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Florence - in, up and under the Duomo

When in Florence, the first thing that jumps out at you is the cathedral, known as the Duomo. Yes, there are many famous pieces of art as well, but when you look out onto the city from a vantage-point like the car park at the Piazzale Michelangelo (the location of one of several Davids) on the hill to the south of the Arno, it is the Duomo with its red-tiled dome, bell tower and marble façade is what grabs the eye. That is what dominates any view of the city, one of Italy’s finest.

Strictly speaking, it is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore (the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower); built to replace an old church on the same site, work began on it in 1296 and it took around 150 years to complete, although the neo-Gothic marble façade on the western end was added in the nineteenth century. The famous dome was built by Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the key figures of Renaissance architecture, between 1420 and 1436; he modelled it on the Pantheon in Rome, and used over four million bricks to build both the inner and outer octagonal domes. Glimpses of his great work can be spotted throughout the city.

That said, I do think that Peter Moore is onto something when he points out (in the excellent Vroom with a View) that it, and Florence in general, has space issues:

“There’s just no sense of space. Take the Duomo, for example … smack bang in the centre of town and topped by the red-tiled dome that is to Florence what the Opera House is to Sydney. Here we have one of the most amazing buildings of the Renaissance, clad in white, green and pink Tuscan marble. It was designed by Brunelleschi to dwarf even the great buildings of ancient Rome and Greece, but you only have to walk 10 metres before you hit another building. The dome is the largest of its time built without scaffolding, but there’s just no room to appreciate its size. And what little room that’s there is filled with thousands of people trying to get into the cathedral and just as many Senegalese hawkers trying to sell them fake Louis Vuitton handbags.”

Rather than consider such matters, though, we wanted to explore the Duomo itself, along with everyone else who was visiting Florence on a hot day in June. Getting into the cathedral itself is free (all you have to do is queue), but the rest – the bell tower, the baptistry (separate buildings, as is the case with several other Italian cathedrals), the crypt and the top of that famous dome – are places you have to pay to get in, up or down to. A €15 ticket, valid for 48 hours, covers the lot.

After paying my €15 and acknowledging that climbing the dome was out because it was already fully booked (not that I minded, as I’d done the dome of the Duomo before, on a previous trip), I made my way up the campanile, as the bell tower is known. Designed in the mid-fourteenth century by the architect Giotto di Bondone (usually known simply as Giotto, just like his fellow-Florentine Dante Alighieri is usually just known by his first name), this slender square tower is slightly shorter than the cathedral dome (Giotto’s plans had included a spire which was to have made it 400 feet tall, but he died before his great work could be completed and his successors decided against the spire, leaving the tower just under 280 feet tall). It has 414 stairs. I am not usually one to turn down the chance to climb a tower, and despite the heat (the mercury was over 30°C for most of our short trip to Tuscany, an unusual occurrence for June which has the wine-growers rather worried about how their 2017 vintage is going to turn out) I was up for this one.

I climbed up the steep stone steps, sometimes stopping to let people coming down go through (unlike the dome, which as I recall has separate ways up and down, it’s just the one staircase for the bell tower). Yes it was warm but it could be worse – ten years ago I went up the one at Pisa, which was a precarious experience not because it leans but because the steps of that one are made of marble, and it was raining at the time. Climbing the Florence campanile, there were occasional views out of the small windows – not just the cathedral dome, once again putting in an enticing appearance, but also the similar (albeit smaller) dome of the nearby church of San Lorenzo. 

I was grateful for the stops at the various levels. One had a view up through which you could see the people two levels above us standing on a metal grate; when I got to that level I naturally made sure to stand on said grate – which, I’m happy to report, has no problems with supporting 13-odd stone of English tourist.

Up top, I was not surprised to not that us successful climbers were encased in a metal cage through which we could look out over the city – most high towers have cage-like structures on the top. 

I could see across to the dome, which in my opinion makes the view from the bell tower a nicer one than the view from the dome, because by looking out over Florence from the dome you’re seeing Florence without its most famous landmark (rather like seeing Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, when you think about it). There was also the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce (the big representation of the Star of David on the front of that church has a theological message – a six-point star formed of two interlocking triangles is an old symbol of creation, expressing the eternal nature of the Holy Trinity which is itself sometimes represented by an equilateral triangle), San Lorenzo and all those red-tiled roofs of Florence stretching out to where the city ends and the hills begin.

