As is true in many historic Italian cities, the Duomo (cathedral) is part of a group of associated buildings, including a Baptistery, a Bell Tower, and a Museum.
The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in Florence – construction started in the middle of the 11th C. The building, like many medieval baptisteries, is in the shape of an octagon (signifying the 7 days of biblical Creation plus the 8th day, which is Paradise). The interior is most notable for its magnificent 13th C mosaic ceiling, featuring a depiction of the Last Judgment, Heaven and Hell, and Biblical stories on seven concentric circles. As always, the depictions of Satan and the damned are the most interesting, although Christ’s feet are pretty wild.
Many famous Florentines were baptized here, including Dante Alighieri. Maybe when they were splashing water over his face, he looked up, saw the multiple levels of the afterlife, and thought, “Maybe I’ll write a poem about that someday”?
In 1401, the city announced a competition for the design of new doors for the Baptistery. The jury eventually awarded the commission to two young artists: an architect named Filippo Brunelleschi and a goldsmith/sculptor named Lorenzo Ghiberti. Brunelleschi’s ego apparently got in the way of his being a collaborator, so he dropped out; he later built the famous Dome next door.
Ghiberti was only 21 when he received this commission, and he spent the better part of his life working on the Baptistery. After spending 21 years completing the first set of doors, he received a commission for a second set of doors, which took a further 27 years to complete. Fortunately he lived to be 77. He set up a whole workshop to execute the project on which many younger artists trained – one reason why the date of this contest is sometimes used as the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance. Michelangelo was so impressed by the second set of doors that he called them the Gates of Paradise.
The 1966 flood ripped the doors from their moorings and sent them sailing down the city’s narrow streets, sometimes with their panels detached. Fortunately, all the panels were recovered, and the original doors, now restored, are preserved in the Museum across the piazza.
Museo del Opere del Duomo
Many of Europe’s great cathedrals have moved their important works to special museums, located like this one not far from the cathedral itself. Few such museums, however, have the richness of this particular collection, which includes the originals of both sets of Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Donatello’s haunting depiction of Mary Magdalene as a penitent hermit, and Michelangelo’s last Pietà, in which the artist uses his own face as the face of Nicodemus.
The museum also includes a lot of sculptures that used to appear in various spots inside and outside the church, often at great heights. These pieces are now displayed indoors where ordinary mortals can actually see them.
One of the most unusual pieces is the altar of St. John the Baptist, which was executed by master Florentine silversmiths over the span of more than a century. I’m betting medieval visitors went straight for the scene with St. John’s head on a plate, just as we did.
Since most of the best work that used to be in the Duomo is now in the Museum, the interior of the Duomo itself seems very bare. Fortunately, it is now possible to climb Brunelleschi’s Dome from the inside. A catwalk along the inside of the dome allows you to view Vasari’s dramatic Last Judgment frescoes up close. Once again, the artist seems to be having more fun drawing the damned than the saved. The final ascent, up what was originally a workmens’ staircase, emerges in the lantern above the dome, which offers spectacular views of the city.