Florence Cathedral Complex

Baptistery, 11th century

Cathedral begun 1296

Campanile begun 1334




Multiple Separate Structures

The Cathedral of Florence is also called Santa Maria della Fiore (St. Mary of the Flowers).


As at Pisa, the campanile and baptistery are separate from the cathedral.  Both were also largely built in the Romanesque and Gothic periods.


Encrusted Marble on All Buildings

Despite the construction of the three buildings over a period of centuries, they are unified stylistically by the use of encrusted marble, which was a traditional practice in Tuscany.  White and dark green marble were used on all three buildings, and rose marble was also used on the cathedral and campanile, which were built later than the baptistery.





1294: Deciding to Build

In 1294, the decision was made to build a new cathedral to replace the current one, which dated to the eighth or ninth-century.


1296-c.1302:  Beginning Construction

Construction was begun under Arnolfo di Cambio, who served as Master of Works until his death.


1331: Deciding to Enlarge

A larger plan was adopted after excavating the old crypt and recovering the supposed relics of St. Zenobius, Florence's first bishop.


1334: Pausing Construction

Work on the cathedral was stopped in order to accelerate the construction of the campanile.


1355: Engaging Francesco Talenti

In 1355, Francesco Talenti became the Master of Works, and construction resumed.


1357: Beginning Nave Piers

The nave piers were begun in 1357.


1368: Completing Brick Model  

The final design for the whole church was realized by a brick model in 1368.


1410: Completing Work up to Drum

By 1410, construction was complete up to the drum, which was begun then.


1418-36: Building Dome

In 1418, Brunelleschi won a competition to determine the design and means of construction for the dome of Florence Cathedral.  Over the next eighteen years, he built the dome, which he accomplished without using centering.


1446-61: Building Lantern

The lantern, which had been designed by Brunelleschi in 1436, was begun by him in 1446. After his death in that year, it was continued by Michelozzo, and construction was completed in 1461.  The lantern was later crowned by a cross topped gilded copper ball made by Verrocchio.


1871-87: Building Façade

Emilio De Fabris built the façade between 1871 and 1887.





Principal Architects

Three important architects worked on the design of Florence Cathedral.


Arnolfo di Cambio. Arnolfo di Cambio, who proposed a smaller building than the current structure, began construction in 1296.  The octagonal crossing was established during his period of construction.  He also completed a small section of the façade, which is illustrated by a drawing copied from a 1342 fresco illustrating the cathedral. 


Francesco Talenti. Francesco Talenti enlarged Arnolfo's plan in the 1350s. 


Filippo Brunelleschi. In the fifteenth century, Filippo Brunelleschi designed and built the dome, added buttressing to brace the corners, and designed the lantern. 


Centralization of East End

As can be seen on the plan, the transept arms repeat the form of the five-sided projection of the apse.  Because of this repetition and the relatively short projection of its three arms in proportion the crossing size, the east end looks like a centralized church.


Rib Vaulting

Florence's cathedral was among the first Italian churches to employ rib vaulting instead of timber trusses for the nave ceiling.  The side aisles are also rib-vaulted. Tie-rods brace the structure in several places:  across the nave, along the nave arcade, and across the side aisles.



The interior of Florence Cathedral has the spaciousness of a single large room.  Two features of the design contribute to this effect.


Proportionately taller side aisles. There is proportionately less discrepancy between the nave and side-aisle heights of Florence Cathedral than of northern churches like Reims and Amiens, which are both comparable in height.  Florence Cathedral's side aisles are around two-thirds of the nave height whereas those of northern cathedrals are around half the nave height.


This difference in vertical proportions is the result of Florence Cathedral dedicating the spaces occupied by triforium galleries in northern churches to the side aisles, which became taller through this addition.


Widely spaced piers.  The piers of the nave arcade are widely spaced and form square vaults whereas those of northern Gothic churches are more closely spaced and form rectangular vaults.


Patterns of Encrusted Marble

The Cathedral is covered by a linear pattern of stripes and geometric shapes like rectangles, which echo the cathedral’s blockish shape and accentuate architectural features like doors, buttresses, and blind arches.



The giant dome is the cathedral's most impressive feature due to its bold design and great size.  It was the widest dome built since the ancient Roman Pantheon.


The dome was built in the fifteenth century under the direction of the first Renaissance architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed a double shell that was braced with a system of internal ribs.


Because of its polygonal base and sectional composition, the dome is classified as a domical vault, a form that was often used in Medieval churches.  This design was necessary because of the existence of a polygonal drum.


The dome is carried by eight piers whose sizes and shapes vary to form the spaces around the dome.


The rotunda is illuminated by oculi in seven of the sections of the octagonal drum.


See more about Brunelleschi's dome.





Construction History

Although parts of the façade had been built, it remained unfinished in the Renaissance.  In 1587, the partially complete façade was removed to make way for a new one, which was not built.


In the late nineteenth century, a new façade was built under Emilio De Fabris.



Like most basilica façades, the façade of Florence Cathedral has a three-part composition, which reflects its constituent parts, the nave and side aisles.


A rose window accentuates the central section.


Sculpture is concentrated around the portals, on the buttresses, across the upper body, and along the roof edges.


The main doors, also relatively new, contain an arrangement of panels depicting religious scenes and figures.  They are made of cast bronze and were likely intended to complement the baptistery doors.  






