Santa Maria del Fiore or Duomo: the lantern, chapels around the apse, the facade and the Campanile

Stairs leading to the lantern
Brunelleschi dome Duomo stairs leading to the lantern Florence

A similar ‘tender’ was issued for the construction of the lantern, inviting each artist to submit a mode.16 The best and most beautiful design would then be carried out. For a third time, Brunelleschi had to first enter a competition while his rival Ghiberti, after completing his first door for the Baptistery, was given the immediate assignment in 1424 for what was later called the “Paradise Gates”. “Filippo must have been insulted more deeply by the fact that one of his fellow competitors was but a humble plumber, and another was a woman: the biggest insult of them all.”  Ross King says. The assistant and carpenter, Antonio di Ciaccheri Manetti (not Manetti the Biographer) also submitted a model. His model showed he had committed plagiarism. He had largely copied the design of Filippo. Naturally, Filippo’s big rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, submitted a model as well. The other artists were united in their admiration of Brunelleschi’s design.

Construction of the lantern and scaffolding
Crowning lantern ball and crucifix
Brunelleschi Duomo construction of the lantern and scaffolding during the restoration

But they did feel he made one mistake: how on earth would you move from the lantern to the globe with the large cross on top of it? According to Vasari, Filippo had the perfect retort. He removed a piece of wood from his design and showed the stairs to the globe. ‘[…] in the form of a hollow blow-pipe, having on one side a groove with rungs of bronze, whereby one ascends to the top, putting one foot after another.17 Once arriving at the top, right after leaving the stairs and standing next to the lantern; you will see a small opening to the left that is closed off with mesh.  Looking into it, you will see the stairs and rungs Vasari is talking about. One thing becomes clear, these stairs were definitely meant for smaller people.

’empty blow-pipe with bronze rungs’
ascension to top of the lantern

Brunelleschi Duomo lantern 'empty blow-pipe with bronze rungs' ascension to top of the lantern

picture: Christiaan Waters

Brunelleschi’s model of the lantern
Brunelleschi's model of the lantern Museo dell' Opera del Duomo

Inside the Opera del Duomo, which is now a museum, we will still be able to see Brunelleschi’s wooden model next to his death mask. Brunelleschi won the battle. The lantern required an immense amount of marble. Some marble blocks weighed up to an impressive two-and-a-half tonnes. Many remained sceptical about the amount of marble required, located on the square near the Duomo, which had to be placed atop the dome as a crown. Could the dome handle the immense total weight of over half a million kilos? Brunelleschi, who died shortly after construction of the lantern started, left an express statement in his will:

[…] that it was to be constructed according to his model and written instructions; because otherwise, he emphasised, the entire work would collapse, as it was ribbed into pointy, conical arches, with another weight having to be placed on top to add to the overall sturdiness.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘’Lives of the Artists’, Filippo Brunelleschi Part 2 : The dome for the Cathedral of Florence (original edition 1568).


The restoration of the globe with cross        The top and the globe with cross
Brunelleschi Duomo crowning lantern ball and crucifix Florence
Crowning lantern ball and crucifix
Brunelleschi Duomo crowning lantern ball and crucifix Florence

picture: manelzaera

Crowning the lantern

According to Vasari, it was Andrea del Verrocchio who placed the crown after Brunelleschi’s death. Vasari writes about it in his Vita about Andrea as follows:

‘Afterwards, the building of the Cupola of S. Maria del Fiore having been finished, it was resolved, after much discussion, that there should be made the copper ball which, according to the instructions left by Filippo Brunelleschi, was to be placed on the summit of that edifice. Whereupon the task was given to Andrea, who made the ball four braccia high, and, placing it on a knob, secured it in such a manner that afterwards the cross could be safely erected upon it; and the whole work, when finished, was put into position with very great rejoicing and delight among the people.

Brunelleschi Duomo bekroning lantaarn bol en kruis Florence

Truly great were the ingenuity and diligence that had to be used in making it, to the end that it might be possible, as it is, to enter it from below, and also in securing it with good fastenings, lest the winds might do it damage.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘Lives’, Part II, Andrea Verrocchio, p. 265

Ghirlandaio detail marble facing of the drum is not yet in place
Domenico del Ghirlandaio St Zenobius Enthroned detail fresco c. 1483 Palazzo Vecchio Sala dei Gigli marble facing of the drum is not yet in place

Domenico del Ghirlandaio ‘St Zenobius Enthroned’ fresco c. 1483 Palazzo Vecchio Sala dei Gigli

The dome: a new style or just gothic?

