The Cathedral of Florence with the Baptistery
Every city has its centerpiece, the building or set of buildings that gives the city distinction that expresses the city’s identity, pride, and convictions. New York has a number of centerpieces. One of them was the World Trade Center destroyed in the catastrophic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Today, it is being rebuilt in what is currently the nation’s largest construction project. The new World Trade Center will be unique among the world’s monuments, a combination of commercial enterprise and public commemoration. There will be a memorial, museum, and park that will all belong to the public, but by far the dominating feature of the new WTC will be the office towers. When completed, they will be the tallest buildings in the city. And what exactly are they? They are office space for rent, and that’s all. They are a source of rental income for their owners, the Port Authority. For the businesses housed in them, they are practical working space and a source of distinction to attract attention in large and competitive markets. They have no other meaning. However, the larger forms of at least 2 of these buildings are supposed to tie them into the memorial below, to expand upon the commemoration of the dead and to further affect how September 11th is remembered and understood. What were once markets with rented shops inconspicuously attached to the public monuments and spaces of a Roman forum now overwhelm and dominate the public center of this new project.
The final proposed design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. The September 11th Memorial is in the park in the foreground.
The new World Trade Center under construction today.
These towers will express the true collective convictions of the city, its real religion, what its inhabitants really believe (despite what they may say they believe). Saint Patrick’s and Saint John the Divine may call themselves cathedrals, but the corporate towers that dominate the city are New York’s real cathedrals and declare the conviction that built this city, a belief in the transformative power of money. That belief raised the tallest towers in this city, and still drives all of its enterprises. Money is the real god of New York. It may not be a transcendent god, but it is a god nonetheless. It is very powerful, works real miracles, and it is a jealous and demanding deity. It has its priesthoods, its creeds, and its competing cults. Money promises a kind of salvation, and it punishes those who do not give it due worship. Our banks and office towers are that god’s temples, our true equivalent of the cathedrals of old. Like the cathedrals, they are our sources of civic pride and identity, our urban centerpieces. They are giant reminders of what we really believe with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our hearts. In the case of the new World Trade Center, that god grudgingly allows its priests to remember their dead, permitting them a memorial ever so reluctantly. Money, like the living things of the earth, wants to forget the dead and move into the space they left behind. But we human beings who serve that god have our needs that must be met.
Florence Cathedral from the south.
The great Cathedral of Florence is the centerpiece of that city, the focus of the convictions, identity, and pride of the city, as were all medieval cathedrals in all cities.
The early Florentines certainly had as great a respect for money as any New Yorker, but Christ was still the official god of the city, and still God in the hearts and minds of almost all of the city’s inhabitants, both rich and poor. Nevertheless, the Florentines’ discovery of money’s transformative power played a role in the shaping of this cathedral. Like all cathedrals, it is a monument to who rules the city, a testament to their wealth and power, and to the city’s pride as much as it is an offering to God. The city’s two most powerful guilds would assume custody of the city’s two holiest buildings. The Arte del Cambio, the banker’s guild would take on the responsibility of maintaining the Baptistery, the oldest and most important religious building in Florence. By the middle of the 14th century, the Arte della Lana, the wool manufacturer’s guild, would assume full responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the new cathedral. The new cathedral and subsequent enrichment of the Baptistery would be testimony to the power and enterprise of these two industries that created the new wealth of the city and supplanted its traditional nobility.
The Cathedral of Florence was more than just a big success trophy for the Florentines. The Cathedral, like all medieval cathedrals, was the successor to Solomon’s Temple, the house of God on earth. As such, it was the most important building in the city. Like all medieval cathedrals, Florence’s was a vast image in stone of the Celestial Jerusalem, which would descend out of the sky at the end of time according to the Christian Scriptures. It was an image of the City of God and testimony to the promise of the final victory over death and the final reconciliation of heaven and earth. For this reason, the cathedral of a medieval city (including Florence) was unlike any other building in the city. It referred to things not of this world (New York’s corporate towers are giant versions of the tenements that have always made up the bulk of the city’s buildings since the 18th century). The Cathedral is an image of the mystical Body of Christ; “The stone which the builder’s rejected has become the chief cornerstone…” The stones are the faithful and love is the mortar that holds them together. The Holy Spirit dwells in them all together as God is believed to dwell within the building. This encyclopedic age believed that the study of any and all things was ultimately a branch of theology since all things pointed to their Creator. Florence’s Cathedral, like all other medieval cathedrals, is a model of the cosmos as people at that time understood it. Things like the stars and planets, the labors of the year, the useful and liberal arts all had their place on the cathedral.
Florence Cathedral from the rooftops of the city.
