My first sight of the Duomo was late in the evening on the day of our arrival in Florence. We had glimpsed Brunelleschi’s dome poking above the rooftops but nothing could prepare us for the first ‘full frontal’. In the dark the cathedral has to rely on its sheer bulk to impress as you can only get the vaguest impression of its architectural detail. It is only in the morning you realise why it seemed to glow in the moonlight.
I’ve been raised on gothic north European cathedrals with their hardy, plain stone, a few gargoyles here and there and sad, acid rain-melted apostles. This is poor preparation for the sheer grandeur and opulence of the Duomo, Campanile (bell tower) and octagonal Baptistry of Florence. The exteriors are a vibrant combination of white, pink and green marble – I can hear my mother’s voice now "fussy". It immediately made the Blonde and I recall the book of wedding cakes our local Italian restaurateur (Gino’s of Ruddington -- service with a smile and a killer cappuccino) thrust in our direction a few months earlier.
Begun at the end of the 13th century, the Duomo is testament to the rivalry of the medieval Italian cities and their desire to outdo each other. The building is vast; it will hold 20,000 people with ease. Its interior is in stark contrast to the overdone Neo-gothic façade – cool and sobering. There was a long queue to get inside but it moves along fairly quickly and it’s well worth the short wait. It is in stark contrast to the over blown exterior – calming and relatively plain. Once inside I was drawn towards the octagonal sanctuary, sitting directly under the dome itself. Looking up into the vast dome you can start to make out Vasari’s ‘Last Judgement’ fresco. Study this painting a while; it is marvellously shocking.
If you’re feeling fit, you can climb both the 85m Campanile (around 5 euros) and up to the top of the Dome, a further 6m up (6 euros for the pleasure). I heartily recommend both; you get similar views across the terracotta rooftops of the city but the Campanile has the added bonus of enabling you to see the dome in all its glory. A major part of the thrill of climbing the dome is the route up; a gravity-defying gallery around the inside of the dome (with some rather gruesome views of those who ‘failed’ the Last Judgment –- that poker must smart a little!) and then up between the dome’s outer and inner skins. Brunelleschi constructed this 42m-diameter dome without the aid of scaffolding. The secret lay in separating the relatively thin outer skin from a self-supporting inner layer constructed using a herringbone brick arrangement. It is fascinating to observe the structure as you ascend the sloping staircases and duck into successive chambers.
The regulation of visitors means that the top of the dome is relatively spacious (compare it with the top of St. Peter’s if you ever get to Rome) and you can enjoy a marvellous view across the rooftops. Sensible city planning as prevented the encroachment of tower blocks and other modern obscenities. And you also pick up a pleasant breeze that’s unnoticeable at street level.
The Duomo is an astonishing structure; completely out of proportion with the rest of the city, it is a marvel to behold and be a part of for a little while. Florence is full of self-aware beauty and the Duomo is the vainest of them all, but it really is as gorgeous as it thinks it is!