I’ve written about our time in Rome (part 1 and part 2), but we visited two other during our time in Italy at the end of May. Next up? Florence! If Rome is all about ancient ruins and the Catholic church, Florence just screams Renaissance. It’s all art, all architecture, all Renaissance, all the time.
Duomo peeking over the rooftops, as seen from a balcony at our hotel, Hotel Botticelli
My favorite single thing in Florence is the Duomo. Yes, that’s just the generic Italian word for dome, but that’s all you need to describe the amazing dome that Filippo Brunelleschi constructed to cap the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.
I’ve been fascinated by the Duomo since 10th grade, when we learned about it in my world history class. (When I visited Florence for the first time in 2001, I actually sent my 10th grade teacher a postcard telling him how excited I was to finally see the Duomo in person! I hope he liked it. The Duomo is beautiful, yes, but what really interests me is the architecture. See, the church itself had been under construction for 100 years already by the early 1400s, but it remained dome-less because no one had figured out how to solve the technical problems associated with building such a large structure. The Italians didn’t want to use flying buttresses (like those on Notre Dame in Paris and many other Gothic style churches) to support the load of the dome, and it would be impossible to build enough wooden scaffolding to support such a structure, so a new solution had to be found. No dome of this size had been built since antiquity! Before beginning, Brunelleschi had to spend years studying the Pantheon in Rome, figuring out how to recapture the knowledge that had been lost in the centuries since the Roman empire fell.
Modern engineering of course didn’t exist yet, and there weren’t fancy equations and calculations and computer programs available to calculate the stresses and forces in the structure. Instead, Brunelleschi relied on scale models and his own engineering intuition to figure out how the dome could be constructed. There are actually two domes — an inner and outer shell — which help divide up the weight of the structure. The outer dome features thousands of bricks laid in a herringbone pattern, which helps transfer the load to the large “ribs” surrounding the dome. (It’s actually an octagon, instead of a perfectly round dome.)
Here I am chillin’ with a big statue of Brunelleschi. This statue is directly across the street from the church, so he’s looking up at the Duomo he designed. And so am I! In the end, Brunelleschi was obviously successful in engineering the construction of the dome, and the Duomo of Florence is still the largest masonry dome in the world today.
As if all that weren’t cool enough, you can actually climb to the top of the Duomo so OF COURSE we had to do that. (I climbed it in 2001 as well.) I’ve forgotten how many steps there are — something like 500 — so it’s not the easiest trip in the world, but who cares because it is also EXTREMELY COOL. At one point, you must walk along a small ledge that runs around the INSIDE of the Duomo, as you can see Jose doing above on the left. While you’re there, you can look through the plexiglass all the way down to the floor of the church, and get a really up-close-and-personal view of the fresco that covers the inside of the dome. As you climb still higher, the curve of the dome becomes more apparent, and the inner and outer shells are easy to see since you are actually climbing BETWEEN the shells. You can see Jose on the staircase between the domes above on the right.
The Duomo is the tallest thing for miles — the only thing that even comes close is Giotto’s Campanile which sits right next to the church — and the view of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan countryside is spectacular!
Despite my obsession with the Duomo, we did see plenty of other things in Florence during our two days there. I’ll write about that next time!