The Duomo in Florence


First I want to reassure readers of “Liturgy Lines” that they are not going to be regaled for months with reports of my recent overseas travels. However, having written about Salisbury Cathedral last week, I would like to reflect on just one other of the numerous significant places of worship that I visited, this time in Florence.
The predominant feature of Florence’s skyline is the sloping, red-tiled dome of the Duomo (Cathedral), the fourth largest in the world. The full name of this magnificent church is Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, in English, Our Lady of the Flower, a name reflected in the shape of the building with the nave like the stem and the three polygonal apses like the petals of a flower.
Building of the cathedral, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, was begun in 1296 and took almost 150 years to complete. Neither Arnolfo or Talenti ,who replace Arnolfo after his death, had found an answer to the problem of designing and constructing its dome. Filippo Brunelleschi came up with a remarkable solution. He raised the octagonal-based dome without the aid of scaffolding, unheard of at the time. Brunelleschi’s double-skinned dome, built in sections, was the greatest feat of its kind since ancient times.
When I first came upon the Duomo from the crowded streets and squares that surround it, I was stopped momentarily in my tracks. Its vivid white, green and red marble exterior was like nothing I had ever seen before and was literally breathtaking. The similarly-clad octagonal baptistry and 85m high Campanile (bell tower) beside the cathedral complete a unique cluster of buildings.
The interior of the Duomo is something of a surprise after the audacious exterior. The proportions are massive, of course, but it is quite austere and simple. This makes the riot of colour and images lining Brunelleschi’s dome seem even more remarkable. The series of frescoes by Vasari and Zuccari depicts the Last Judgement.
The Romanesque Baptistry of St John beside the cathedral may have been built as early as the 5th century on the site of a Roman temple. The present structure dates from about the 11th century and is one of the oldest buildings in Florence. Among those baptised there was the literary genius Dante Alighieri.
The most striking feature of the baptistry is the three sets of bronze doors, particularly the gilded east doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The bas-reliefs on the 10 panels depict scenes from the Old Testament. When Michelangelo saw Ghiberti’s extraordinary lifelike work many years later he declared the doors fit to be the “Gate of Paradise”, which is how they are known to this day.
The interior is very similar to that of the Pantheon in Rome. The inlaid marble design of the floor is delightful, but it was the glittering spectacle of the mosaics on the inside of the dome that I couldn’t take my eyes off! Around three sides of the dome, stories of the bible unfold. The fourth side is dominated by the figure of Christ Pantocrator enthroned with the Last Judgement taking place around him, an absolute masterpiece of Middle Ages artwork.


Elizabeth Harrington