Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence, Italy)

Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flowers), a cathedral built in the Gothic style, is a treasure of Florence that showcases two important artistic achievements. The first is an impressive octagonal dome that was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, a master goldsmith by trade. Two amazing facts about the dome: because of a scarcity of wood in Tuscany, it was built without the use of scaffolding, and no flying buttresses were used to support it structurally, since they were artistically repugnant to the Italians. The first obstacle was overcome by building an inner shell first as a kind of scaffold to work on the outer dome; the second problem was solved by using a construction similar to barrel hoops made with sandstone and iron ties, the details of which are more complex and ingenious to describe here. Open to the public, a spiral stairway between the two domes leads to the top, but unfortunately we never found the time to climb it.

Brunelleschi’s dome seen from the Campanile (note people along the top)

The second significant triumph of the basilica is the bronze doors fashioned by Brunelleschi’s rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti. Twenty-four in all, the panels on two sets of doors, depicting New Testament stories, are made of gilded bronze and sculpted in low relief to give a sense of depth, along with the use of perspective. All of these techniques were new at the time. Michelangelo was so impressed by these doors that he called them the Gates of Paradise. Because of weather and pollution damage, the original doors have been removed to the Duomo Museum in 1990, replaced by replicas.

Solomon and Sheba, a panel of Ghiberti’s bronze doors

On our last day in Florence, we climbed the Campanile, a free-standing bell tower next to the cathedral, to get a better view of the dome. The entire cathedral complex is quite impressive and deserves a longer visit to appreciate fully its artistic and historic significance.

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