April 16 found us in the port of Livorno, the access point for a number of cities in Tuscany. Since neither of us had been to Florence in decades we decided to spend the day there. We signed up for a bus transfer that would drop us off & pick us up about 6 hours later, much as we had done in Rome the day before. Again this worked out very well for us.
The Renaissance began in Florence around the beginning of the 15th century. It was characterized by a new interest in science and classical Greek & Roman culture, along with a more humanistic worldview softening the church’s domination of culture. Florence was an independent city state that would come to be dominated by the Medici family, bankers who were among the richest families in Europe. The Medici’s (and other wealthy families) became patrons of Florentine art during the Renaissance period, which helped enable the artists to expand from the previous focus on religious art to decorate religious buildings.
Leaving our transfer group in Piazza Santa Croce, we walked up to the Piazza del Duomo to see the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (usually called “Il Duomo” because of its spectacular dome), the largest building in Florence & one of the most important architectural achievements of the Renaissance. Construction of the cathedral began in 1296 on the foundation of an earlier cathedral. The original model for the cathedral included an octagonal dome some 144 feet wide, with no buttresses, but no one knew how to build one. Thus in 1418, with a huge hole in the roof of the cathedral, a competition was initiated to select an architect to build this, particularly difficult because there was not enough wood in Tuscany to build a scaffolding to hold it up during construction. The story is told that Brunelleschi won the competition by proposing during a meeting that anyone who could make an egg stand on end on a piece of marble should get the commission. The egg went around the table with everyone failing, then Brunelleschi smashed one end of the egg on the marble & placed it there upright. “We could have done that,” the others protested, but Brunelleschi replied “You could have, but you didn’t. You could build the dome as well, if you knew my secret plans for it.”
The dome was completed in 1436. Brunelleschi essentially invented the engineering techniques that together enabled it to be built without scaffolding & ensure that it did not collapse of its own weight for lack of external supports. Notable were the double dome design, in which the thicker internal dome was used to support a thin outer dome; the circular supports embedded in the dome at regular intervals; and the herringbone design of the brickwork that helped support it as it was built. He also invented a new type of pulley apparatus to lift the heavy stones to the top along with other novel tools. This is still the largest masonry dome in the world & has influenced the building of innumerable later domes, including the U.S. Capitol. The marble lantern on top of the dome, also designed by Brunelleschi, was completed in 1469. The original 14th century façade was dismantled in the late 16th century, but was not replaced until 1887. This neo-gothic façade is made of red, green & white marble & is dramatic in effect, though some think it too busy.
Before visiting the cathedral itself, however, we visited the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Duomo museum) across the street behind the cathedral. This museum is devoted largely to artifacts from the Duomo & its Baptistry, moved here either after being displaced by renovations or for preservation. The museum building was originally constructed in the 14th century to house offices and workshops connected with the construction work on the Duomo & several Renaissance artists created well known sculptures there. It has been a museum since the 1890’s, but was reopened in October, 2015 – just 6 months before we visited — in a greatly expanded & updated form. It is well worth a visit, even if you have been there before this expansion. As you can see from the pictures just above, there is an outdoor viewing space on the museum’s roof with a fine view of the cathedral’s dome.
On the first floor is a long room that has been built on one side as a duplicate of the original pre-Renaissance façade of the cathedral that was torn down in the 16th century. The façade replica is all gray, but many of the original statues & decorations have been placed in their original positions on the façade. The original façade only covered the first story of the building, so this reproduces just about all of it.
The wall on the other side of the room contains the gilded bronze doors from all three of the entrances to the Baptistry of the cathedral. The first set of doors was made by Andrea Pisano in the mid-14th century (these do not appear to have been installed yet in the space reserved for them). The second set was made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, who won a competition (against Brunelleschi & Donatello, among others) in 1401, at the age of 21, and spent the next 21 years completing the doors. Some historians date the beginning of the Renaissance from the panels submitted by Ghiberti & Brunelleschi for this competition. In 1425 Ghiberti was commissioned to create the third set of doors, which make extensive use of perspective to give a new depth to his reliefs. All of these doors were replaced with copies on the Baptistry itself in 1990 to preserve them from further damage after 500 years of exposure to the elements. Some of the individual panels had been on display individually in the museum, but now they have been restored to their full glory in three fully reconstructed sets of doors.