Jean Bondol and Nicholas Bataille, The Descent of the Celestial Jerusalem, from the Angers Apocalypse tapestries, circa 1375 - 1390
The base of the campanile (bell tower) of Florence Cathedral showing relief sculptures of the labors of the months and the useful and liberal arts carved by Andrea Pisano and others, including Lorenzo Ghiberti. Today, copies replace all of the original sculptures, which are housed in the Museo del' Opera del Duomo (The Cathedral Museum).
Andrea Pisano, Sculpture, from the campanile reliefs.
For all of those years that Florence was a backwater town on the Arno, overshadowed by the great port city of Pisa, by Lucca, traditional seat of the Tuscan Grand Dukes, and by Siena, the Baptistery was the city’s cathedral church. In the 13th century with the rapid expansion of the city, its dramatic new wealth and power through textile manufacturing and banking, the Baptistery began to seem too small to serve so large and so rapidly growing a city, or to contain its ambitions. By the end of the 13th century, the Florentines decided to build a new cathedral next to the Baptistery. They decided that it would not be just any cathedral, but would be the largest in Europe, putting the cathedrals of their Tuscan rivals in its shadow.
Florence came very late to the business of cathedral building. The decision to build a new cathedral was made about 1292, and the first plans presented in 1294. Construction began in 1296. By that time, most of the great cathedrals of Europe were either completed or were well along in construction. Florence’s neighbors in Tuscany, the cities of Pisa, Lucca, and Siena already had great cathedrals standing complete, reminding the Florentines of the very recent good fortune of their self-made city. The Florentines decided to build a new cathedral that suitably reflected the sudden wealth and new greatness of their city. A new organization, the Opera del' Duomo (literally the Works of the Cathedral) was created to build and maintain the new cathedral. The Opera's first task was to appoint a capomaestro, a "head master," to design the building and oversee the work. The capomaestro would be assisted by a committee of maestri made up of the most respected and successful artists in the city. Architecture as a separate profession is a long way into the future at this point. It is something of a miracle that the Cathedral of Florence is as fine a monument as it is. It was not the creation of brilliant individuals, or of what we would call "team work." A series of committees who fought bitterly among themselves raised this building. Considering the design history of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center with all of its quarreling architects and litigious interested parties, perhaps not much has really changed after all.
The religious center of Florence with the Cathedral and Baptistery
The south side of the Florence Baptistery with Andrea Pisano's doors. Originally, they were on the east side facing the Cathedral. They were moved in the 15th century when Ghiberti's much more famous "Doors of Paradise" were installed.
The Baptistery, which served the city for so long as its cathedral church, would not be neglected in the construction of the new cathedral. It would be enriched with new bronze doors to replace the 3 sets of wooden doors on its entrances. Construction on the new cathedral was well along in 1322 when it was decided to replace the Baptistery doors. A goldsmith, Piero di Jacopo went to Pisa to study the great 12th century bronze doors on its cathedral by the sculptor Bonanus. Those doors were in turn modeled on the storiated bronze doors of Roman temples, now mostly surviving in literary accounts.
The 12th century bronze doors of the Cathedral of Pisa made by Bonanus of Pisa. These are the survivors of 2 sets of doors Bonanus made for the Cathedral.
Another Florentine mission went to Venice to look for a sculptor. Apparently Florence at the time had a shortage of sculptors experienced in working in bronze on a large scale. A great artist seems to appear out of nowhere in the historical records to take the job, Andrea d’Ugolino da Pontadera, better known to us as Andrea Pisano. Work commenced sometime in 1330. One set of doors appears to have been completed by 1336. By 1340, Andrea is capomaestro of the Cathedral construction. He disappears from the records after 1348, and it is assumed that he died in the Black Death.
Andrea was instructed to adorn the panels of this set of doors with scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, the titular saint of the building, and Florence’s patron saint. This was not a common subject in Italian art. All he really had to guide him was the mosaic cycle in the Baptistery dome. In addition, Giotto’s work in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels of Santa Croce had just been completed making him a force to be reckoned with. Andrea decided not to try to compete with Giotto in terms of creating credible effects of pictorial space. That was simply not possible with bronze casting techniques of the time, and maybe not desirable. Instead, Andrea decided to emulate Giotto’s restrained sense of drama within a clear architectural framework. Andrea made the inspired decision to use a recent French import, the Gothic style, in his design. He placed the narrative scenes each in a Gothic quatrefoil frame that makes the scenes part of the doors instead of reducing the doors to a frame for pictures. The layout of the doors is a very refined version of the scheme of Bonanus’ doors on Pisa’s cathedral. Andrea disposes of Bonanus’ rectangular panels on the top and bottom of each door. In place of Bonanus’ heavy grid frame decorated with rosettes, Andrea creates a much more proportional framework with alternating gilded rosettes and studs, and with lion heads in the intersections.