The ‘German school’ introduced the following intriguing thesis:

‘The double shell, the shape and size were determined ten years before Brunelleschi’s birth, so in 1367. The famous construction that is usually marked as the advent of a new period, the Renaissance, has nothing to do with it’

Heinrich Klotz, ‘Filippo Brunelleschi The Early Works and the Medieval Tradition’, Rizzoli, New York 1990 p. 78.

Still, Brunelleschi’s dome is unique; as his dome clearly rises above the pitched roof of the nave. What’s more, Brunelleschi succeeds in having the dome connect naturally to the underlying structure. The same cannot be said for the domes in Pisa or Siena.18 Domes that are hardly convincing. They cannot be clearly seen from the outside (except here, but from above) and their connection to other building components is rather forced. Dome support did succeed in Siena and Pisa, but at the expense of a clear and logical layout. In addition, Brunelleschi used gothic constructions, but several elements were completely novel. For instance, he did not use scaffolding from the ground up, he did not use aerial arches with buttresses and visible ribbing was mostly hidden away in the wall planes similar to the chapels in the apse of the Duomo. The circle of chapels that were planned prior to Brunelleschi were to provide the required counter-pressure for the dome. The answer to the above question thus has two parts according to Klotz: the dome is gothic in essence, but also contains a number of elements that can be seen as part of the Renaissance.19

To Alberti, one of Brunelleschi contemporaries, the dome was a true, unique masterpiece as can be read in his foreword to the Italian version of De Pictura:

‘Who, no matter how proud or jealous, would not praise Flip [Filippo] at seeing this enormous construction that rises to the heavens, wide enough to cast a shadow over all citizens of Tuscany, and built without buttresses or wood supports [scaffolding from the ground up], a work of art that, if I recall, was deemed impossible in our time, while the ancients might not even have been able to conceive of it? [Translated from Dutch]

‘Who, no matter how proud or jealous, would not praise Flip [Filippo] at seeing this enormous construction that rises to the heavens, wide enough to cast a shadow over all citizens of Tuscany [view from the Campanile Palazzo Vecchio], and built without buttresses or wood supports [scaffolding from the ground up], a work of art that, if I recall, was deemed impossible in our time, while the ancients might not even have been able to conceive of it? [Translated from Dutch]

Alberti, ‘Over de schilderkunst’, (translation Lex Hermans, Intro and annotations Caroline van Eck and Robert Zwijnenberg) Boom, Amsterdam Meppel 1996 p. 62

Santa Maria del Fiore large size        Santa Maria del Fiore
Dome zoom in and large size
Brunelleschi Duomo interior dome Florence

picture: Philip Greenspun

                                                                                                 Youtube Gnomon Cathedral LdM News (2 minutes)
‘In 1475, inspired by the height of the dome, Toscanelli climbed up and placed at the base of the lantern, with approval of the Opera del Duomo, a bronze plate. It was shaped in a way that a ray of sunlight would penetrate an opening at the centre of the plate to reach a special dial at the floor of the cathedral, incorporated on a stone in the Holy Cross chapel. The Santa Maria del Fiore thus changed into a giant sundial. This instrument would prove essential to the history of astronomy.’ Digischool‘Between 12.30 and 13.30 on Friday 21 and 28 June, you can attend a phenomenon of great beauty in the cathedral of Florence: the sun’s rays fall through Brunelleschi’s dome, forming the image of the solar disk that will to overlap perfectly with that of marble placed on the floor of the Chapel of the Cross, to the left of the High Altar.  The Toscany Review

Pictures: Wikimedia commons

Chapels surrounding the apse in the Duomo

Main altar and a view from the top       Choir
Santa Maria del Fiore apisi altaar

Foto: Kimhaz – Back To Catching Up

Altar, apse and a chapel
Duomo Florence altar, apse and a chapel

We descend again and look at the chapels in the apse. Here we can admire gothic constructions. Gothic master builders were experts at capturing and diverting the forces exerted by a vault or roof. In the three chapels and the vaults of the nave, you can see how the forces are securely transferred down by all kinds of arches, ribs and small bundles of columns (largely hidden away in the walls).20 We will later look at how Brunelleschi copies this gothic principle in his Old Sacristy and Pazzi chapel (left: Duomo and right Pazzi chapel). Naturally, Filippo does translate the gothic arches and ribs into correctly proportioned classic columns. Aside from the construction, Brunelleschi also used the white plastered walls of the Duomo in his architecture. According to Manetti, Brunelleschi was an expert on gothic constructions and more than that, as ‘he studied the excellent and ingenious construction methods of Antiquity and their musical proportions.’21

vaults of the nave of the Duomo
vaults of the nave of the Duomo Florence

picture: Ray Streeter

Santa Maria del Fiore nave
Santa Maria del Fiore nave Florence


Grave Brunelleschi   Frederic Lord Leighton ‘The death of Brunelleschi’ 1852
Santa Maria del Fiore
Brunelleschi's graf in de Santa Maria del Fiore

picture: Alex Kane

Insciption plague:

Both the magnificent dome of this famous church and many other devices invented by Filippo the architect bear witness to his superb skill. Therefore, in tribute to his exceptional talents, a grateful country that will always remember buries him here in the soil below.