Ghiberti’s first set of doors consist of 28 panels. The first 20 panels depict the life of Jesus & the lower eight show the four evangelists & Saints Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory & Augustine. The figures look natural in their movement in a way that was new * characteristic of the Renaissance. These doors made Ghiberti a celebrity. Note that the doors are behind glass that reflects the room, so the pictures are not very clear.
Ghiberti’s second set of doors depict stories from the Old Testament. The gilded bronze panels on these doors are much larger and the relief extends to the edges of the rectangles, rather than being confined inside a decorative outline as on the more traditional first set of doors. Moreover, they move in time in that some panels include more than one episode from the story they depict. There is also a new depth to the scenes, created using perspective & different depth of relief for the figures & the backgrounds. Michelangelo said these were fit to be the “Gates of Paradise,” and that is generally how they are referred to today.
Each door had a set of three sculptures above the entrance. Above the Pisano gate was “The Beheading of St John the Baptist,” sculpted in 1521 by Vincenso Danti. Above the Gates of Paradise was “The Baptism of Christ” sculpted by Andrea Sansovino in 1505. Above Ghiberti’s original prize winning gate was “John the Baptist Preaching to a Pharisee & Sadducee,” completed in 1509 by Francesco Rustici with the possible assistance of Leonardo da Vinci. The originals are all now mounted above their respective gates in the museum.
. Other things in this room of the museum include some Roman sarcophagi that stood in the square between the cathedral & the baptistry for centuries & some other statues. There are also windows from the upper floors from which you can get a closer view of some of the elevated statues. Altogether, this room makes for quite an experience.
Upstairs we saw Brunelleschi’s wooden model for the dome & his later one for the lantern. There is also a wooden model for the proposed new façade of the cathedral made in the late 16th century by Bernardo Buontalenti, but never actually built.
There were many more ancient artifacts in the museum, including architectural details replaced by later renovations & even some early 16th century hand drawn sheet music decorated with painting.
Two of the most striking sculptures in the museum to us were by Donatello & Michelangelo. Donatello’s wooden “Penitent Magdalene” was sculpted in the mid 1450’s when Donatello was in his 60’s. At that time it was unprecedented for its realism, eschewing the usual portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a beauty for a haggard depiction. It once stood in the Baptistry & may have been commissioned for it. It was damaged in the flood of 1966 and has been beautifully restored for placement in the museum.
Michelangelo’s “The Deposition,” also known as the “Florentine Pieta,” is entirely unlike the one in Rome that he sculpted in his 20’s. He began this sculpture at the age of 72 & worked on it for 8 years. Supposedly he intended it for his tomb. The face of the standing figure (Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea) is thought to be a self portrait. The other three figures are Mary, Jesus & Mary Magdalene. Then one night, for reasons that are unclear, he destroyed it in a fit of frustration, breaking off limbs & other parts. It was purchased by one Francesco Bandini who hired a young apprentice sculptor to restore the piece. Working from Michelangelo’s models he reattached the limbs of Mary Magdalene, the fingers of Jesus’s mother, and Jesus’s left arm, elbow & left nipple. He did not reattach Jesus’s left leg (which originally lay over his mother’s lap) or finish the uncompleted parts that still have chisel marks, but he did add the Mary Magdalene figure. The work spent time in several museums before ending up in this one.
Leaving he museum we walked around to the front of the cathedral and joined a moderate line to enter the interior. It took a little longer than it should have because irritatingly, guides with groups of tourists were allowed to bypass the regular line & gain almost immediate admittance. But it wasn’t too long before we were inside.
The cathedral, or Duomo, is more than 500 feet long and 125 feet wide while the top of the lantern is more than 375 feet above the ground. The bronze doors were made at the turn of the 20th century Above each door is a semicircular mosaic and at the top of the façade is a row of niche sculptures of the apostles flanking a sculpture of mother & child. The piazza was pretty crowded, & across from the cathedral we could see the 13th century Loggia del Bigallo which was something of an orphanage, where lost & unwanted children were accepted for care.
