In keeping with the Italian, and especially the Tuscan pattern, the cathedral of Florence (Santa Maria del Fiore) consists of three independent elements: baptistery, campanile and dome. The baptistery of St John, which was originally a cathedral, is the hub of the Christian city. It dates from somewhere between the 6th and the 11th centuries, and its design, which is so similar to that of the Pantheon in Rome, clearly shows the influence of Antiquity. Its octagonal shape imparts a closed mood, a secret majesty further ennobled by the mosaics of the cupola.
The glory of the baptistery owes more, however, to the exterior, with its harmonious marbles and particularly the gilded bronze panels of its three doors. They were made between 1330 and 1452, the first by Andrea Pisano and the rest by Ghiberti. From one century to the next, the craft of the sculptor had passed from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, with the proliferation of its imagination and its symbols.
The elegant simplicity of the baptistery of St John contrasts with the facade of Santa Maria del Fiore, which was left unfinished for many years, repeatedly remodeled and eventually decorated late in the 19th century with a profusion of motifs, niches and pediments. As soon as we pass through the door, which is thought to have been designed by Lorenzo the Magnificent, we find ourselves facing the massive and imposing nave. Santa Maria del Fiore is the biggest church in Italy, and also one of the most severe, one whose starkness is in sharp contrast with its wealth of exterior decoration. It is a meeting place rather than a house of prayer: a closed place, heavily laden with history. One can imagine Giuliano de Medici breathing his last, as he lay dying from the assassins’ daggers, while Lorenzo fled from the choir to the sacristy; or Savonarola terrorizing and dominating the crowds which were packed into the huge church. The large frescoes of mounted condottiere which adorn the walls also emphazize the grimness of Santa Maria del Fiore, whose name is such a misleading guide as to its true character. If Mary is present here at all, it is the Mary of Sorrows, who, with Mary Magdalen and Nicodemus holds the dead body of Christ in the admirable Pieta in the transept, which, like so many of his other works, Michelangelo was unable to complete.
The sole justification for the campanile is its nobility and its beauty. The actual purpose for which it was commissioned was to ensure that it would “surpass in magnificence, in height and in perfection whatever the Romans and the Greeks might have done in this king of architecture.” This task was entrusted to Giotto. He drew up the plans in 1334, but died two years later; and, as in the case of the dome, his work was continued by Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti. The campanile is a geometric symphony of white Carrara marble, green Prato marble and pink Maremma marble, highlighted by sculptural variations: Pisano’s low reliefs, executed, it is generally believed, from Giotto’s drawings. Mythological scenes, allegories and symbols, peasants at work in the fields, the rhythm of the seasons… The niches were once adorned with statues by Donatelli, which can now be seen in the Museo del Opera del Duomo.
The Santa Maria del Fiore is undoubtedly one of Italy’s most incredible buildings, drawing on rich architectural history and masonry skills to create a cathedral that not only the people of Florence can be proud of, but the whole of Italy. It is well worth exploring the inside of this incredible place and seeing the interior for yourself. It is simply breathtaking.