After making my way down, I joined the queue to get into the cattedrale itself.

A church or a cathedral is usually a good place to visit on a hot day as it’s usually fairly cool inside, and it looked as though quite a few others had had the same idea. It seemed fairly spartan inside, with any effect the high altar might have being off-set by the construction work going on behind it. 

The crowning glory of the Duomo’s interior, of course, is seen by looking up to the inside of Brunelleschi’s dome with its large depiction of the Last Judgement; Brunelleschi, apparently, envisaged it as being gold in colour, but after he died it was simply whitewashed and it fell to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, one of the Medici dynasty who ruled Medieval Florence, to decree that it be painted with a very big representation of the Last Judgement, a project that took 11 years to complete (it was started by two artists, Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, but after the former died six years into the project the latter got help from several others).

Down below next, for entry to the crypt was included in the €15 ticket. The crypt was excavated during the mid-to-late twentieth century, and contains remains going back to Roman times although for the most part it has the remains of the previous church that stood on the site of the Duomo, a (smaller) fifth-century church dedicated to St Reparata (a third-century Christian martyr) which was, apparently, in a somewhat parlous state by the time the Florentines decided to build the present-day Duomo. The old church was apparently where two eleventh-century popes were buried. A look around yielded several slabs from old tombs as well as the grave of Brunelleschi himself, buried (like Wren) underneath his greatest achievement. In a roped-off section there was also a recess in one of the walls containing what I took to be a saint’s relic of some sort, although there was nothing to indicate which saint; St Reparata, perhaps?

Back outside, there was one more thing to do and that was the baptistry. The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of St John) dates back to the eleventh century although bits of it are thought to be much older than that – there are Roman columns inside and it’s thought to have been built on the site of a Roman temple. The first thing to marvel at, before you even enter it, are the three sets of bronze-relief doors, the most famous of which are the eastern ones which were the work of one Lorenzo Ghiberti who won a competition to design them in 1401 (actually, he won it jointly with the afore-mentioned Brunelleschi, although the latter withdrew in a fit of pique because he hadn’t won outright). Michaelangelo was so impressed with the east doors, which depict scenes from the Old Testament, that he dubbed them the Porti del Paradiso (‘gates of paradise’) although the ones we see today are replicas, the originals being in a museum; Ghiberti, by the way, also did the north doors which have scenes from the Gospels as well as depictions of eight saints.

What’s truly impressive about it once you get inside is the glittering dome mosaics, the oldest of which are from the mid-thirteenth century. Even more impressive is the fact that pews are provided so weary, sweaty visitors (what can I say? It was a hot day and I’d already climbed the campanile!) can take a load off and look up at the mosaics without leaning back too far and falling over. I marvelled at the big depiction of the Last Judgement before trying to figure out passages from the Bible the other panels depicted (there was a fair bit from Genesis before the artists decided to skip to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and – appropriately enough, given the building’s dedication – John the Baptist). 

Then I looked around the rest of the building, and wondered why it is that the font is tucked away to one side, almost as an afterthought; given that this was a building constructed specifically for the purpose of baptism, I found that odd.

Another oddity, or at least something I perceived to be an oddity, is that the Baptistry has a tomb. While the crypt is believed to have been the place where two eleventh-century popes were buried, the Baptistry is most definitely the final resting-place of a fifteenth-century antipope. Baldassare Cossa is known to history as John XXIII, although he is not to be confused with the actual, twentieth-century pope of the same name and number. Although he was elected as pope in 1410, history does not regard him as a real pope because his (sort-of) papacy occurred at a time when there were three popes, each claiming to be the one true pope and each being recognised by different countries! This unholy mess was known as the Western Schism, and it was eventually sorted out at the Council of Constance, which declared that all three popes should abdicate so that a new, single pope could be elected. John’s lasting contribution to papal history, and the reason for his burial in Florence, is that it was he who enabled the Medici family – those Medieval rulers of Florence – to get into papal banking, which was what made them very rich indeed. Burying him in the Baptistry after his death in 1419, and getting Donatello to sculpt his tomb, was probably the least they could do as a posthumous thank-you.

And on that note, it was time to leave the baptistry and go off in search of some gelato. Well, we were in Florence, and it was a hot day.

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