Tuesday, 3 June 2014

50. Wonder: Florence Cathedral

(For the Florence Cathedral preview, please click here.)

World Wonders don't hang about in nightclubs, but if they did then you can bet the gang of cathedrals sipping wine in the corner would turn quite a few heads. Gorgeous and interesting, the only big drawback for prospective Wonder wooers - which I suppose in this analogy would be someone like me - is that they're all pretty similar. Is that Amiens Cathedral or the Notre-Dame de Paris chucking back the Cava? Chartres or Cologne on the jelly shots? So what makes Florence Cathedral stand out? It's a competitive field, just being amazing and magnificent isn't always enough. If you're to abandon the nightclub and take a wander through the streets of Florence, pushing the crowds aside, you'll soon find out. Florence Cathedral is not a shy one that takes time to know - it has all its wares on full display. Quite simply, it is well-dressed, really pretty, and has a really, really big dome.

At the heart of one of the most attractive and richly-cultured cities in the world, Florence Cathedral is one of these instant hits. Even after the many cathedrals and churches Danielle and I have visited over the last few months, we recognised we were seeing something a little different as soon as we set our eyes upon it. Florence Cathedral is famous for its massive and technically marvellous dome, the largest dome in the pre-modern world. It's bigger than its nearest rivals of St Peter's in Rome by three metres and St Paul's in London by ten metres; only modern domes built with plastics, reinforced concrete and steel beat it. But the dome isn't what caught our eyes. Instead we were impressed by the immaculate facade, decked out in three differently-coloured marbles - pink, white, and green. It would take a coarse-hearted soul to not declare it beautiful. Not just the facade, but the entire exterior of the cathedral continues in the same manner - pink, white, green. There are plenty of lovely statues too and colourful mosaics above the facade's three doorways, but its the coloured marble which makes the impact. It gives Florence Cathedral a warmth, and a rich beauty.

Built mostly in a 170 year period starting from 1296, Florence Cathedral was built for that very best of reasons - to be better than its rivals. You'd hope there was a little religious piety too, but Florence as a city was flourishing through trade and it wanted its cathedral to be bigger and better than that of its close rivals, Siena and Pisa, both fellow republics. Florence already had a church - but it was rubbish. One of the curious things about medieval cathedrals is that they rarely, if ever, sprung from nowhere. Town centres didn't exactly have large areas of free space for a gigantic new cathedral: usually they were built over existing cathedrals or their ruins, often a sequence of them. Florence's existing cathedral, Santa Reparata, named after their probably mythical co-patron saint (sharing duties with that giant of saints, John the Baptist, among others), wasn't very good. Probably the old cathedral wasn't the original one - dating back to the 5th Century, it likely had undergone several incarnations. By the late 13th Century, it was old and small and shabby. In an emerging world of giant cathedrals, it was time for it to go. You can still see the foundations, alongside some old Roman mosaics, in Florence Cathedral's crypt, excavated just a few decades ago.

A master mason called Arnolfo di Cambio was drafted in. He came with a good pedigree - he'd designed city fortifications as well as the massive town hall, called the Palazzo Vecchio, still looking good today. He'd also been involved with rival Siena's acclaimed cathedral. The foundation stone for Florence's new cathedral was laid on September 8th 1296, and for 14 years work continued well. Keeping the old church of Santa Reparta in place for the time being, the new cathedral facade went up, followed by the sides. But then, as people do, di Cambio died, seemingly of old age, around 70 years old. For some reason, this took everyone by surprise, and worked stopped - for almost 50 years.

Well, kind of. Florence Cathedral doesn't exist in isolation. Take a stroll and you'll see it has two immediate neighbours - a bell tower and a strange domed building which turns out to be the Baptistery. They all look very similar and you'd be forgiven for thinking that they are mere satellites of the cathedral, copying their dominant neighbour's design. But that's wrong. It turns out that the cathedral is copying them. While Florence Cathedral was just a front and some side walls, with the battered old Santa Reparta nestled within like a child hiding in a giant box, the Baptistery and Bell Tower were done and dusted, ready and waiting for their big neighbour to catch up.

Unfortunately, the Baptistry is currently entirely submerged in scaffolding as it undergoes a general restoration for a few years, so during our visit it seemed like there was a huge white tent in front of the cathedral.

But internet photos suggest it looks pretty nice (albeit, kudos to the tent for doing a decent impersonation).

