Day of the Duomo

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
Trip End Nov 02, 2012

Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Saturday, October 27, 2012

Every guide book of Florence says visitors have to see the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a church more commonly referred to as simply the Duomo. It's Firenze's "thing"--the one thing we had to make sure to see. So the first half of today was devoted to this building; today was the Day of the Duomo. I kind of feel like this should have its own theme song. Someone get on that and get back to me, OK?

The cathedral, topped by Brunelleschi's dome, dominates the Florentine skyline. When the cornerstone was laid at the end of the 13th century, they hadn't actually yet decided on a design for the dome itself. Work progressed slowly--from the cornerstone moment in 1296 to the consecration in 1436 to the placement of the copper ball atop the dome in 1466, it took 170 years and generations of Florentines to build a cathedral worthy of the great, burgeoning city of Firenze. For many years, Brunelleschi's ingeniously designed dome was the largest of its kind ever built and the first major dome built in Europe since the days of the Romans saw the construction of Rome's Pantheon and Constantinople's Hagia Sophia.  
How can I put this succinctly and without sounding just this side of crazy? The Duomo is Firenze, and Firenze is the Duomo. Whereas the Coliseum could never encapsulate Rome, this church seems (to me, at least) to embody the city, its history, its people, and its future.  It's not just mortar and marble--it's Firenze's spirit and story made concrete. A little philosophical, perhaps, but let me explain. The Duomo is the heart of Florence and has been for just about as long as Florence has been of any importance. Beyond the building itself, the very site of the cathedral has been a focal point throughout the city's history, originally home to ancient Roman settlements as well as the city's first major church, Santa Reparata, whose earliest construction began as far back as the 5th century. Quite literally, Santa Maria del Fiore grew from the city's ancient roots.

By 1296, when the city decided it had outgrown the old church and needed to build a newer, grander one befitting the forward-thinking Florentine society, Firenze had already begun to make a name for itself across Europe. The rise of its guilds led to increased trade goods and opportunities, which itself led to a rise in the banking industry (and the prominence of the Medici). This wealth and prosperity then went right back into new construction and development projects, which increased the work and fame of the city's guilds, and started the circle anew. What we refer to as 'the arts' really flourished with the rise of Firenze--after all, what good is wealth if you can't show it off? And what better way to show it off than to commission beautiful things? It was precisely this back and forth that birthed the Duomo project and, ultimately, the entire Renaissance. These artisans (painters, smiths, engineers, architects, craftsmen of all stripes) existed in Florence because of its wealth and industry, and these conditions allowed them the means, the creativity, and the ability needed not just to build a cathedral, but to build a Renaissance cathedral. For example: the dome was built without the traditional flying buttresses found in contemporary architecture--a rejection of the medieval gothic style and as clear an indicator as any of the onset of the Renaissance. Its decorations and details were made using brand new artistic and innovative techniques, unseen in the medieval era. The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore ushered in the Renaissance, and the Renaissance made Firenze famous across the globe. Without this "building," this city may have faded with time like so many other important cities of the past. Instead, it changed the world.  

Sure, when it comes down to it, it's just a cathedral. There are a million cathedrals in Europe, some far older and grander than this. This building, and Firenze by extension, rooted in the ancient and the medieval age, blossomed in the Renaissance, evolved in the following centuries, and still finds itself under constant renewal in the modern age. Generations upon generations of Florentines have poured their hearts and souls into this marble and mortar, and in turn, it tells their stories. And that is what makes the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore a timeless treasure worthy of all of the praise heaped upon it over centuries past and centuries to come. 
The opening times of all of the buildings in the Duomo complex (church, bell tower, baptistry, museum, etc.) are varied and staggered, so we had to plan out our agenda the evening before. After our quick breakfast at il Snack Bar, we entered the Piazza del Duomo and laid our eyes on the imposing heart of the city in its polychrome glory. Tip:  hit this place early if you want some good photos. Otherwise, you'll be bumping a lot of elbows or getting stuck taking photos with tackily dressed tourists in them. (Side note:  Don't be that person wearing fanny packs or USA shirts when you travel the world. Just don't.) Part of the appeal of these buildings is that they offer an unparalleled view of the Florentine skyline and the Tuscan landscape beyond the city limits.  

