that the Duomo is a place of worship and requires proper attire. This means no shorts or skirts above the knee, no bare shoulders, and no hats once inside.

Unless you arrive early you’ll find a long line to get in into the cathedral. This does move quite quickly though. As you enter the Cathedral it is striking just how vast the building is. The furnishings and the decorations here are quite minimal. This is in complete contrast to somewhere like St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The main item of interest is the magnificent Last Judgement fresco decorating the underside of the dome.

Climbing the Dome

Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi the dome has a diameter of 150 feet. The innovative design uses an inner and outer shell. This was built without scaffolding and was completed in 1463. If you want to get up close to appreciate the genius of Brunelleschi’s work you’ll need to climb the dome. In all, there are 463 steps, most of them in narrow corridors originally used by the dome’s construction workers, definitely not for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic.

You must reserve tickets to climb the dome. This can be done up to 30 days in advance.

Having climbed to the base of the dome there is an interior walkway. This gives you a close-up view of “The Last Judgement.” From there, you can continue climbing all the way up the lantern. It is breathtaking when you step outside for the most incredible aerial views of Florence.

The Crypt of Santa Reparata

The remains of an earlier cathedral, Santa Reparata were discovered by a 20th-Century archaeological dig. The discovery provided a lot of information about the art, history, and topography of the original town. There were a number of significant finds including mosaics and wall frescoes. The dig also found the tomb of Brunelleschi.

The Campanile (Giotto’s Bell Tower)

This tall tower next to the Baptistery was completed in 1334. A narrow flight of 414 steps leads to the top. At the top, a panoramic terrace offers close-up views of Brunelleschi’s dome. The views of Florence and the surrounding countryside are equal to those from the top of the dome. The cumulative ticket includes access to the tower. Advance reservations are not possible.

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

This museum of art, architecture, and sculpture contains nearly a thousand works of art from the Duomo and Baptistery, as well as exhibits about the design and construction of the buildings of the Duomo Complex. Here you can see works from Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti. These include the original baptistery doors. The museum has an outdoor terrace with spectacular views of the dome. The cumulative ticket includes entry to the museum. 

Saint John’s Baptistery

The Battistero San Giovanni (Saint John’s Baptistery) is part of the Duomo complex and is located in front of the Cathedral. The baptistery is world-famous for its exterior bronze doors, which feature intricately carved biblical scenes, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Michelangelo called the bronze doors the “Gates of Paradise” and the name has stuck ever since. The original doors are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the ones in place on the Baptistery are bronze copies of the originals.

The Baptistery has its own guide. Read it here. 

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