In the basic form we see now, the Baptistery comes from the 11th Century, being enlarged with its dome by the 13th Century. The origins go way back to Roman times. It's dedicated to John the Baptist, a recurring character throughout these travels, and one of the patron saints of Florence. Saint Reparata used to be the only patron saint, but perhaps being more mythical than real, and basically being a young girl - perhaps 15 years old - who was killed in various gruesome ways in the 3rd Century, wasn't enough to give her continued patronage of a prestigious city. John the Baptist was drafted in to help. Unlike Amiens Cathedral and Topkapi Palace, to name but a few, John's skull doesn't appear to be kept inside - Florence Cathedral has to make do with an urn containing the relics of their first bishop Saint Zenobius. I'm sure someone could rustle up a John skull with a little effort. As the name suggests, the Baptistery was used to baptise people, and apparently right up till the 19th Century, it was the only place to baptise newborns in Florence, so it must have been a busy place. It's lost that function today though, and it's really just a pretty place for tourists to take a few photos. And to look at the devil eating people, if you fancy that kind of thing.

Significantly however, it is covered in green and white marble. And likewise, so is the Bell Tower, which additionally has pinkish-red marble. After Arnolfo di Cambio died in 1310 and the entirity of the Florentine government stood round for years scratching their heads, wondering how to proceed, somebody eventually came up with the bright idea of building a bell tower while they figure it out. A man called Giotto di Bondone said he'd do it and in 1334 he begun. Inconveniently, he died three years later, aged 70 - Florence really had to learn to stop employing old men as their architects. A different man called Andrea Pisano took over, and he also died after about eight years of work. By now very used to architects dying on them, another man was soon appointed, called Francesco di Simone Talenti. He didn't die, and actually saw the tower completed, in 1359. It looks pretty nice.

It can be climbed too. For a bargain 10, you can get a ticket that covers climbing the dome, the tower, entry into the Baptistry, and into the crypt. Usually there's also entry to the cathedral museum, which has all the various treasures that the cathedral has accumulated over the centuries, but this is closed until late next year for renovations. Even so, it's a pretty good deal, although after already having climbed the dome in the morning, Danielle was a little unsure of the merits of climbing a similarly high point right next to the dome. "But you can get great views of the dome!" I said. "I've just seen the dome!" she replied. Well, all I can say is, if you like great views of Florence and a great view of the cathedral dome without actually standing on the dome, then you can do no better that the Bell Tower. Ok, perhaps a helicopter, but I don't think they're allowed.

It's curious to think that a fully complete Bapistery and Bell Tower were gracing Florence while its glorious cathedral was still just a few walls. After over 60 years, Florence was still some way to catching up with Siena and Pisa. Pleased with his work on the Bell Tower, Talenti was allowed to get cracking on the cathedral. But by 1367, his time was up. No, he didn't die - he was sacked, his new designs not winning favour. A commission took over, of seven master builders and painters, who went back to di Cambio's original plans and made them much bigger and better. This time, they said, they were going to nail this thing. So sure were they of the new plan that they destroyed all previous models and plans, so that nobody could change their minds and return to them. The new plan must go ahead! And things proceeded pretty well until they realised that they had absolutely no clue in hell how to build the biggest dome of all time.

It was now the start of the 15th Century and over a hundred years since work had begun: Florence Cathedral was taking shape, and the old Santa Reparta had been demolished. But there was a huge hole at the end, exactly where the dome should be. Nobody knew how to build it, so they held a competition. A man called Filippo Brunelleschi won, based upon a beautiful house-sized model and his claim he could build it without any supporting structure, therefore keeping the interior of the cathedral clear of decades of scaffolding. Perfect - but then he refused to tell anybody how he would do it. This wasn't a routine building job, it was a leap into the unknown, constructing a dome on a new scale (St Peter's and St Paul's are only marginally smaller, but they came centuries after Florence Cathedral's). If it didn't work, it would be catastrophic for the cathedral. Best case, decades of time and money wasted; worst case - the cathedral could come crashing down. From the vantage point of centuries on, it seems insane that Brunelleschi was allowed to propose something so unprecedented and then, when asked how it would be done, say the equivalent of "Not telling you!" There would be no scaffolding or internal wooden framework, but further than that he wouldn't say. It was a giant leap of faith, and one you can't imagine happening these days. Or can you? The Sydney Opera House was approved on the basis of mere sketches from an untested architect, and much of the Golden Gate Bridge was figured out as they went along. In fact, it's not so unusual. Just bold. And in the case of Florence Cathedral's dome, it was very bold. Brunelleschi was a well-regarded artist, but as an architect or engineer had built nothing, especially not on this scale.

