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Building of the Week: Florence Cathedral, Italy

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

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An artist's conception of the finished cathedral, 1390
Andrea di Bonauito
One of the biggest triumphs of Renaissance architecture as well as one of the most important domed structures in the world, Florence Cathedral (also known as “Il Duomo” and, officially, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore) is the work of history’s most celebrated architects and artists over several centuries.


The jewel in the sparkling crown that is Florence, Italy, the basilica is known for its brilliant multi-colored marble façade, its towering campanile and, especially, its massive octagonal dome. At the center of Florence’s artistic and religious life, the basilica represents some of the most radical thinking in the history of architecture.

Prior to 1296, the site was the home of a different cathedral dedicated to Santa Reparata which had been founded in the early Fifth Century. By the Thirteenth Century, the cathedral had begun to crumble after eight hundred years of use. The need for a new cathedral had become urgent as the population of Florence continued to grow. To make matters worse, Sienna and Pisa had begun new cathedral complexes and Florence was not about to be outdone.

In 1296, Arnolfo di Cambio, the architect of Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio, had been commissioned to design the new structure. He envisioned a wide basilica with a tall octagonal dome. Though he hadn’t quite worked out the mechanics of the enormous dome (such a feat of architecture without the aid of wooden supports hadn’t been attempted since the Pantheon), Arnolfo’s plan was approved and construction began two years later. Sadly, Arnolfo died eight years later.

After Arnolfo’s death in 1302, construction of the cathedral nearly came to a halt for thirty years. His design was complicated and no one was quite sure how to approach the project—especially that pesky dome. In 1330, relics of San Zenobius were discovered in Santa Reparata (which still hadn’t been pulled down and was sitting in the middle of the construction site). This discovery escalated the need for the work on the cathedral to continue so that the increased number of pilgrims visiting the site could be accommodated. Famous architect and artist Giotto took over the project and worked steadily on it until a little trouble hit Italy in the form of the Black Plague in 1348.

Giotto’s death in 1337 meant that his assistant, Andrea Pisano, would have to take over. However, Giotto did manage to complete the campanile and several other structural elements following the original designs of Arnolfo di Cambio.

Several other architects manned the project over the following decades. By 1375, Santa Reparata was finally pulled down. And, by 1418, all but the dome had been completed.

Ah, the dome. That was a problem. How would it stand without wooden supports? How would it be constructed? As was often the practice of the time, a structural design competition was held to see who could complete the dome. The search was narrowed down to two people—both famous names: Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti (who designed the ornamental doors to the Baptistry). Brunelleschi had the support of Cosimo de Medici, so naturally, he was awarded the commission. Work started on the dome in 1420 and took over sixteen years.

The Cathedral in 1880
The dome is constructed of a complicated series of bricks and mortar which is supported by metal and wooden bands within the masonry. A feat of engineering, the dome continues to dominate the skyline of Florence.

Though the cathedral was “open for business,” by the early Fifteenth Century, work continued on the decorative marble façade well into the 1880’s. Similarly, the gorgeous stained glass windows and numerous sculptures were also added over time. Despite the impressive architecture of the basilica, the interior is rather Spartan compared to others of the era—allowing for the building to speak for itself.

Today, Florence Cathedral remains one of the most impressive architectural accomplishments in history. It will forever be a symbol of the ingenuity of the Renaissance and of the arts of Italy. To learn more about Il Duomo, this Web site can offer you a lot of great information.





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