You have the option of climbing the infamous Duomo itself and walking along Brunelleschi's masterpiece--or, you could climb the Campanile, trading in the Duomo's long line for a "walk right up" experience and ensuring that all of the million photos you take from the top (and you will take a's required) will actually include the famous landmark. Or you could do both, but honestly, I think Violet would have killed me if I had even come close to making that suggestion.  

 The bell tower has a neat story of its own, which you can read up on at its wikipedia entry. Long story short, it took 25 years and three different masters to build it. Not even the Black Death could hold this thing back. I mean it slowed them down a little, sure, but eventually Firenze ended up with a 277.9 foot tall bell tower built in three different styles (each master had their own ideas on how it should look) and a mere 414 steps to climb to reach the walkway at the top.  If you are in any way afraid of heights, don't bother. Each landing has grates in the floor so you can look straight down the entirety of the tower. Being me, I went and stood on the grate to take photos. Violet...did not, nor did she appreciate my sangfroid. After what felt like an eternity and quite out of breath, we made it up to the top of the tower, walked past the security guard and out into the open air. Given that there's no elevator and I didn't see a bathroom, I'm pretty sure that security guard has the worst job in town (but probably the most awesome calves).  

Standing atop Giotto's Campanile as a rain storm rolled toward us over the mountains--that's one of my top five moments of this trip. I always like the moments before a storm. The overcast sky has a way of making colors more vivid; the winds bring the smell of rain and freshness, and the changing pressure makes the entire scene feel so rife. In combination, the scene was almost surreal. I couldn't tell you how long we were up there, staring, searching out landmarks, watching the clouds, gazing at the mountains across a sea of red tile rooftops. Felt like a whole different world. In the end, though, it started to drizzle as the storm front made its way closer, and as we surveyed our surroundings, it dawned on us that the lightning rod on the top appeared to be grounded to the metal cage surrounding the walkway--the one we kept touching and leaning upon. As frying to a crisp was on neither of our agendas for the day, we ducked back inside and retraced our steps (all 414 of them) down the length of the tower.  
With time to spare before the Basilica itself opened its doors and with the rain starting to fall, we headed to the church's museum, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which was created by the organization that built the church in the first place. It chronicles the history of the cathedral and houses some of its finest acquisitions and original decorations from its 700 year history. Some of the highlights include the church's original cantorias by Donatello and Luca della Robia, one of Michelangelo's three Pieta sculptures, the original decorative panels and sculptures from Giotto's Campanile, and the original wooden tools Brunelleschi developed and used for the construction of his famous dome. There's also a host of medieval and renaissance era paintings, including some of the Byzantine-influenced pieces to which I seem to be drawn. The collection's centerpieces, though, are the original bronze doors to the east entrance of the baptistry (vacuum-sealed for that fresh smell). Michelangelo said these doors are fit to be the gates of paradise, Porte del Paradiso, and I think he nailed it. These doors represent a leap forward in renaissance art and artistic technique and are quite rightly one of the most prized possessions of the museum. I mean Michelangelo was in awe of them! Standing before them, craning your neck to try and take it all in--it makes you feel very inconsequential. And that's a powerful experience.  

Two things I'd like to discuss before we leave the story of the museum behind. In short, bones and breasts.  

