I love the Duomo from top to bottom (almost); it is such a stupendous landmark in modern architecture and art. It is a breath-taking achievement casting a long and beautiful shadow over our collective art and cultural histories, and especially our legacies of architecture as much as it does over the city of Florence itself.
Starting at the top the dome as to be seen close up. This requires commitment and stamina. The climb up to the top needs a degree of physical and mental fitness. Do not attempt it if you are prone to claustrophobia or vertigo. Before you go up buy the guide book for the Duomo and read a little bout the dome of Filippo Brunelleschi the scientist, mathematician, engineer and artist who made it happen. Alternatively read the excellent short King Penguin book by Ross King: Brunelleschi's Dome.
King is a Renaissance expert and his book is rich in how Brunelleschi did it and it’s a truly breathtaking achievement: the work organisation, the engineering, the execution, the result. You can also pick up an excellent scholarly monograph (got it somewhere but not just to hand) on the creation of the Duomo’s dome in the many museums around Florence.
Inside the cathedral there is a collection of art to weep over. There is the stunning false statute to the English mercenary Sir John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello. Hawkwood was highly successful at staying alive and of being a winner. In those days mercenaries were very successful in fighting and mainly not getting killed. In death Hawkwood as a favoured adopted son of the Florentines was short changed out a bronze statue for a fresco; the almost sepia monochrome fresco does resemble a bronze and is stunning.
Frescos and sculptures abound and include works by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Michelangelo, Luca della Robia, and Michelino’s celebrated fresco celebrating one of Florence’s most famous sons: Dante and his most famous work the Divine Comedy.
The sheer volume and cool beauty of the Duomo is best appreciated by sitting and meditating and looking up and around you. Contemplate the wonderful space and volume that Brunelleschi's dome gives to the visitor, pilgrim, traveller and marvel.
And now to the outside: it is not high Renaissance but late 19th century kitsch of sorts completed in the early 20th century. (For the real Renaissance church front deal, go see Alberti’s wonderful façade of Santa Maria Novella.)
Once you have been around the inside suggest that you walk around the outside to fully appreciate the size and grandeur of the Duomo and to appreciate the dominance of the cathedral on the historic centre.
One final but important note: many of the Duomo’s original and most famous works are now in the protection of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. This often neglected but excellent Museum of the Works of the Duomo is full of models and works of art that are once graced the exterior of the cathedral and its’ interior. Visit the cathedral and you must visit it.
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