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The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi’s Dome

The Cathedral of Florence, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, stands majestically in the heart of the city, representing an undisputed icon of the Florentine panorama. This architectural masterpiece, with its impressive dome and decorated facade, enchants visitors from all over the world.

Santa Maria del Fiore is an extraordinary example of Italian Gothic architecture. The facade, enriched with polychrome marble and sculptures, captures the eye with its beauty. The majestic dome, one of the largest in the world, dominates the skyline of Florence and offers spectacular views of the city.

In this article we will tell you the history of the cathedral, its artistic beauties and everything you absolutely must visit during your stay in Florence.

The origins of the cathedral

The history of Santa Maria del Fiore begins in 1296 when the architect Arnolfo di Cambio was commissioned to design a grandiose cathedral for Florence. Construction began on the ruins of an old church dedicated to Santa Reparata. The new building was supposed to symbolize the power and grandeur of the city.

Arnolfo di Cambio, known for his contribution to Italian Gothic architecture, designed an ambitious structure with a large central nave and a large dome. However, the initial work suffered various interruptions and design changes due to financial and political problems.

In the 15th century, the dome project was reconsidered and entrusted to Filippo Brunelleschi. The construction of this innovative structure was an incredible feat, marking the beginning of a new architectural era. The free-standing dome, completed in 1436, became the symbol of Florence and an example of engineering brilliance.

What to see at the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore?

The facade of the cathedral

Featuring intricate white, pink and green polychrome marble work, the façade is a testament to the artistic genius and craftsmanship that made Florence a beacon of the Italian Renaissance.

The façade of the Cathedral is the result of the work of several artists, but the original project was begun by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296. However, his death in 1310 left the project unfinished. Over the centuries, various artists, including Giotto and Andrea Pisano, contributed to the project, but the facade remained unfinished until the 19th century. It was finally completed in 1887 by Emilio De Fabris, following a scheme closer to Arnolfo di Cambio’s original design.

Composed of three main portals crowned by niches holding statues of significant religious figures, including the Madonna and Child and the patron saints of Florence, the structure is adorned with Gothic spires and intricate reliefs depicting biblical stories and religious symbolism. Floral decorations and finely crafted frames contribute an elegant touch to the complex.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Santa Reparata, and Santa Maria del Fiore, the three main portals showcase meticulously crafted columns and arches. The bronze doors, adorned with decorated panels, enhance the facade’s solemn atmosphere.

Despite its complexity and the long duration of construction, the façade of the Duomo exudes a sense of harmony and cohesion. The intricate details and intricately carved sculptures blend together to create a work of art that reflects the elegance of the Italian Renaissance.

Interior of the cathedral

The interior of the cathedral is adorned with extraordinary works of art. The most important is undoubtedly “The Last Judgment” by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari which adorns the interior of the dome. It is a fresco of extraordinary size which covers an area of 3600 square metres.

Extending across three primary registers, the fresco portrays Paradise, Earth, and Hell. At the center, the figure of Christ dominates, encircled by angels and apostles, while the judgment of souls unfolds below. The adept use of bold perspective, along with skillful manipulation of light and shadow, imparts depth and realism to the figures, immersing observers in a compelling visual narrative.

Brunelleschi’s dome

Brunelleschi's dome - Santa Maria del Fiore - Florence

The majestic dome designed by Brunelleschi is one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. Its history begins in 1418 when the commission to complete the cathedral was awarded to the famous architect. His proposal for the dome was bold and revolutionary: a self-supporting structure without the traditional support of external buttresses. This pioneering decision underlined Brunelleschi’s extraordinary ingenuity.

The construction was a titanic undertaking. Brunelleschi had to devise special machinery and new techniques to lift heavy materials to the desired height. The dome is composed of two shells with a lightweight brick casing and a ribbed structure that distributes the weight evenly.

