You’ll probably head first to the cathedral itself (the ‘duomo’) but exploring the area around Florence cathedral will allow you to see the other three main attractions in the square. The campanile (bell-tower) and the baptistery are historical sites in their own right, both closely linked to the duomo. And inside the Opera del Duomo Museum you’ll find many gorgeous artworks, including original works from the cathedral building, and pieces by top artists like Michelangelo and Donatello.
the campanile (bell-tower)
The lovely pink and white marble building, standing tall next to the cathedral, is the Bell Tower. It was begun in 1334 by the artist Giotto, although not finished until after his death. In fact, at that point, recalculations were done and, for fear that the tower was going to teeter, the thickness of the base walls was doubled. But the beautiful design is still Giotto’s. He insisted it should be 80m high, twice the height usually permitted by the authorities, so that it would make a grand statement.
Climb the 441 steps for wonderful views of the city and the chance to take close-up pictures of the cathedral. The statues decorating the outside of the tower are copies, because the originals are now in the museum to keep them safe from weather destruction. They illustrate man’s journey from original sin to divine grace through, for example, manual labour, the arts, the sacraments and the influence of the planets. It’s a building which gives you an insight into medieval Florence.
The Baptistery is an octagonal domed building, built 200 years before the cathedral, but decorated on the outside in the same green and white marble. It was completed in 1128 and is dedicated to John the Baptist. A law passed in the 15th century decreed that all babies born in Florence had to be registered here within 60 hours of their birth. This was done by leaving a bean in an urn inside the building – black for a boy and white for a girl – and on March 25th every year, all the babies born that year would be brought here to be baptised.
Inside, you can still see the font which was used for this annual ceremony. Look out too for the elaborate mosaic ceiling, worked on by many different artists for more than a century, whose concentric circles tell bible stories including that of John the Baptist. It’s so striking that Dan Brown mentioned it specifically in Inferno. Legend, he explained, says that ‘it is physically impossible, upon entering the Baptistry of San Giovanni, not to look up’ and when his hero Robert Langdon went inside, he ‘felt the mystical pull of the space, and let his gaze climb skyward to the ceiling.’
The doors to the baptistery were designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, who spent 20 years on them. Later, the originals were moved to the nearby Museum of Opera Works after flood damage, and these are copies. Ghiberti’s 28 gilded bronze panels tell the story of the life of Jesus, from the angel announcing his birth to the crucifixion and the resurrection. The relief drawings, done in the early 15th century, caused astonishment because Ghiberti had given his figures real personality, unlike artists before him whose work was more representational. Michelangelo, no less, said of them that ‘They are so beautiful that they might be the gates of paradise’
the opera del duomo museum
Building the cathedral dome was said to be an impossibility and if you are intrigued to know how Brunelleschi did it, then you will find a display explaining it all at the Opera del Duomo Museum. Also there are the originals of precious artworks from the cathedral and the bell tower, moved here to protect them and replaced by copies in the original locations. So, you can see the original Baptistery doors in their gilded bronze splendour and, in a long room called the ‘Galleria del Campanile’ a display of life-size statues from the Bell Tower. In fact, here you get a much better view of them than you would from gazing up at them in their original setting.
Also in the museum are some of the city’s best-known artworks, including Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, made when the artist was aged 70. This haunting wooden carving of Mary, ‘dressed’ in long tresses of her hair, depicts her as a prayerful, penitent sinner. Also here is one of Michelangelo’s Pietas, a statue showing Mary cradling the dead Christ, with the elderly Nicodemus standing beside them. It’s thought that Nicodemus was modelled on Michelangelo himself and that the artist intended the piece for his own tomb. But he lost patience with it when he found a flaw in the marble and broke off the figure’s arm. The statue was eventually completed by one of his students.
These three buildings – the cathedral, the baptistery and the museum – combine to give a good picture of Florence in its medieval heyday. This period was also marked by the Black Death, when 60% of the city’s population are thought to have died. There is more about this gruesome period, drawing on the descriptions left by Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through it in Florence, on the podcast.
Listen to the POdcast
Florence, the Biography of a City by Christopher Hibbert