The facade of the Duomo

Santa Maria del Fiore and the facade           The facade and the Campanile
Robert Sayer after G. Zocchi ‘Procession on  Corpus Christi’ 1750 colored etching  h. 298 x w. 455 mm. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
facade Santa Maria del Fiore Duomo Florence

If we walk back out we will have another look at the facade of the Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction of this gothic facade, or better put, neogothic, only started in 1875. Prior to that, the facade looked similar to what you can presently see at the San Lorenzo.

Facade after 1875 large size        Facade before 1875
Santa Maria del Fiore Florence

Work on a gothic facade did already start in the first half of the fourteenth century, but it was only half completed as they were no longer satisfied with the old style. This fourteenth-century facade was of major importance to sculpting.22 By the fifteenth century, a number of statues were crafted for this facade including by Donatello.23 (click here for the story about these statues).

The facade 19e century gothic facade 14th century Bernardo Sansone Sgrilli after G. Zocchi 1738-1815 etching h. 100 mm x 190 mm large
Bernardino Poccetti ‘Facade of the Duomo Florence’  1587 Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo Florence
facade Santa Maria del Fiore facade  19e century

We will have a look at this on the days we examine sculpting art when we visit the splendid museum behind the Duomo: the Opera del Duomo. The collection includes several statues made by Arnolfo di Cambio, which he made for the facade in the early 1400s. (click here for the story about the statues for the facade of Cambio). When Pope Leo X (Medici) visits his city in 1515, a wooden construction is erected against the facade to make the Duomo look good. In 1587, the semi-gothic facade is torn down, but people could not decide  which of the submitted designs should be constructed.

The current facade, completed in 1887, is barely distinguishable from an authentic gothic facade. The statues alone reveal a neogothic style. This is because they look straight down at the people below, something a Medieval sculptor would refrain from doing.

The Campanile

Entrance Campanile detail
 Entrance Campanile Duomo Florence

 Next to the Duomo is the Campanile: the clocktower.24 When the Arno again flooded the square in front of Santa Reparata in 1333, the old tower is heavily damaged. One year later, Giotto, the painter aptly referred to by Vasari as ‘the father of painting’, is commissioned to design a new tower. Vasari accurately describes how the foundations for this tower are laid, but he fails to mention that quite quickly the Campanile began to sag during construction. Giotto was a painter who could make designs on paper, but constructions were a different thing altogether.  Rumours even had it that the painter died of shame in 1337. Giotto’s design is based on the gothic tip of the Freiburg cathedral.

When Giotto passes away, Andrea Pisano takes over. First he fortifies the foundations with a one-and-a-half metre wall. He then constructs the second part of the tower above the ‘pedestal‘. He had already crafted the reliefs surrounding the base of Giotto. Now that he was appointed the capomaestro of the Campanile, he adds a second row of reliefs above it (Wikipedia reliefs Andrea Pisano). For the second part above the pedestal, Pisano changes Giotto’s windows into a number of recesses to house statues. The statues including some famous examples of Donatello and of course by Pisano himself. Statues we will later see at the Opera del Duomo. The Florentines were not particularly happy with the sculptor’s work, as Andrea used all kinds of motifs from Venice and Siena. This eventually led to him being discharged from the project.

Campanile and the context of the immediate vicinity     Youtube reliefs  Pisano (5.58 minutes)

photo: Tiberio Frascari

Francesco Talenti, a true Florentine, was an architect. For his design of the top section, Talenti fell back on the original plans by Gioto.25 For instance, the gables, the rotated plinths at the windows, the bifore and trifore windows were clearly influenced by Giotto’s plan. The point that Giotto had in mind was never realised after Talenti had completed his work in 1359. It was no longer feasible, as Vasari put it, ‘because this is something old-fashioned and German, modern architects refused to do it and just left it like this.’26

Top side of thee campanile large size          Bottom side of the Campanile

photo: Alexander Fink

The next day one continuation-3