Dome. The interior of the dome is decorated with frescoes depicting the Last Judgment, which was begun in the early 1570s by Giorgio Vasari and finished after Vasari's death by Federico Zuccari.


Side walls. Because the windows occupy a relatively small portion of the walls and vaults compared with those of northern Gothic cathedrals, much wall space is available for paintings like the equestrian portraits commemorating the tombs of famous condottieri.


The pose of Uccello's 1436 portrait of John Hawkwood was repeated later in Padua by Donatello's equestrian sculpture of the northern condottiere known as Gattamelata (Tabby Cat), which he began in Padua in 1447.


Entrance wall. The interior facing of the entrance wall was completed in the fifteenth century, and the face of the clock above the main entrance was painted by Uccello in 1443.



Occupying the tympanum above the doorway is a Byzantine -style mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin, which is attributed to Maestro Francesco da Pisa and dated to around 1300.


Stained Glass

The theme of the Virgin's Coronation is repeated in a stained-glass oculus designed by Donatello.  This window is one of the seven oculi of the drum, which illustrate the lives of Jesus and Mary.



The tomb of Antonio Orso, one of the bishops of Florence Cathedral, was sculpted by the fourteen-century Sienese sculptor Tino di Camaino.  It is located on the entrance wall, and parts of it are now missing.  As was typical of tomb sculpture, the deceased is depicted seated above a sarcophagus, which is supported by brackets.


Donatello and Luca della Robbia made cantorie (choir boxes), which are now on view in the cathedral's museum, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.


Luca della Robbia also made lunettes in terracotta to go above the doors to the sacristies.  The lunette above the door to the south sacristy (1446-51) depicts the Ascension, and the one above the door to the north sacristy depicts the Resurrection (1444).






The name, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, reflects the Baptistery's dedication to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence.


Dating and Belief in Ancient Origin

Because it was believed to have been an ancient Roman Temple of Mars, this building influenced the architecture of Florence in the Renaissance.  Renaissance architects such as Brunelleschi and Alberti looked to classical architecture for models and believed that they were emulating ancient architecture when they utilized the form and style of the Baptistery.


The notion of the Baptistery's ancient beginnings was based on a belief that its core structure was built when Florence was a Roman city, but the physical evidence shows that it was built on the site of a sixth or seventh century structure.


The marble facing, the sloped roof, and the lantern date to the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries.



Like many other baptisteries, the plan is octagonal.  Because baptism was seen as a process of Christian "rebirth," the choice of eight sides was a deliberate reference to the seven days of Creation plus an eighth for Resurrection.


Encrusted Marble

The marble veneer of both the interior and exterior of the Baptistery is organized according to a tripartite division of each of the eight sides.



The three pairs of bronze doors, which face north, south, and east, feature a series of cast-bronze panels. Gilding brightened and enriched the surfaces of the east doors.


First pair. In the 1330s, Andrea Pisano made the earliest pair of doors, now located on the south side of the Baptistery. 


Second pair. The commissioning of the second pair was determined by a competition in 1401 in which the entrants each produced a panel depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac.  Still preserved from this event are the entries made by Brunelleschi, who later became an architect, and Ghiberti, who won the competition.  The doors were installed in 1424. 


Third pair. Ghiberti made the third pair in the second quarter of the fifteenth century, from 1426-1452. These doors, which were hung on the east side toward the Cathedral, are known as the "Gates of Paradise," a name that Michelangelo, according to Vasari's Lives, used in praising them.  Each door contains five square panels, which are set within a framework filled with figures and decorative forms. 


Sculpture over Portal

Above the "Gates of Paradise," a figure group sculpted by Andrea Sansovino depicts the Baptistery's name saint, John the Baptist, in the act of baptizing his younger contemporary Jesus.



As illustrated by a section, the domical vault forming the baptistery's ceiling extends the full width of the building and accounts for over half of its interior height.


The ceiling, executed between c. 1270 and c. 1300, is covered by an elaborate mosaic cycle representing the creation story, the Last Judgment, and the life of St. John the Baptist.





Relative Height

The campanile is located to the right of the cathedral's entrance.



Three different architects worked on the campanile.


Giotto. Giotto, who originally designed the campanile, began its construction in 1334 but lived to see the completion of only the first story.


Andrea Pisano. Andrea Pisano supervised the construction of the next two levels, which were built according to Giotto's design.


Francesco Talenti. Francesco Talenti increased the height of the upper stories, which he completed in the 1350s while supervising the construction of the cathedral.



The scale of the different stories follows an upward progression from the relatively small-scale series of panels on the lower level, to the larger niches of the next level, and then on to the increasingly larger windows of the middle and upper levels.  When viewed from below, this sequence of increasingly larger sizes compensates for the perceptual effect of distant objects appearing smaller.  Consequently, all the panels and openings appear close to each other in size.


Donatello's Statues of Prophets

The large niches on the third level contain over-life-size sculpted figures

of the Prophets by Donatello and others.  Among the most admired are Donatello's Habakkuk (Lo Zuccone) and Jeremiah, dating from c. 1423-36.  They have both been moved to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and replaced by copies.


Relief Sculpture

The hexagonal sculpted reliefs on the base are one of the campanile's most celebrated features.  Most are by Andrea Pisano, some are by his son Nino, and five are by Luca della Robbia.


The individual panels, which are limited to simple compositions with one or two figures, illustrate the history and achievements of man.











Italian Medieval Architecture 7 of 15