Florence's Piazza del Duomo

One thousand years of history in a single shot.

Technically this photo was taken from Piazza di San Giovanni (Saint John Square), which is adjacent to Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square)...but let's just view the whole Duomo complex as belonging to Piazza del Duomo. In front, on the left, is the Baptistery. In the early centuries of Christian history, when most new Christians were adults who were converted from Judaism or from some pagan belief, baptisms were performed just a few times each year, with large numbers of new followers being baptized at once.

Persecuted for almost three centuries after Christ, Christians met in secret, often in homes or in the woods, so early baptisms were performed in nearby rivers or lakes. The first churches didn’t appear until after Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century AD. In some of these new churches, especially here in Tuscany, baptisms were done is a separate structure. These are always in close proximity to the cathedral, since the bishop performed all baptisms personally. This is the place were every Florentine was baptized, right up into the 1800’s. It’s the oldest building in Florence, constructed in the 11th century on the foundations of a 1st century Roman building (probably a guard tower along the old Roman city wall). Note the octagonal shape, a common design in ancient Roman times.

In 1401 the Guild of Cloth Importers decided to beautify the baptistery by paying for a set of bronze doors. They held a competition which drew entries from the likes of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, and Filippo Brunelleschi. The winner of the competition, though, was 21-year old Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti spent 21 years working on these doors, and by the time he was done he was the most famous artist in Florence. In 1425 Ghiberti was given the commission for a second set of doors, to feature scenes from the Old Testament.

In the years that Ghiberti was working on the first set of doors, huge advances had been made in the art of perspective. Here Ghiberti was finally able to put this new knowledge to use, combining vanishing points, low relief and almost free-standing figures to create an incredible sense of depth and space. Michelangelo said they were good enough to be the Gates of Paradise.

Ghiberti spent 27 years working on this set of doors. That’s 48 years all together when you count the first set, so it’s fitting that he left a little of himself in his life’s work. Look at the heads sticking out of the portholes, where the two doors meet. Count the panels from the bottom, and between the second and third panels on the left you’ll see a guy with a shiny, bald head. That’s Lorenzo Ghiberti.

The cathedral itself is officially known as Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower). The cornerstone was laid in 1296 on the site of an earlier church from the 5th century. Up until the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, this was the largest church in Europe – over 500 feet long, and 300 feet wide at the transept. It took over 100 years of construction through a succession of architects, but by 1418 it was basically finished – all except for the dome. The marble decorations on the front are from a facelift given to the cathedral in the late 1800's.

The plans called for a dome larger than any that had been built since Roman times. The only existing dome large enough to draw inspiration from was the Pantheon in Rome, and it had been cast in concrete, supported by a wooden form while the concrete dried. Because of the size and height of Florence’s church, there was not enough timber in Tuscany to construct the scaffolding and form to support such a construction.

Churches in the north used exterior flying buttresses to support their domes and prevent them from spreading outwards, but the plans for Florence’s dome specifically forbid the use of flying buttresses, which they rejected as ‘Gothic’ (ie, barbarian ­– the Goths were a barbarian Germanic tribe). The dome of Florence was to be free-standing. The problem was, nobody knew quite how to build the thing.

A contest was held – Florence was big on contests – and the winner this time was Filippo Brunelleschi. He built a scale model with just enough detail to show his ideas, without giving away all of his secrets. Filippo wanted to remain in control of the project. His ideas were simple, but ingenious. The white ribs you see are like a skeleton, with the bottom segment of each rib locked into the base, and each segment above specially designed to lock into the one below it. They carry very little weight, and are essentially self-supporting until they all meet in the ring at the top, crowned by the lantern.

Going around the octagonal dome, and invisible to us today, are four stone and iron chains that act like giant barrel hoops, that prevented the dome from spreading as stone and mortar were added to fill in the fabric of the roof between the ribs. The whole thing weighs 37,000 tons, and required more than 4 million bricks. The dome is actually a double shell, and can be climbed. Notice the people up around the lantern. For most of the climb you’re actually inside the two shells, and in parts have to lean slightly due to the curvature of the dome. It’s 463 steps up, why not give it a try? No, there’s no elevator.

If the dome is a little too much, you can always climb the neighboring bell tower, designed by Giotto, a famous artist who was also one of the early architects that worked on the church. The bell tower is only 414 steps. No elevator there, either. The picture above was taken from the top of the tower.

