As promised, this week we’re bringing you inside the only structure in Piazza del Duomo that doesn’t charge – the cathedral itself.
Don’t be deterred by a long list of fees for supplemental Duomo fun. Yes, you have to pay to climb the inside of the dome (still awesome) or delve deeper into the ancient crypt (also awesome). But busting through the heavy bronze doors to explore inside this revered holy place? Totally free.
From the intricate wedding cake that is Santa Maria del Fiore’s façade, the church’s stark interior might give first time visitors a bit of a shock. The lack of decorations is not for lack of effort; masterpieces by the likes of Donatello and Luca della Robbia that originally filled the space have since made their way to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (we can’t tell you enough – go!).
There are still some fun things to explore inside, however.
1. Stained glass – As a Gothic cathedral, the heavy masonry is lightened by pointed arches and the extensive use of beautiful colored windows, executed in the mid 15th century. It was a massive undertaking to position, support, and secure over 40 stained-glass windows throughout the structure. In addition to the three rose windows in front, the lancet windows down the nave (the center aisle) and transept (the intersecting perpendicular aisle) depict Old and New Testament saints, while the lives Jesus and Mary are depicted in the ocular ones at the base of the dome. One neatly draws the conclusion that if your life is illuminated by these biblical greats, you too will be able to ascend (Vasari’s frescoed dome) to heaven. To ensure people got the picture, the windows were designed by Renaissance heavyweights – Donatello, Paolo Uccello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Andrea del Castagno (his Deposition is above), to name a few. We recommend walking the periphery of the church and letting the windows tell the story in their remarkable iridescent hues.
2. Who invited the Englishman? – The cathedral’s construction was funded by the state, making it the primary patron of the space. Much of the artwork, therefore, serves a civic, as well as religious, purpose. It was also fashionable during the 14th and 15th centuries to erect memorial equestrian statues to fallen mercenaries as propaganda to attract new defenders.
So when hired hit man (excuse me, condottiero) John Hawkwood died in Florence in 1395, it made no difference that he was English or that he spent almost half of his military career attacking the city – he would get a monument. That was the intention, anyway. In the interest of time and money, a relatively unknown Paolo Uccello was commissioned to fresco Hawkwood’s likeness (instead of erect a massive statue) on the Duomo wall in 1436. His resulting work was so well received that Andrea del Castagno frescoed a similar tribute to condottiero Niccolò da Tolentino twenty years later. Both are in situ on the left wall of the church.
Today, the Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood is notable for its early use of perspective as well as for its singular subject matter of a memorialized English soldier in an Italian house of worship.
3. Uccello’s hat trick: the clock – We’ve already mentioned that Uccello designed stained glass windows in addition to Sir John Hawkwood’s memorial fresco, but perhaps most intriguing to visitors today is his immortalization of “Italian time.” His 24-hour clock, located above the Duomo’s main entrance, keeps time counterclockwise and the hours change based on each day’s sunset (for a full explanation, click here). As time became standardized throughout Europe, the clock was painted over a number of times, but within the last century Uccello’s original was uncovered and restored; his depictions of the four evangelists remain in the corners. The clock still needs to be rewound each week to ensure it keeps the correct Italian time.
4. Dante’s time travel – Another civic tribute lining the walls of the Duomo is Dante and the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino. What’s interesting here? Considering that Dante died in exile from Florence in 1321, seeing him placed back in his hometown as it looked in the mid-15th century makes it far from historically accurate, but it is an interesting study in the repatriation of the famed poet by the city.
5. Crypt walk – While it will cost 3 euro to get deep into Santa Reparata’s crypt, you can venture down the staircase and catch a peak of Brunelleschi’s tomb, as mentioned in Hannah’s Ancient Roman walk. A number of Florentine bishops (including San Zanobi) as well as two popes are also buried under there, along with the ruins of the original church.
We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg of interesting historical tidbits inside this Duomo. If you’d like to delve deeper (and see some great imagery of older cathedral iterations), we suggest visiting here and here.