And when I thought of Florence, it was like a miracle city embalmed and like a corolla, because it was called the city of lilies and its cathedral, St. Mary of the FlowersMarcel Proust
In our previous posts we talked about how much we enjoyed the city of Florence – its various piazzas, palazzos and pontes – but there was one building in particular we avoided speaking about until now.
Building. Such an understating word for one of the most beautiful churches in the world.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower) took 140 years to be completed between 1296 and 1436. Built in the gothic style it’s dome was engineered by Florentine engineer Filippo Brunelleschi.
Brunelleschi is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Renaissance Architecture and in 1421 was recognised as the first person in the western world to receive a patent for a crane invention he used on his projects. He had to invent tools and methods to build the projects that he had won the tender for.
He did not have notebooks or documents like Leonardo da Vinci so very few lessons were gleaned for future generations – only the admiration of his works.
After his death he was interred in the catacombs of Florence Cathedral – to oversee his most famous of creations for ever more. His touch can be also seen in many other buildings across the city – The Foundling Hospital to the Pazzi Chapel.
It takes more than one person than Brunelleschi to design and construct something like this. Arnolfo di Cambio is credited with the initial design that was approved for construction of the cathedral. After he passed away and the project fell into a stupor it was revived later by Giotto and Andrea Pisano until the Black Death took the former. In 1349 Francesco Talenti led the charge, completing the campanile and expanding the scope of the cathedral to include side chapels. 6 more engineers would help bring the project to its final stages by 1418.
The cathedral is not one building but a complex of buildings including the Baptistry of Saint John and Giotto’s Campanile.
The Baptistry is an octagonal shaped building that was that was actually built 250 years before the Cathedral. It is renowned for it’s three sets of artistically bronze doors. The east doors, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti,were dubbed the the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo. Ten panels depict important scenes from the bible – Adam and Eve , Noah, Joseph, Moses etc.
Dante Alighieri and members of the Medici Family were baptised here.
Giotto’s Campanile stands adjacent to the cathedral and is almost as tall as the dome at 84 metres high. The ‘bell tower’ has seven bells and was completed by the celebrated painter Giotto di Bondone.
It is built to copy the polychrome pattern of the cathedral with white marble (from Carrara); green marble (from Prato) and red marble (from Siena).
The exterior walls of the basilica is faced with a polychrome of marble with various shades of green, pink and white stone.
Carrara is the source of the white marble, located some 100 kilometres west-northwest from the city on the banks of the Carrione River. The Pantheon and Trajan’s Column in Rome is made from Carrara marble and it has been quarried there since Roman times. The conditions here were so treacherous and the miners so tough that by the end of the 19th Century Carrara had become a cradle for anarchism in Italy.
More marble has been extracted from Carrara’s mines than any other place on earth and not only is it used in Italian buildings but in famous statues as well; Michaelangelo’s David has it, as does the statue of Robert Burns in Dumfries. Nor is it confined to just Europe with the white marble being used in India, Canada and the Philippines.
Closer to the city and on the foot of Monte Retaia is Prato and the source of the green marble (or serpentine). It’s sometimes yellow and green streaks has given rise to it being called “ranocchiaia (frog) stone”.
Finally the red marble (rosa marble) comes from city of Siena to the south.
Better late than never
The entire façade is dedicated to the Mother of Christ but it is almost 400 years older than the rest of the church having only been completed in 1887. It has a number of lavish statues and features and really gives a wow factor on first glance.
There are three huge bronze doors (size comparison as demonstrated by Karen) depicting scenes from the life of the Madonna with mosaics above in the lunettes painted by Genovese artist Nicolo Barabino.
Statues of the twelve apostles and Florentine artists adorn the various alcoves carved into the church’s wall.
Inside the cathedral is quite different. Gothic design renders this a vast emptiness – in contrast to the lavishness outside it is meant to represent the austerity of the church with a lot of artefacts lost or transferred to the museums over time.
Above the main entrance is an unusually looking clock – the Duomo Clock – one of the only working kinds in the world – it tracks Italian Time, ora Italica, and was painted by Paolo Uccello – who was responsible for some of the stained glass windows as well.
Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici decided on the theme for the interior of the dome – commissioning 3,600 square metres painting of The Last Judgment taking two painters, Giorgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari almost 11 years to complete.
Even at night the cathedral retains its prominent character.