The interior is vast, the supporting arches stretching 75 feet high. There is a liturgical clock over the entrance with one hand, divided into 24 hours that went from sundown to sundown. This is how Italians kept time until the 18th century. The marble floor is colorful and varied in pattern. In the crypt below the cathedral you can see the archaeological remains of the previous cathedral on this site (built in the 5th century) along with other interesting exhibits. When we were there a mass was in progress in the chapel on one side of the transept.
The inside of Brunelleschi’s great dome is covered with frescos depicting “The Last Judgment,” finished in 1570 after 11 years’ work by Giorgio Vasari & Federico Zuccari. The painting covers almost 39,000 square feet. It was restored in 1995 but we saw some alarming looking cracks when we were there.
Next to the Duomo, to the right of the doors as you face them, is the bell tower originally designed by the painter Giotto. This free standing campanile is covered with red, green & white marble decoration similar to that of the cathedral, although it predates the cathedral façade by 500 years. It is more than 275 feet tall and you can climb to the top for a panoramic view of the city (we didn’t). Only the first story was finished when Giotto died in 1337 and it was completed by Andrea Pisano and later Francesco Talenti (the top 3 stories). by 1359. The top 3 levels with windows were designed using perspective, so that each level is larger than the lower one. From the ground, this makes them all look about the same size.
Across the piazza from the front of the Duomo is the Baptistry of St John, for which the three sets of gilded bronze doors shown previously were made. Constructed from 1059 to 1128 on the foundations of a Roman building, this is the oldest building in Florence. It is octagonal Romanesque in design & has a green & white marble design that harmonizes with the cathedral & Giotto’s tower. Once the Cathedral was built the Baptistry served as (obviously) the location for baptisms, and all Catholics in Florence were baptised there until the end of the 19th century. Newly baptised Catholics could proceed directly across the piazza to participate in their first Eucharist. Somehow we neglected to take a separate picture of this remarkable building (doh!), but here is one that includes part of it in the foreground along with the Duomo & Giotto’s tower in the back, showing how the three buildings form a harmonious whole around the piazza..
On the inside of the Baptistry is an apse with an altar & lined with 13th century mosaics. There is a gallery around the inside above the main floor with windows also decorated with mosaics.
The ceiling is covered with mosaics, begun in 1270 and completed in the 14th century. Venetian craftsmen created the mosaics in Venetian glass based on designs by local artists. Various religious scenes are included, including the story of Adam & Eve & the punishments of hell (part of the Last Judgment) shown below. Thankfully, there are chairs arrayed in front of the altar that enable a visitor to sit down & lean his head far enough back to take in the whole ceiling.
We walked down Via de’ Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria, considered the civic center of the city. This main street connecting the religious & civic centers of the city was once filled with traffic, but today it and the two piazzas it connects are reserved for pedestrians, making all of this area very pleasant for walking. This street is a high fashion shopping area as well.
Two buildings dominate the Piazza della Signoria. The Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”) is a fortress-like building with a crenelated roof & a bell tower that can be seen far & wide. It was built by the Medici’s in 1322 above the ruins of a 1st century Roman theater. It was the city hall then & is the city hall now. The entrance says (in Latin) “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” with a monogram of Christ above it and flanked by lions. On one side of the entrance is a copy of Michelangelo’s David; the original stood here until 1873 when it was moved to a museum for safekeeping. On the other side is Bandinelli’s sculpture of Hercules and Cacus. To the left of the building is the 1565 Fontana di Nettuna (fountain of Neptune). whose face is said to resemble Cosimo I de Medici. The book burning monk Savonarola was burned in front of this fountain in 1498.
Next to the Palazzo on your right is the Loggia dei Lanzi. It was built in 1382 for public ceremonies and gatherings. Today it is an open air sculpture gallery with three large open arches facing the Piazza. Along the back wall is a row of Roman sculptures, perhaps of emperors, brought back from Rome by one of the Medici’s. In front are two notable sculptures. First, Giambologna’s 1580’s “The Rape Of the Sabines” includes three twisting figures carved from a single block of flawed marble. On the arm of the bottom figure is an electrical wire that keeps pigeons away. Second is Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze “Perseus” of 1553, portrayed with sword in one hand and the head of Medusa in the other. Cellini spent 10 years creating this sculpture.
