Monday, 2 September 2013

Preview: Florence Cathedral

Back in the 14th Century, it was boomtime for Florence. The northern Italian city is still flourishing today, with tourism its dominant industry, but back in the late Middle Ages it was a major power. It was more than a city - it was a republic, made wealthy through trade, and influential throughout Italy and Europe as a major cultural force. The Florentine dialect is regarded as the origin of the modern Italian language, and the Renaissance began in Florence. Their most powerful family, the Medicis, produced four popes, and one Queen of France - Catherine de Medici - who was the mother of three French kings and a large factor in shaping one of my Wonders, the Chateau de Chenonceau. Florence was, in modern parlance, the "dog's bollocks".

As such, it was flourishing and great buildings were popping up all over the place. Today the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful in the world. Much of that dates from this early Renaissance era: churches, monasteries, palaces, grand homes, a town hall, and circling the city were walls 20 feet high and five miles long. Its population matched that of London's. But one crucial thing was missing - no great city was complete without a great cathedral, and the basilica in the centre of the city was old and insufficient. Florence wanted something special, a cathedral to match its prestige and ambition. And to do this, the city leaders decided, meant the biggest dome all of time.

Santa Maria del Fiore - "Our Lady of the Flowers" - or just plain old Florence Cathedral is all about the dome. Sure, it's a gorgeous building without it, clad in marble and immaculately finished, but all eyes are on the giant crown on top. Reaching 106 metres in height, it is visible from all across the city. It was, at the time, thought to be impossible, an architectural drawing of fantasy by someone who would never live to actually have to construct it themselves. Generations of locals lived seeing a cathedral being built in slow motion, wondering how it would ever be complete. One of these was a man called Filipo Brunelleschi.

There were many builders of Florence Cathedral during its 140 years of construction, but the most celebrated is Filipo Brunelleschi, or just Pippo to his friends. I count myself among these friends, if only because Pippo is far easier to write than his surname. He was the one who did the impossible and ensured that Florence wasn't left without the perpetual embarrassment of an unfinished cathedral, or worse, a cathedral in a state of collapse. The foundation stone had been laid in 1296, well before his birth, upon a large swathe of central Florence being knocked down and cleared to make space for the new pride of the city. The master mason of the time was a man called Arnolfi di Cambio, noted for also being behind the construction of the town hall and the city walls, and he built the facade then made a start on the sides, up until his death in 1310. Perhaps the city leaders had expected Arnolfo to be immortal, for his death at something like 70 years old seems to have surprised them - a generation then passed by with practically no further work.

From 1334 to 1357, the Bell Tower was constructed, delayed by the catastrophic impact of the Black Death in 1347-48, which wiped out up to 80% of the population! Imagine - four-fifths of the workforce dead, no wonder there were slight delays. Upon the tower's eventual completion the construction of the cathedral was able to kick back into life. A new commission of master builders and painters tweaked the original plan into something bigger and better, and things progressed well, with the cathedral taking shape. But the closer it came to looking ready, the more obviously glaring the omission of the dome became. Generations grew up asking themselves "How the hell are we going to finish this thing?" Arnolfi di Cambio's original model didn't help. A sizeable construction in its own right, it collapsed under its own weight in the late 14th Century. Even the greatest optimist would have to regard this as an ominous sign. What hope, you can hear the superstitious majority ask, did the real thing have if even the model couldn't stand?

And so, in August 1418, a competition was held - build us a dome. In fact, build us the biggest dome of all time, with prize money the equivalent of two years' wages on offer. Pippo entered with a 12-foot-high, 6-foot-wide dome model, that had taken four men almost three months and over 5000 bricks to build. For good measure, he had it gilded and painted. This, he said, was how the great dome of the cathedral would look. Not unreasonably, the leaders of the city - then the powerful Wool Workers Guild (the guilds of Florence effectively controlled the city during these centuries) - wondered how Pippo would actually built it. It looked great, but the old question remained: could it be done? Yes, said Pippo - and then refused to tell anyone how.