But he pulled it off. Florence Cathedral has a vast dome - comprising 4 million bricks, it weighs 41,000 tons in all, making a total height of the 114.5 metres, with the cathedral being 153 metres long. Impressively, he didn't just build the dome, Brunelleschi actually built all the equipment required to build the dome, such as various hoists to lift the large amounts of material. He even put up some early safety measures, such as a series of hanging scaffolds acting as a safety net, harnesses for masons, and he diluted the worker's wine with a third of water - in classic medieval style, this was something usually only drunk by pregnant women. Wine was regarded as safer than water as it had less chance of disease. Workers were happy to oblige, though Florence Cathedral was hardly the only project in history to have boozing workers - pretty much anything built before the 20th Century was by workers legitimately allowed to drink alcohol on the job.

The success of the dome made Brunelleschi pretty popular, and he has the very rare honour of having being buried in the cathedral crypt, a privilege not often extended to architects. Usually that's just for bishops, for their very important work of standing around and arguing obscure theological points.

These days, it's entirely possible to climb to the top of the dome, as I suggested earlier, 463 steps in all. Better queue early though. This was the queue at 9am.

At noon, it curved around all of Italy. Florence is not a hidden gem, it is a very high profile gem, and like a hungry dog with an endless amount of Pedigree Chum, doesn't know when to stop stuffing itself full of tourists, with the fatty lumps of tour groups seriously impairing digestion. Alongside a couple of Florence's superstar museums, the Cathedral and its dome are the highlights, and people are willing to seriously queue. We got away with half an hour, but I think you could easily queue for many hours if you timed it wrong. Don't go at noon in summer, I would strongly advise.

Climbing the dome is worth it though. Part of Brunelleschi's nifty dome-building trick was to build an inner and outer dome, and during the climb it is necessary to climb between these layers. It's rather steep and claustrophobic, but very much gives the impression of being within the inner workings of the cathedral, witnessing Brunelleschi's secret. Brunelleschi died in 1446, after the successful completion of the dome but before the lantern was finished, that is the fancy stone bit on top of the dome that the modern-day tourist can walk around. The final cherry-on-top touches of the copper ball-and-cross - which apparently contain holy relics (I like to think John the Baptist's skull) - were done by 1469. The cathedral was complete.

Ah, no, not quite actually. For anyone visiting the cathedral, and especially anyone climbing to the dome, there is no mistaking the inner dome's decoration. Brunelleschi thought a mosaic would be nice, just like the Baptistery's, but it was over a century after the dome's physical completion before the inner dome was painted. From 1572 to 1579 (restored 1978 to 1994) Florentine artist Giorgio Vasari followed by Frederico Zuccari, aided by others, painted an epic vision of heaven and hell. Is it any good? I have no idea. Is it the kind of thing I expect inside a cathedral? No way. It's like a comic book artist running wild. Once again, we have the devil eating people.

Probably though, it's the highlight of the cathedral's interior. As I do whenever possible, Danielle and I attended a Sunday Mass. From the outside, the cathedral is gorgeous, from the inside it's surprisingly spartan. It could almost pass for a Protestant church. It's not inelegant, but it's very stripped back and straightforward. I expect most people will be pretty disappointed with it. Inside the neighbouring Baptistery there is a wealth of gold mosaic splendour, and most of Italy's churches don't hold back on the making the inside looking fabulous. But Florence seems to have slowly got rid of its cathedral's treasures, putting them in the (closed) museum instead. The floors are nice, at least.

If I'd been an early-to-mid 19th Century visitor, I probably wouldn't have been too fussed about Florence Cathedral, except to confirm it has a very big dome. That's because the best bit didn't come to later in the century. For centuries, Florence Cathedral's facade was bare. Originally, it had been planned to give it a marble face matching the Baptistery's, but it was only ever part-built. In the 16th Century, it was pulled down as the Gothic look wasn't in keeping with the fashion of the times. A competition was held to build a new one but this collapsed into a corrupt shambles. Only in the 19th Century was it finally complete. A new competition was held, a kind of "re-imagining" of what the facade should have looked like, and from 1871 to 1887 Florence Cathedral finally got its face, a colourful Neo-Gothic. By then, Florence was no longer a republic, it was part of a unified Italy, and the reddish-pink, green, and white of the cathedral mirror that of the red, green, and white of Italy's flag. So it's said anyway - the Bell Tower had this colour scheme centuries before.

Florence Cathedral is more than just a pretty face, the marble-cladding continues all round. Many cathedrals are all about the main facade, with the rest of the exterior looking more non-descript. Not unattractive per se, just rather alike: all a bunch of grey buttresses. Florence cathedral looks good from front and back. It has, if you like, a good rear.