From here we walked down to the Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”). There has been a bridge at this spot since Roman times & the current one was built in 1345. This bridge over the Arno River is famously lined on both sides with shops. Originally these were mostly butchers & tanners. But in 1565 the Medici’s moved from the Palazzo Vecchio across the river to the Pitti Palace. The commissioned Vasari to build an elevated corridor over this bridge & connecting these two buildings, so they could walk between their residence & the city hall without encountering ordinary people on the streets. They didn’t like the smell from the butchers & tanners, so in 1593 they were banned & the bridge was occupied by gold merchants, who dominate the shops here to this day. The Vasari Corridor can still be seen above the shops on one side of the bridge and on the other side is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, not only an important sculptor but one of the most prominent goldsmiths in the city. This was the only bridge in Florence that was not demolished by the retreating Nazi’s at the end of World War II, although they demolished the medieval buildings at each end to make it unusable. Some say this was on Hitler’s orders, others that the officer ordered to demolish it chose not to carry through. This is a popular tourist stop & was quite crowded when we were there.
From here we walked to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (National Central Library), the largest library in Italy, which is not far from where we were to meet our group for the transfer back to the port. This library was founded in 1714 & the current building near the river bank was completed in 1935. Since 1870 it has received copies of all publications in Italy. The flood of 1966 damaged about a third of the library’s holdings, but many of these items were subsequently repaired in the library’s Restoration Center. Sadly, the library was closed when we got there (we probably should have visited there first), but the building is quite impressive from the outside.
We walked up the street a couple of blocks (past a gelato shop we would visit a little later) to the Basilica of Santa Croce, fronting on the piazza that bears its name where we were to meet our group. This is the largest Franciscan church in the world. It was begun in 1294 and consecrated in 1442. Like the Duomo, its Neo-Gothic façade was added in the mid 19th century. It was designed by a Jewish architect named Niccolo Matas, which may explain why there is a Star of David prominently displayed near the top above the main entrance. Matas had wanted to be buried in the church but because he was Jewish he was buried under the porch rather than inside. The bell tower behind the church was built in 1842, after an earlier one was damaged by lightning.
The inside of the church is very large and open, with several chapels on each side of the altar. All are lush with 14th century frescoes.
Santa Croce was a favored burial place for the rich & famous of Florence. The tombs lining the walls of Santa Croce include such luminaries as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo & the composer Rossini. Michelangelo died in Rome but a group of Florentines broke into the Roman church where he was buried & smuggled him back to Florence, where he was interred here in 1570 in a tomb designed by Vasari. Galileo died in 1542 but was denied burial in the church because of his condemnation for heresy, but he was moved into his tomb in the church’s wall in 1737. Machiavelli was not entombed in the wall until 1787 even though he died in 1527. Rossini died in 1868 but his monument wasn’t created until 1900. There are also monuments on the wall to famous Italians who are buried elsewhere, including Dante Alighieri (exiled from Florence & buried in Ravenna in 1321), nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi & the inventor of radio, Guglielmo Marconi. There is also a well known relief of the Annunciation in gilded limestone by Donatello. The floor contains the tops of a number of other tombs (see first picture in the group above), but the guide on our transfer bus told us that the 1966 flood caused so much damage to the church that the bones in the floor were all mixed together so that today there are no remains left in these graves.
The wall of the church also displayed an interesting pipe organ originally built in 1579. We left the church into the courtyard through the porch of the Pazzi Chapel. Originally designed by Brunelleschi and completed in the mid 15th century, this is considered something of an early Renaissance masterpiece. The decorations inside the cupola of the porch were done by Luca della Robbia. Behind the chapel was a good view of the bell tower, and the piazza was viewable through the wrought iron doors of the courtyard.
We walked back down to the gelato shop & had some delicious gelato cones (they are always delicious), then back to the Piazza Santa Croce to meet our group for the bus trip back to the dock. Amazingly, for the second day in a row everyone was back on time! So we walked to the bus (the driver picked us up a good bit closer than is allowed so we wouldn’t have to walk so far) & headed into the hills outside the city. We saw a portion of the 14th century city walls and rove through one of the gates. There were also some nice views from the hills, but the best was at Piazzale Michelangelo, a hillside plaza built in 1869. The best views would have been from the edge of this plaza, but unfortunately our bus only slowed down & didn’t stop. Still, not bad for a last view of Florence.