Florence Cathedral - Part 1 of 2

I've been building up to this post for a while now as the Florence Cathedral is extremely confusing. 'Florence Cathedral' is the main term used to describe a complex of buildings including the Cathedral, Baptistery and the Campanile. This complex has been added to over the years so nowadays any one who tries to learn about the cathedral will probably, like myself, give up trying to understand all the different artworks piled on top of each other. So, I decided to make two posts to try and make it as clear as possible.


Built on the site of a church dedicated to St. Reparata from the 5th Century. It was built to accommodate the growing population of Florence as the 5th Century church was too small.

The Cathedral itself is located in Piazza del Duomo, and has 4 main features:

1. The Exterior or 'Basilica'

In 1296, the Cathedral was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio.

The exterior has polychrome marble panels. 'Polychrome' is when marble or other materials are painted on in architecture. In the case of the Cathedral, the marble is green and pink, with white borders.

There are also two entrances to the Cathedral:

- The Doors of the Mandorla (North side)

- The Doors of the Canonici (South side)

2. The Facade

Originally designed by di Cambio, as he designed the rest of the Cathedral. However, it was never finished and the facade we see today was designed by Emilio de Fabris, in 1864. It is neo-Gothic in style, and the polychrome marble continues round from the main body, in order to maintain a harmonious appearance.

As you can see in the picture the facade is split into three vertical parts, each with huge bronze doors. They all depict scenes from the Madonna's life. Above them are lunettes (semi-circular indents from any type of masonry filled with art) designed by Niccolo Barabino.

They then each have triangular pediments; the side portals triangles are smaller to accommodate rose windows above them. The main portal has a much larger triangular pediment because it has it's own rose window in the extra level above. This triangular pediment depicts an enthroned Virgin Mary to continue the theme of the Madonna's life.

On top of all three is a long line of niches with the 12 apostles and the Madonna and Child in the centre. In the other niches around the facade are busts of Florentine artists.

3. The Campanile

The campanile is the large free-standing tower you can see on the right next to the main facade, and is sometimes known as 'Giotto's Bell Tower'. Designed by Giotto di Bondone, it houses 7 bells and is 85 metres high. It also continues the polychrome marble around the Cathedral complex.

Unfortunately, Giotto died after he had only completed the bottom level - which features green,red and white marble (see opposite). The architect of the south doors, Andrea Pisano, continued Giotto's designed exactly as Giotto had wished, however with the Black Plague in 1348 he stopped.

It wasn't until 1359, that Francesco Talenti completed the bell tower. He did not stick to Giotto's plans, who wished for a spire with which the tower would reach 122 metres, but instead left it flat. However, today you can walk up the tower and experience the best views of Florence.

4. The Interior

Arnolfo di Cambio also did the design for the inside of the church. He planned three main sections, known as 'naves' (see left). All the three naves lead up an area just before the altar, which is under the Dome. After Arnolfo died, the designs changed hands several times and mostly stayed true to his idea as it was carried out. Namely, the architect Giotto was appointed in 1334, and he designed the Campanile.

In 1349, the designs were continued by Francesco Talenti (who also finished the campanile). He enlarged the designs and included the apse (at the front), and created side chapels along the side naves. These side-chapels are sort of large scale niches often with mini-altars devoted to various saints.

Around the cathedral are many artworks honouring great men of Florence, for example, Dante and Niccolo da Tolentino (the commander shown in Uccello's 'Battle of San Romano').

TOP TIP: As you walk in, turn around as behind you above the main door is a huge clock by Uccello with portraits of Prophets. It is an extraordinary clock as it only has one hand and shows 24 hours ending at sunset - the timetable used until the 18th Century.

The altar is dedicated to St. Zanobius, the first bishop of Florence. It was designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. In the centre the artwork depicts one of his miracles - reviving a dead child and contains an urn of his relics. Above the altar is an artwork of the Last Supper by Giovanni Balducci.

Just above you, before the altar, is the inside of the dome. Originally supposed to be designed with a mosaic, Cosimo de Medici had the dome painted with the Last Judgement. This was finally completed in 1579 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari. Starting from the top down, the circles depict the 24 Elders of Apoc, Choirs of Angels, Christ with Mary and Saints, Virtues, Gifts of the Holy Spirit and Beatitudes, and lastly, Capital Sins and Hell.

5. The Dome:

Designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi - see post here.

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Florence Cathedral was built on top of an ancient cathedral from the 4th Century dedicated to St. Reparata (a 3rd Century Christian matyr). However in 1296, Arnolfo di Cambio began to re-build it in Gothic style.When di Cambio died the cathedral construction exchanged hands many times, and it took almost 150 years for the old cathedral to be completely re-built.

In 1418 the Arte della Lana arranged a competition for the dome to be erected which Brunelleschi won with Lorenzo Ghiberti as his main two competitor. The dome was finally finished in 1436, and was the largest dome in the world until recently, and is still the largest brick dome at 45 metres wide.

Filippo Brunelleschi and his team build the dome without any temporary supporting frame which would have been unthinkable at the time. It was also the first octagonal dome, most probably inspired by the Pantheon (a circular dome, with support structures) which Brunelleschi would have seen when he visited Rome.

PART 2 - The final part of the Florence Cathedral is the Bapistery. I have split this blog post into two parts as it was getting a little long and confusing!

See part 2: here.

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