I'm serious. 
  • Bones first, though. There is a whole room devoted to religious relics, which, admittedly, I find both morbid and fascinating. For the unaware, a relic is a part of the body of a saint or other venerated person. At one time, producing and selling religious relics was a bit of a con-man's dream--dig up Grandpa Joe and sell him off piecemeal as about a dozen different saints. There's no telling whose bones (and teeth and fingernails and other bits) are actually on display. But that's only half of it. Master craftsmen have created these golden, opulent, jewel-encrusted displays to house these relics over the centuries. We're talking master works of goldsmithing and metalsmithing. Imagine a large, round base housing a jawbone, topped by one or two layers displaying increasingly smaller bones and fragments. It's like the world's most disturbing wedding cake.  
  • Secondly (and thirdly, if we're being technical)--breasts. I was intrigued by the sheer number of paintings depicting the Holy Mother in the process of breastfeeding an infant Jesus. Modern society (Americans in particular) are so Victorian about such things, insisting that they be done in seclusion or never discussed, never mind that it's just about as natural and motherly as one can get. As a 21st century woman lacking this aforementioned squeamishness, turning a corner and seeing Mary and the blessed bosom bared for all to see had me absolutely tickled. Mostly, I was imagining what some folks back home would say, picturing some little old southern church lady, her big blue hair covered in a plastic Wal-Mart sack, seeing such a painting, furrowing her brow, her lips disappearing into a thin line, and mumbling something along the lines of "Well, I never..." I would have paid to see that scene actually unfold.  
By the time we left the museum, the storm was well and truly upon us; we made our way to the queue in front of the Duomo in the pouring rain. Don't worry--if you find yourself without an umbrella in a downpour, there are about 100 enthusiastic entrepreneurs spaced about every 20 feet willing to sell you an umbrella for €10. They're less obnoxious than the ones in Rome, though, mostly because they can clearly tell you aren't in the market for their product when you walk by with one in your hand. Once inside the cathedral itself, there's a bit of a weird duality in the visitor experience. On the one hand, you walk into this immense, space with these beautifully vaulted ceilings and that impossibly large, frescoed dome. But at the same time, you're shuffling along in a rope-enclosed circuit of the space along with hundreds of other tourists, and for all intents and purposes, it feels like the world's most beautiful cattle chute. You might consider a second circuit just to make sure you saw what you wanted to see--it's easy to miss out on the beautifully restored stained glass windows lining the nave and the apse, the intricately tiled floors beneath your feet, and the layers and layers of detail in the painted dome itself. In contrast to the rather ornate (and, in my opinion, kind of gaudy) decoration on the exterior of the church, the interior is remarkably simple. It's a nice contrast, and to me at least it makes the artistic pieces contained therein all the more powerful in juxtaposition.

Lest you think that your tour is over after your 10-minute shuffle around the church, there's actually a crypt beneath your feet, and for a small fee, you'll be free to wander through the history of Firenze. Literally. Beneath the floor of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore sits a trove of archaeological treasures that had remained hidden until excavations were undertaken in the mid-20th century. The area open to the public is relatively small, particularly in juxtaposition to the spaciousness of medieval Europe's largest cathedral, conveniently located directly above it. Excavations have uncovered not only the remains of the Basilica di Santa Reparata, which was once Firenze's primary cathedral but was torn down to make way for the construction of the current one in the 13th century, but also of two earlier churches on the same site, as well as some buildings that may even date back to the Roman era of Florentine history. With these architectural remnants as a backdrop, the rest of the crypt contains a collection of tombs of various important Florentines, including the famed Brunelleschi, a collection of yet more relics, some glass cases displaying various artifacts found during the excavation (including a wicked bronze sword and set of spurs), and an amazing geometric tile floor dating back to the 700's. This Assassin's Creed nerd got all of the Apple of Eden/Knights Templar iconography her little heart could desire (hey, don't judge me). The highlight, though, were the elaborately engraved and decorated tombstones, many of them belonging to various members of the Medici family. Can I place an order for one of those when I kick it?  

Back above ground and outside, the rain was really settling in over the city. Unfortunately. We had pre-booked an entrance time to our next destination, and the only way to get there was on foot. One of the great things about old Firenze is that the majority of the historic section is designated as foot-traffic only. Of course, in a downpour, this was not necessarily the opinion I voiced, but I survived, and I'm sitting here warm and dry at the moment! Really though, it's a fantastic idea, and it really helps develop commerce along the arteries between major sights as well as safeguard the well-being of the millions who flock to this picturesque city every year. Anyway, we lunched at a random cafe on our journey southward to the River Arno, and in true Florentine spirit, went ahead and gnoshed on gelato for dessert, in spite of the plummeting temperatures outside.