Andrea Pisano's south doors for the Florence Baptistery. The door frame was added by Ghiberti in the 15th century.
Detail from Bonanus' 12th century doors for Pisa Cathedral showing The Nativity.
Like Giotto, Andrea thinks in terms of presenting a narrative pictorially. He presents the Baptism of the Multitude and the Baptism of Christ together, connecting them across the framework with consistent landscapes. He is at his best with his fine sense of emotional calibration and restraint in the narrative scenes. Elizabeth leans lovingly upon the newborn Baptist as the mute Zechariah writes out the name of the child.
Andrea Pisano, The Naming of the Baptist, from the Baptistery south doors
In contrast to the tenderness of that scene is the chilly and frightening restraint of the Presentation of the Head of the Baptist to Herodias. In anticipation of much of Donatello’s work, the setting plays a role in the telling of the story.
Andrea Pisano, Salome Presents the Baptist's Head to Herodias, from the south doors of the Baptistery.
The scene is set in an enclosed box of a room, almost claustrophobically close. Salome kneels with obsequious servility before her enthroned mother as she presents the head of the dead Baptist. Her mother looks, not at the head, but at her daughter with a gaze of domineering command. The emphatic diagonal of the figure group emphasizes the communication between mother and daughter. These doors with their narration would be there to challenge and inspire Lorenzo Ghiberti 7 decades later when he completed the remaining sets of bronze doors. They were recognized at the time of their completion, and ever afterward, as a prodigious accomplishment.
The new cathedral would be built just east of the Baptistery on the site of the ancient church to one of Florence’s 2 martyr saints, Saint Reparata. The church and surrounding buildings were vacated, but not immediately torn down. The foundations of the new cathedral were laid out and excavated among the abandoned buildings. Their empty shells were incorporated as scaffolding to build the new cathedral, and only came down completely after the nave vaults were completed. Their rubble was used to raise the floor level, burying the remains of the Santa Reparata church. The saint’s relics were moved to the east end of the choir of the new cathedral with the relics of Saint Zenobius, Florence’s sainted first bishop. In the 1960s, excavations under the floor of the cathedral revealed the extensive remains of Santa Reparata, which can now be visited.
The remains of the Church of Santa Reparata under the floor of the nave of Florence Cathedral.
The first capomaestro was the great sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio, designer of the great Franciscan church of Santa Croce on the east side of Florence.
It is remarkable that the Cathedral of Florence is as fine a work as it is. As noted before, it is a creation of several very quarrelsome committees whose arguments frequently had to be settled with outside intervention. It appears that on a number of occasions, the Cathedral Opera, or its custodians, or the Arte della Lana, had to settle arguments among the maestri, usually by picking one design over the others and ordering the models and drawings of its rivals to be destroyed.
The magnificent nave is one such compromised design. Something of Arnolfo’s original intentions still manages to come through
Interior of Florence Cathedral
Tourists today sometimes complain about the plainness of the interior relative to the elaborate decoration on the outside. If Arnolfo had his way, it would be even plainer. The Italians did not share the French Gothic taste for soaring complexity. The Italians preferred a more conservative clarity of form and satisfying proportions. The four immense bays that make up the nave most closely reflect Arnolfo’s intentions with their splendid broad arches in the arcades, the widest of any European cathedral. The ribbed vaults that they support in the ceiling are the longest of any in Europe and are prodigies of engineering.
Nave of Florence Cathedral
Vaults of the nave of Florence Cathedral
The rest of the nave design is a compromise. A decision was made, with much dissension, to place an elaborate bracketed cornice right on top of the arches of the nave arcades. Instead of a tall clerestory with lancet windows, as seen in Santa Croce, it was decided to build a relatively low clerestory with ocular windows.
The façade of the cathedral that we see today is a creation of the 19th century designed by the architect Emilio de Fabris. It is a splendid monument to the Italian Risorgiamento, the birth of modern Italy when patriotic rebels ended centuries’ worth of foreign domination and division. Florence served briefly as the capital of united Italy until the resistance of Pope Pius IX in Rome could be overcome.
Facade of Florence Cathedral designed by Emilio de Fabris, begun in 1876 and finished in 1887
The original façade was never finished. The bottom quarter was covered in elaborate sculpture (most of which is preserved in the Museo del’ Opera del Duomo, the cathedral museum). The rest was bare stone. It is possible that the original design for the façade was for something even more elaborate than what is there today.
16th century drawing of the original state of the facade of Florence Cathedral before the construction of de Frabis' facade.
The exterior of the Cathedral is covered in a veneer of colored marbles, white, green, black, and rose, reflecting local building traditions first seen in the 11th century façade of San Miniato. The patterns simplify as the patterns rise up the flanks of the Cathedral, reflecting changing tastes over the construction period of the building.