Completed in 1436, the Dome offers spectacular views over the city of Florence and beyond. Climbing the 463 steps to the top is an unforgettable experience, rewarded by panoramic views of every corner of the city and the surrounding hills.

The top is surmounted by a lantern, also designed by Brunelleschi. The iron cross placed on the top, created by Andrea del Verrocchio, was subsequently replaced with a copy to preserve the original, which is now exhibited in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.

In addition to its impressive physical presence, the Dome represents the technical and creative skill of Brunelleschi, a genius who left an indelible mark on the history of art and architecture.

Museum of the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Museum of the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore is an unmissable stop for those who want to deepen their knowledge of sacred art and the history of the city. This museum houses an extraordinary collection of works of art that date back to different eras, offering a unique perspective on the artistic and spiritual magnificence of Florence.

The main room of the museum displays a reconstruction of the original façade of the Florence cathedral designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and adorned with numerous statues of very famous artists including Donatello.

Museum of the Opera del Duomo of Florence

One of the most significant pieces of the museum is undoubtedly the “Gate of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti. This magnificent bronze work is one of the doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni and is renowned for its extraordinary artistic quality. It took Ghiberti years to complete this masterpiece, depicting biblical scenes with unparalleled mastery.

A trip to the “Sala delle Maestranze” offers an in-depth look at the work of the artisans who contributed to the construction of the Cathedral. Ancient instruments, wooden models and documents tell the story of those who dedicated their skill and passion to this extraordinary undertaking.

Baptistery of San Giovanni

The building stands out for its octagonal structure, one of a kind. The façade, similar to that of the Cathedral, is made of white (Carrara) and green marble that form geometric designs. Genuine masterpieces, the bronze doors showcase Lorenzo Ghiberti’s renowned “Gate of Paradise,” widely considered one of the most beautiful doors in the world.

The interior of the Baptistery is equally impressive with mosaics covering the entire vault and a good part of the walls. These mosaics, initially created by Byzantine masters, were then completed by local artists such as Cimabue.

Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence

Giotto’s bell tower

This bell tower, an integral part of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, represents a magnificent expression of the art and engineering of the medieval period.

The history of Giotto’s Bell Tower begins in 1334 when the famous artist Giotto di Bondone was commissioned to design a bell tower that surpassed the existing ones in magnificence and beauty. Giotto, already known for his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, also applied his artistic mastery to the field of architecture. Giotto was unable to complete the work before his death, but his pupils Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti continued the project.

For those ready to take on the challenge, a climb of 414 steps leads to the top of Giotto’s Bell Tower. For the effort, a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Florence unfolds, with the Duomo and Baptistery rising majestically into the cityscape.

The early Christian Basilica of Santa Reparata

The Basilica of Santa Reparata, buried under the current Cathedral, is a fascinating journey through time that reveals the millenary stratification of the city. While the majestic dome of the Duomo dominates the urban landscape, few are aware of the ancient basilica that lies beneath it, telling stories of faith, history and architectural evolution.

Santa Reparata - early Christian basilica in Florence

The history of Santa Reparata dates back to the early Christian era, when the basilica was built in the 5th century. Its name is linked to Santa Reparata, a Christian martyr whose relics were kept in this church. Over the centuries, the basilica was expanded and modified, becoming the main place of Christian worship in Florence.

The original basilica was more modest in size than the current Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. However, its structure underwent numerous changes over time. During archaeological excavations conducted in the 20th century, the foundations and columns of the original basilica were discovered, highlighting its complex architectural structure.

Archaeological excavations conducted during the 20th century revealed the magnificence of the buried basilica. The columns, mosaics and tombs testify to the complexity and importance of this early Christian church. Today, visitors can explore this ancient basilica through guided tours organized by the city.

The history of Santa Maria del Fiore is a fascinating saga of architectural visions, engineering genius and timeless artistic contributions. This cathedral is much more than a place of worship; it is a monument that embodies the greatness of Florence and the mastery of the artists who have contributed to shaping it over the centuries.