Duomo of Florence ★★★

Duomo of Florence, Florence, Italy (Photo by Viktória Nižninská)

Florence's Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi's dome

Florence's cathedral is sort of inside out, prettily decorated on the outside with a festive cladding of white, green, and pink marble but inside rather spare, almost barren.

That's not to say the Duomo isn't worth visiting. Just that its interior is not as spectacular as you might expect from so famous a church.

What really makes the Duomo so famous are everything but the church itself: the famous dome by Brunelleschi, the adjacent bell tower and baptistery, the sculptures in the Duomo Museum around back.

In all, the Duomo is probably best to enjoy from the little piazza out in front, where tourists flock, street musicians and artists ply their trades, students strum guitars, and Florentines weave their way through the crowds with the evening's shopping in hand. (Though in 2012 local authorities tried to break up the scene by cordoning off the Duomo steps during daylight hours so you cannot sit on them.)

The cathedral facade

The festive facade of the Duomo is a particolored Neo-Gothic take on what the overwrought imaginations of 19th century decorators imagined the cathedral builders would have wanted.

Until 1871, the cathedral didn't have a proper facade, though every major architect and artist of the Renaissance submitted plans or models for it (none were ever executed, but some are preserved in the Duomo Museum).

Know how you can tell the facade is a 19th century mock-up? The color scheme is a celebration of the then-new Italian flag, done all in red, white, and green to honor the freshly-minted Kingdom of Italy (of which Florence was, briefly, the capital, from 1865–70).

The cathedral interior

By the late 13th century, Florence was feeling peevish: Its archrivals Siena and Pisa sported huge new Duomos filled with art while it was saddled with the tiny 5th- or 6th-century Santa Reparata as a cathedral.

So, in 1296, the city hired Gothic genius Arnolfo di Cambio to design a new Duomo, to be named Santa Maria dei Fiori ("St. Mary of the Flowers"—a play on the origins of Florence's original Latin name, Fiorentina, or "flower place"). Arnolfo di Cambio and he began raising the facade and the first few bays before his death in 1302.

Work continued under the auspices of the rich and powerful Wool Guild and architects Giotto (who concentrated on the bell tower) and Francesco Talenti (who finished up to the drum of the dome and in the process greatly enlarged Arnolfo's original plan).

The Duomo was actually built around the old church of Santa Reparata so it could remain open and performing mass during construction of the new, bigger cathedral. For more than 70 years, Florentines entered their tiny old church through the freestanding facade of the grand new one. However, in 1370 the original Santa Reparata was torn down when the bulk of the Duomo—except the dome—was finished.

Decorations on the interior of the facade

Ever the fiscal conservatives, Florentines started clamoring to see some art as soon as the new facade's front door was completed in the early 1300s—to be sure their investment would be more beautiful than rival cathedrals. Gaddo Gaddi was commissioned to mosaic an Enthronement of Mary in the lunette above the inside of the main door, and the people were satisfied.

The stained-glass windows set in the facade were designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Paolo Uccello,a painter obsessed by the newly developed perspective, frescoed the huge hora italica clock with its four heads of Prophets in 1443.

The crypt and Santa Reparata excavations

At a right-aisle pier are steps leading down to the cripta (crypt), contianing excavations of the old Santa Reparata. In 1972, a tomb slab inscribed with the name Filippo Brunelleschi was discovered there (visible through a gate)—to this day, the only Florentine honored to be buried udner the new cathedral (though older graves are also here).

However, unless you're interested in the remains of some ancient Roman houses and parts of the paleo-Christian mosaics from Santa Reparata's floor, the admission fee isn't worth it.

Decorations along the nave

Against the left-aisle wall are the Duomo's only frescoes besides those in the dome.

The earlier one to the right is the greenish Memorial to Sir John Hawkwood (1436), an English condottiere (mercenary commander) whose name the Florentines mangled to Giovanni Acuto when they hired him to rough up their enemies. Before he died, or so the story goes, the mercenary asked to have a bronze statue of himself riding his charger to be raised in his honor. Florence solemnly promised to do so but, in typical tightwad style, after Hawkwood's death hired the master of perspective and illusion Paolo Uccello to paint a trompe-l'oeil "equestrian monument" instead—much cheaper than casting a statue in bronze. Again, Florentines are a famously frugal lot.

Andrea Castagno copied this painting-as-equestrian-statue idea 20 years later when he frescoed a Memorial to Niccolò da Tolentino next to Uccello's work. Near the end of the left aisle is Domenico di Michelino's Dante Explaining the Divine Comedy (1465).

The dome frescoes

The frescoes on the interior of the dome were designed by Giorgio Vasari but painted mostly by his less-talented student Frederico Zuccari by 1579. They are not teribly good, but are rather colorful—and packed with agreeably gruesome scenes of the Damned in Hell in the Last Judgmentbit (you get to see them up close as part of your climb up to the dome).

These frescoes were subjected to a thorough cleaning completed in 1996, which many people saw as a waste of restoration lire when so many more important works throughout the city were waiting to be salvaged. The scrubbing did, however, bring out Zuccari's only saving point—his innovative color palette.

The New Sacristy

Though these days the catehdral authorities like to limit tourists to just the nave of the church, roping off the transept to reserve it for for actual worshippers, if you can get through the ropes, make your way to the back left corner behind the altar to admire the Nuova Sagrestia (New Sacristy).

Lorenzo de' Medici was attending Mass in the Duomo one April day in 1478 with his brother Giuliano when they were attacked in the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy. The conspirators, egged on by the pope and led by a member of the Pazzi family, old rivals of the Medici, fell on the brothers at the ringing of the sanctuary bell. Giuliano was murdered on the spot—his body rent with 19 wounds—but Lorenzo vaulted over the altar rail and sprinted for safety into the New Sacristy, slamming the bronze doors behind him.

Those doors were cast from 1446 to 1467 by Luca della Robbia, his only significant work in the medium (he and his descendents specialized in glazed terracotta). Earlier, Luca had provided a lunette of the Resurrection (1442) in glazed terra cotta over the door, as well as the lunette Ascension over the south sacristy door.

The interior of the New Sacristy is filled with beautifully inlaid wood cabinet doors.

The steps up to the top of the dome (Photo by Sailko)
The cathedral dome
Florence: Centro Storico

Climbing up between the cathedral dome's two layers to spectacular city views

Photo gallery
  • , Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Viktória Nižninská)
  • The facade, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Christopher Patterson)
  • The nave, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Luca Aless)
  • The frescoes inside the dome, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo By Jps3)
  • , Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by ScareCriterion12)
  • , Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Arend)
  • The choir seen from above, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Pufui PcPifpef)
  • , Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by mirco.81)
  • Intarsia wood panels in the Sagrestia delle Messe (1436–68) by Giuliano da Maiano, Maso Finiguerra, Alesso Baldovinetti, and others, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Bronze doors of the Sacristy (1445-77) by Luca della Robbia, Michelozzo, Maso di Bartolomeo, and others, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The excavations of Santa Reparata beneath the Duomo, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • 5C floor mosaics in Santa Reparata, possibly by African masters, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
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  • The tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi in the excavations of Santa Reparata beneath the Duomo, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore from above, Duomo of Florence, Italy (Photo by Michael Fritz)
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Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).