I can’t over emphasize just how important this dome was to the Renaissance. For more than a thousand years the people of Italy had been living in the shadow of Rome’s greatness. They were like pygmies, living in filth and squalor while surrounded by the ruins a civilization built by giants. The successful construction of this dome created a spirit of hope and optimism, a can-do attitude that propelled the Renaissance.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Florence's Ponte Vecchio, as seen from the top floor of the Uffizi Gallery.

From here you can see the River Arno through Florence. The river starts in the mountains to the east, flows through Florence, on towards Pisa, and into the Mediterranean. Florence has a historic rivalry with Pisa, and right up until the 20th century Florentines gleefully dumped garbage and sewage into the river, knowing that it would eventually end up in Pisa.

From this vantage point it's easy to make out a 'secret' passageway, hidden in plain sight. It juts out from the Uffizi, crosses the street, then turns and follows the line of the river, forming an arcaded passage below. When the elevated walkway reaches the Ponte Vecchio, it turns and also crosses the bridge. You can recognize it by the evenly spaced series of porthole-like windows on the second story. On the other side of the bridge the walkway continues on for another 900 feet – the length of three football fields ­– passing right through houses and a church en route to the Pitti Palace. Known as the Vasari Corridor (after designer Giorgio Vasari, who also designed the Uffizi), this enclosed walkway was built in 1565 to connect the main residence of the Medici Grand Dukes with their offices in the Uffizi. It provided a convenient way to commute from home to work without getting cold, rained on, or assassinated. On their daily commute to work the Medici could enjoy the great works of art which lined the interior walls of the walkway. Power has its privileges.

The appropriately named Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Florence and the only one with buildings on it. Throughout most of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance the bridge housed a meat market and a tannery. That is, until the Corridor was built. You can imagine what the smell must have been like, wafting up into the passage on a warm summer afternoon. Realizing that jewelry stores tend to smell much better than slaughter houses, the Medici kicked out the meat mongers and brought in goldsmiths.

In the closing months of World War II, as the Allies were advancing up the peninsula, the German commander in charge of Florence was given orders to blow all of the bridges on the Arno to slow the Allied advance. The only exception was the Ponte Vecchio, allegedly under direct orders from Hitler, who had taken a fancy to the bridge when he visited Mussolini in Florence. Hitler was not exactly known for his sentimentality, so I don’t give a lot of credence to the story myself. Whatever the reason, the buildings on both sides of the river were blown, blocking the road, but leaving the bridge intact.

An annual event at Florence's Duomo

On the longest day of the year (June 21), the sun shines through a hole in a small metal disc – called a gnomon – mounted more than 275 feet up in the dome of Florence's cathedral. The sunlight passing through the gnomon creates a cricle of light, which lands on a metal meridian embedded in the cathedral floor. First installed in 1475, the gnomon helped to calculate dates, including the correct date for Easter each year. It was also used by a Jesuit priest in the 18th century to calculate that the axis of the earth's rotation was shifting.

If you happen to be in Florence in June, you can get a guided introduction to the gnomon by reserving a spot through the cathedral's website. If you're not lucky enough to be in Florence at this time, check out the video below.

The Grand Tour to Florence

The Grand Tour to Florence. Italy Timelapse & Hyperlapse from Kirill Neiezhmakov on Vimeo.

Secret Michelangelo room to open in Florence

The church of San Lorenzo in Florence was the 'home church' of the powerful Medici family. Located just across the square from their palace, the family lavished huge amounts of money on the church (though it's hard to tell from the plain stone and brick exterior), creating the Medici Chapel, an elaborately decorated space covered in marbles and semi-precious stones. Off to one side of the chapel is the New Sacristy, final resting place of some of the family's most illustrious members.

A favorite of Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo spent a good part of his youth living in the Medici family palace, and created four statues for the New Sacristy known as Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk. The Medici Chapel and New Sacristy opened to the public as a museum more than 100 years ago, but it wasn't until the 1970's that the director of the museum discovered a trap door that had been covered by a large cabinet. Beneath the trap door was a bare, small room. The walls were covered with charcoal drawings, almost certainly made by Michelangelo.

The room has remained off limits to the public since then, but finally plans are afoot to allow limited access to the site. Don't hold your breath – the planned opening isn't until 2020 – but something to look forward to for fans of Michelangelo's work.

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