Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sant Maria Del Fiore...The Duomo in Florence

The basilica of Santa Maria Del Fiore has been for centuries, and remains, one of the top tourist attractions in Florence. It took more than a century and a half to complete, but until modern times, with technological advances in materials, this cathedral had the largest dome ever built. To this day it still has the largest brick constructed dome in the world. One would have to say that there had been quite a feat of engineering that went into producing the octagonal dome.

The Carrara marble facade with bands of pink and green marble is purely ornamental and quite distinctive on this cathedral that remains one of the largest religious edifices in all of Italy. It was resurfaced in the late 19th century, but it mimicked the campanile that had been completed for some time. The list of artists involved in the construction reads like a who's who in Renaissance Art with names such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Giotto, Pisano and Donatello. But no matter what their contributions, the main attention has always been on the dome itself, hence the nickname "duomo".

The dome was not even commissioned until after the first century of work had been completed. During the final phase of construction, it came down to only two artists that were vying for the commission, Fillippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is quite amazing that both were goldsmiths, men used to working on very small objects in minute detail. Where were the architects and engineers? Ghiberti had already won the commission for the baptistery doors, so Brunelleschi, a Medici favorite, won the commission but had to share the honor, though not much of the work with Ghiberti. When what has been considered a feigned illness by Brunelleschi left Ghiberti alone on the project, he backed out and Brunelleschi was able to finish the project alone and with full credit. Neither ever received the commission money. One other incredible detail, the dome was built without a wooden supporting frame; designed by a goldsmith working with brick.

These photos of the dome were taken during an ascent to the top of the campanile and are courtesy of my fearless traveling companion. I climbed the dome on my very first trip to Florence and discovered then that I have acrophobia. My knees were shaking and I felt light headed, but once you start up, you have to complete the journey, because the ascent is one way up narrow stairs, around the interior of the dome, along what seemed to me at the time like the shortest railing in all Christendom, then up and over the space between the interior frescoed dome and the exterior tiled dome. After looking at the frescoes of demons and hell I felt that falling over the railing was a distinct possibility, since it seemed much shorter than waist high, so after freezing in my tracks, I literally hugged the wall, as I slowly inched toward the small door into the interior of the dome. As I recall I stayed on top more to avoid the descent, than to absorb the stunning views of the city that spread before me in all directions.

Be certain to look at the Vasari frescoes of the Last judgement in the dome, and if you can, make the climb. It is truly the most interesting thing about the interior, as the rest is rather plain and unadorned, so much so that it came as a rather unpleasant surprise. I don't think it was always so, because I've attended mass there several times and on this last visit it seemed stark, a word I would not imagine I would use in describing any part of this cathedral.

I've always appreciated how the baptistery emulated the octagonal of the great dome, but Ghiberti's doors grab most of the attention, as well they should. They are truly magnificent. The use of perspective is more than masterful, it's magical considering how shallow the doors really are. I think a trained goldsmith and sculptor was the perfect person to attend to such detail.

While Pisano worked with Ghiberti on the baptistery doors (he made the south facing doors), Donatello was responsible for some of the exterior sculptures. It was Giotto who took over the project who is credited with the campanile (bell tower), although it was Pisano who completed it after Giotto's death. The encroaching city does not give one an optimal vantage point for photographs of Santa Maria Del Fiore, but on each trip I work on a better angle. I plan to enlist the aid of my niece for climbing the dome to take some more photos for me on our upcoming trip. I hope acrophobia doesn't run in the family.

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