It's fair to say the city council wasn't too happy about it. Throughout the city, he was regarded as a madman, and at a council meeting he was called "an ass and a babbler". Pippo didn't exactly help his own cause, continuing to refuse to further detail how he intended to perform his seeming miracle. Instead, he came up with a riddle. Who can take an egg and make it stand on end upon a flat piece of marble? The winner, he said, should also win the dome commission. The other contestants tried, but failed - the egg obviously wouldn't balance. Whereby Pippo simply took an egg, cracked it on the bottom, and sat it upright. The other contestants complained, saying they would have done likewise if they'd known they could and Pippo retorted that they too could build the dome - if only they knew his plans. Pippo was awarded the commission.

Almost certainly, this is apophrycal, but it's certainly true that Pippo won the competition despite being very tight-lipped about his plans. Likely, this was a degree of common sense, for if he'd told the world exactly how he intended to pull off the impossible, somebody might have stepped in and done it in his place. This was his way of trademarking his design, by not telling anyone how it was done. From 1420 to 1436, the dome appeared over Florence, supported by Pippo's innovative technique of interlocking bricks placed in horizontal layers, each layer supporting its own weight and the layer beneath it. It was just one of many clever techniques, which combined to produce something that was both great engineering and great art. In the Middle Ages, construction was so much less tested or understood that it was always a gamble, and both Pippo and the council knew it - but it worked. Centuries later, Florence Cathedral still has the same grand dome.

Florence Cathedral was a very late addition to my list, somehow slipping under the radar. In a world with many cathedrals, it takes a lot to stand out: I think Florence Cathedral does this. It doesn't look generic, nor does it immediately remind me of any other cathedral out there. Domed cathedrals aren't unique but nor are they the standard, and anyway Florence's dome doesn't look much like the other domes in the world. And lest we focus too much on the dome, it is just the crown on top - the rest of the building looks great too. It's a giant dome on a giant building - the dome reaches a height of almost 115 metres, but it's hardly disproportionate - the cathedral is 153 metres long. Florence wanted a cathedral to match its prestige and ambition and it succeeded. Probably, Florence Cathedral won't be right up there with the best, but it looks a worthy challenger nonetheless, exquisite and massive, exactly what I'm looking for in a Wonder.

I'll be visiting Florence Cathedral perhaps in the spring of next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. I visited this in the late 1990s and in my opinion is definitely worth considering as a world wonder; as you describe, the dome itself is a marvel of engineering. The baptistry right next to it is also quite impressive (in your top photo, it's the multi-faceted building opposite the main entrance). In fact Florence itself is a unique city. I recently read a book called "Machiavelli: a man misunderstood", I recommend reading it before you go there as it really gives an insight into how Florence operated as a prestigious but weakened independent city state in Machiavelli's day (about a century after the cathedral was built).

    Regarding the story of the egg, I have heard it before, but relating to Christopher Columbus. The story goes that when he returned from his expedition, a few jealous people at the Spanish court pointed out to him that he had merely sailed westwards until he hit land. He did the old egg thing, and when they protested that they didn't know they could do that, he said, "Yes, but someone had to think of it". As you say, this egg thing in all its forms is probably apocryphal.

    "Domed cathedrals aren't unique but nor are they the standard". Indeed. Here in Marseille we have an impressive neo-byzantine domed cathedral; look up the cathedrale de la Major (Sainte-Marie Majeure for the official name). Although not as venerable as the Florence cathedral, it was the largest cathedral built in France during the 19th century.

    1. I've ordered that book from Amazon. As I've finally finished all my other reading, I'll definitely have time for it in the next couple of months. Florence is a city I'm really looking forward to.

      The Marseille cathedral looks great. Stylistically, it seems to fit in with the Notre-Dame de la Garde which you earlier pointed out to me. In fact, I've just checked their Wikipedia pages, and the same architect was involved in both, which makes sense.


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