South flank of Florence Cathedral
Detail of the exterior stonework on the flank of Florence Cathedral
The great painter Giotto served for a time as the Cathedral’s capomaestro, and is traditionally credited with the campanile or bell tower. In traditional Italian fashion, the campanile is a completely separate structure from the Cathedral.
Campanile of Florence Cathedral
Giotto's original design for the Campanile
What we see today only distantly recalls Giotto’s original very spiky French Gothic tower. The sculptor Andrea Pisano dramatically altered the design when he took over as capomaestro, and Francesco Talenti is mostly responsible for completing the tower and giving it its present form
The custodians of the new cathedral decided that the central feature of Florence’s new centerpiece would be a great dome, recalling the city’s Roman foundation, and unlike anything else in Europe. These custodians were so pleased with Arnolfo’s basic design that they later ordered the architect Francesco Talenti to almost double its size to its present proportions, dominating the nave and reducing it to a kind of vestigial tail.
Plans of Santa Reparata, Arnolfo's original design, and the Talenti design that was built.
Detail from Andrea di Firenze's The Church Militant and Triumphant from about 1365 showing what may be something like Arnolfo di Cambio's original design with modifications by Andrea di Firenze, who was one of the Cathedral maestri.
In his initial design, Arnolfo di Cambio approached a challenge laid down by the 2 greatest Tuscan cathedrals of the time, Pisa and Siena, placing a dome upon a traditional basilican church plan. In the case of both earlier cathedrals, the dome rises over the intersection of the nave and transepts. There is precedent for this in the large lantern cupolas that rise over the intersections of French Romanesque churches like Saint Foy to light their usually dark interiors. The builders of both cathedrals found that placing a Roman dome over this location was not quite the straightforward idea that they thought. Both domes in Siena and Pisa show certain design and structural modifications to make that idea work. The dome of the Cathedral of Pisa is not circular in plan, but an oval shape to make up for the difference in width between the transepts and nave. The Cathedral of Siena requires a hexagon of support columns, partially blocking each transept with a pillar.
The dome of the Cathedral of Pisa
Interior of the dome of the Cathedral of Pisa
Interior of the dome of Siena Cathedral showing the hexagon of arches supporting it.
Arnolfo made the bold decision to have a single large octagonal dome cover both nave and aisles and incorporate apse and transepts. The shape would be a huge version of the octagonal dome of the Baptistery, linking the Cathedral to Florence’s early religious history. He would combine a traditional basilican plan of nave and aisles with a centralized domed structure of a type that had not been seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. Where might he have seen such a structure? He probably did not look to the Roman Pantheon for instruction, but to later Imperial buildings like the Temple of Minerva Medica that now stands awkwardly beside the railroad yard of the Stazione Termini in Rome.
Ruins of the building long known as the "Temple of Minerva Medica," now thought by many archaeologists to be an immense garden folly.
In that building, a complex structure of radial symmetry rises in a sequence of transitional stages to a central dome, very different from the Pantheon’s simple dome rising on a cylindrical drum.
The domed radial apse of the Cathedral is the most original and influential part, rising in a series of stages from the street level to the dome itself.
Exterior of the apse of Florence Cathedral
Three segmented half domes over the apses of the cruciform plan serve as buttress supports for the even larger central dome. Nave, aisles, and transepts are incorporated into a single centralized structure. It is remarkable to think that this unified design was the creation of several architects beginning with Arnolfo, enlarged and modified by Talenti, and completed by Filippo Brunelleschi a century later.
Apse of Florence Cathedral with the high altar.
Apse of Florence Cathedral viewed from high in the dome
From the beginning, the builders of the Cathedral intended to construct the largest cathedral in Europe topped by the largest dome built since the Pantheon in Rome. After Talenti’s enlargement of the design, the dome would be even bigger than the Pantheon dome, the largest ever built up to that time. Construction proceeded rapidly on the Cathedral, pausing only with Arnolfo’s death and the search for a successor. The Black Death stopped construction of the enlargement of Siena’s cathedral, but it accelerated construction of Florence’s cathedral. By the middle of the 14th century, nave, campanile, and almost all of the apse were complete when construction abruptly stopped. It stopped not because of any crisis or disaster, but because of the hubris of the builders. No one could figure out how to complete the vast dome. No one knew a safe cost effective way to vault so vast, and so high, a space. The wide octagonal drum remained open to the sky for decades, threatening to make Florence into a laughing stock. It would have to wait until the next century, and for a very unlikely character, a failed sculptor, a goldsmith, surveyor, and self-taught mathematician to complete the dome, and save the city’s reputation.
The interior of the dome of the Cathedral viewed from the nave. Where we see Girogio Vasari's Last Judgment today was open sky for many years until Filippo Brunelleschi completed the Cathedral dome in 1436.