Even for people a little fed up with cathedrals, I think Florence's has something to offer. It's colourful and pretty, and a little more friendly-seeming than some other cathedrals. At the same time though, it perhaps lacks a little of that visceral power than some of the Gothic greats have, usually through their facades. Friendliness isn't always what you're after in a cathedral; sheer heavenly power is. Florence Cathedral's facade is big, but it's not as big as some at 50 metres high (the Notre-Dame reaches about 69 metres, Cologne Cathedral reaches 157 metres). The main height is reserved for the bell tower and the dome - and these, in fairness, are pretty massive. Inside is disappointing, entirely lacking the otherworldly air that Chartres or the Notre-Dame have. Standing in the gallery of the inner dome of St Paul's is an astonishing experience - you can feel the power of the architecture. Florence Cathedral lacks this. Also, it suffers just a little from the Baptistery. It may seem a petty point, particularly as the Baptistry predates the Cathedral by centuries, but its plonked right in front of the facade, in the Piazza del Duomo, i.e. the Cathedral Square. What could be a lovely open square, allowing great views of the cathedral, is disrupted by the (albeit very attractive) Baptistery blocking the view.

Let's get back to the nightclub then, grab yourself a gin. You've now had a chance to have a little chat with Florence Cathedral. Of the cathedral gang, Florence might well be the prettiest, is very friendly, has a lovely rear, and is far less austere than the likes of Chartres; Cologne meanwhile is a terrifying brute you're going nowhere near. Ultimately, however, Florence is just a little empty inside. Perhaps there's better out there. Even if most of them are named after men.

Some criteria then.

Size: The dome is massive, and the overall length of the cathedral is among the largest. There are many larger facades.
Engineering: While any cathedral from the 14th and 15th Century is a feat of skill, it's the 15th Century dome that truly pushed the boundaries of what was possible, and keeps the cathedral famous today.
Artistry: Adorned in pink, green, and white marble, and looks beautiful for it. The dome is very grand, and the neighbouring, and matching, Baptistery and Bell Tower look great too. Unfortunately, the interior is a let down.
Age: Mostly around 500 to 600 years old, making it a little younger than the northern European Gothic cathedrals, but still pretty damn old. You wouldn't know it - it still looks fresh, probably largely because the facade is just over a century old.
Fame/Iconicity: Some cities are defined by their Wonders, but Florence the city still seems more famous than its cathedral. This is a city packed with art and architecture, of which the cathedral is just one of the showpieces. Nonetheless, it's still a defining image of the city. It's strange that the smaller, newer domes of St Peter's and St Paul's get more recognition. Is it because they are intrinsically better cathedrals, or just because they are in legendary - and big - cities?
Context: It's squashed into the tight streets of Florence, although the huge dome can be seen from many parts of the city. The Baptistery, unfortunately, blocks what would be a more open area by the facade, which I believe usually enhances cathedrals. It was difficult to get a good photo of both the facade and the dome, for example.
Back Story: The story behind the dome is a good one, but otherwise it's more a story of the construction and then of its ongoing role as the city cathedral.
Originality: It's a cathedral, and won't ever be mistaken for anything else, but the colourful marble and the gigantic dome make it unmistakable among that genre.
Wow Factor: Against what I'd have expected, the facade made a bigger first impression than the dome - I was really taken with how gorgeous it looks. Overall, it might not have a gut-busting oomph, but it still packs a punch.

The mathematician and quasi-astronomer Paulo dal Pozzo Toscanelli used the dome of Florence Cathedral to make a number of measurements to record the movement of the stars and the sun. Together with an interest in maps, he then came up with idea of attempting to cross the Atlantic, and sent letters to various people suggesting as such. One of these people was called Christopher Columbus, who later consulted Toscanelli before setting off on his famous journey. Indirectly, therefore, Florence Cathedral was responsible for the discovery of the New World. Without it, would we ever have found America?

Well, yeah. With or without the cathedral, I suspect Europeans would have figured it out by now, but it's a nice little story about inspiration, and great things leading to great things. Florence Cathedral is, no doubt, a great thing. Most of the Wonders I visit I believe are pretty great though, and many of these are cathedrals. Naturally, therefore, it is against cathedrals I instincitvely make the comparisons. Florence's is prettier and more distinctive than many, with the medieval world's biggest dome, so I'd definitely place it ahead of Amiens Cathedral. Florence the city might be pleased to also know that I also rate it higher than Pisa's or Siena's cathedrals - seems like the centuries of work paid off. I don't think it's as good as the pure, austere Chartres Cathedral, though. More precisely, I think I'd place it just below the grander historical heavyweight that is the Notre-Dame but above Meteora - which Pisa fans may observe puts it a fair bit lower than the Tower. Call it a draw?

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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