Aside from the Duomo, another spot often billed as "can't miss" is Firenze's most famous museum, the Galleria degli Uffizi, or the Uffizi Gallery. Long story short (too late), this U-shaped palace was originally built by the Medici to house the region's administrative offices. The word 'uffizi' literally means offices. Originally, the Medici kept a few rooms on the third floor to house some of their art collection. Through the years, the collection expanded. When I say expanded, I mean it exploded. Those few rooms became forty-five rooms and halls, and these Florentine and Italian treasures have been on display to the public since the 18th century, when the last Medici heir left everything to the city. And they do have some amazing pieces. One thing I learned from all of our time in art museums here is that I really like 12-13th century pieces with a Byzantine influence (for non-art folk, those are the ones with lots of gold in the background), i.e. Giotto, Fra' Angelico. Violet disagrees with me on this, but, well, there were plenty of other paintings for her to enjoy. Lippi's "Madonna and Child" was phenomenal. Works from Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Titian. Caravaggio's "Medusa." The crowning piece for me was Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." Just...breathtaking. We probably spent half an hour in the Botticelli room. That may or may not have had something to do with the padded seats in the center of it, though.   

Here's the thing:  like I said, there are some unbelievably beautiful pieces here.  Masterpieces. Unparalleled examples of Italian art, with some non-Italians stuck in the basement as an afterthought. There's a hitch, though. You know that kid in school who was the star athlete...and knew it? For some folks, knowing they're good at what they do brings out a level of arrogance so off-putting it's game-changing. The Uffizi is that jerk from school. They know they've got the goods, so, at least from this visitor's point of view, there's very little done to ensure a fun, comfortable experience for the public. We walked for hours through 40+ rooms and halls, shuffling along with the crowds. It felt a bit like being in a school of fish. Or, I mean, what I imagine that to feel like. In those hours, I remember exactly two opportunities for visitors to sit, to get off their aching feet, or just to stop and enjoy the art for more than a few seconds. Two. And whatever you do, do not attempt to lean against any surface. Multiple museum guards will apparate like Death Eaters to hurl curses at you in a mix of Italian/English. Everywhere else we went in Italy, people were gracious, welcoming, and hospitable. Here they seemed mostly just annoyed that people were in their building. My gift to you:  use this fantastic website to peruse the works of the Uffizi from the comfort of your home--skip the queues, the pretentiousness, and the blisters on your feet. I kind of wish I had.  

After recuperating at our hotel, with supper in mind we slogged a whole fifty feet across the Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini (isn't that fun to say?) to a nice restaurant I'd been eyeing ever since we threw open the shutters in our hotel room: Trattoria lo Stracotto (aka The Stew). I felt like the servers were a little, I don't know, haughty, but the food was outstanding. Potato gnocchi, crème brûlée, fantastic wine, and Violet's new favorite food:  porcini mushrooms. A little drunk and a lot full, we managed to make it back across the lively piazza to our fantastic Florentine hotel for some well-earned Z's.  

Lessons learned today:
  • Medieval staircases were not made for people passing one another, heading in opposite directions. Be prepared for awkward jostling. Also, our ancestors clearly had tiny feet.  Coming down the steps of the Campanile, I kept imagining the headline, "Clumsy American tourist loses footing in medieval bell tower, plummets down 400+ stairs. Experts believe large feet to blame." 
  • Violet touched a Donatello. I won't say which one, and I won't say where (just in case), but she looked like a five-year-old on Christmas morning. Which leads me to my next point:  people are allowed to be ridiculously close to these priceless pieces of art in this country. We're used to having to observe from ten feet away, behind ropes and lasers and barbed wire and what not.  It almost feels too good to be true.  
  • The Arno River on an overcast day is one of the most picturesque sights I've ever seen. Anyone want to be my patron and buy a little apartment there for me? I'd totally give you credit in any future writing/photography endeavors undertaken whilst in Florence. Just a thought. 
  • Don't tell a hormonal, exhausted woman she's not allowed to lean on a wall when she's clearly dead on her feet. In the interest of your own survival, sir, just don't. Consider yourself lucky that all you got was 'the look.'
  • Apparently when you pretty much run/own a city, you can have your citizens build you an elevated walkway between your house and your office (well, the city offices). So you don't have to mix with the untouchables. And then they'll line it with priceless art. Et voila:  the Vasari Corridor. Think if I changed my last name to Medici they'd let me in?
  • Also, as long as your last name is Medici, you can be a young sociopath and yet still get a statue erected in your honor. In the photos below, look for the statue of Lodovico de Medici, aka Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. And then read what he's said to have done in his formative years. 
  • Crème brûlée is one of the best things ever invented. My new goal:  creme brulee on every continent. I'm not sure how I'll pull this off in Antarctica, but a girl can try.
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