I had never climbed the Duomo before. When I visited Firenze previously it was overcast and raining, and I was discouraged from it. We only discussed the exterior of the cathedral (properly known as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, but commonly referred to just as the Duomo). Our art professor explained how the marble was brought from Carrara (white marble), Prato (green), Siena (red), and some other towns.
Our art professor had dismissed the facade on account that it was NOT from the Renaissance, after which we visited the inside of the cathedral, marveling at the current building designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, begun in 1296 and worked on by Giotto, Andrea Pisano, Francesco Talenti, Giovanni di Lapo Ghini and other architects (well, it was the Renaissance, lifespans weren’t that long, and so you had a fair bit of turnover on the project). Just imagine though - 122 years of construction, and the dome hadn’t even been built! The cathedral was left open for all the rain and snow to fall into, because at the time no one had yet figured out how to build a dome big enough to meet the required dimensions without using buttresses. (Buttresses, by the way, were banned by the Florentine leaders because they were popularized in Milan, Florence’s arch rival at the time).
So in 1418 the Arte della Lana (wool merchants’ guild), sponsored a competition to design and build a dome without buttresses or using all the wood in Tuscany for scaffolding. Filippo Brunelleschi (pronounced brunel’leski) was a goldsmith who won the dome design contest over his rival Lorenzo Ghiberti (who designed the famed gates of the baptistery in front of the cathedral, which Michelangelo admiringly called “The Gates of Paradise." And if you know how Michelangelo felt about other artists, then you know getting praise from him was A BIG DEAL). Work on the dome began in 1420 and consumed the rest of Brunelleschi’s life. The dome was a massive undertaking (it’s the largest masonry dome in the world) and measures 35 meters wide and 54 meters above ground level, and weighs about 37,000 tons. The sheer ingenuity that went into its construction is almost inconceivable once you consider the minimalist scaffolding used, the specially-designed hoisting machine, and just how unprecedented the double dome and ribs structure was. (Seriously, there’s a lot of great articles on how the dome was built. You should check them out. Maybe start here, here, and here.)
So, this time with fair weather and a quick tour of frescoes by Giorgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari, and some peeks at ceramics by Luca della Robbia and stained glass by Donatello and Gaddo Gaddi, we had no reason not to explore further, and headed up into the dome. At first the stairs weaved back and forth between landings, carrying us upwards inside the spectacular marble-clad wall. This first series of stairs spit out into an atria where a doorway allowed access to a very narrow catwalk along the interior base of the painted dome. The Renaissance frescoes by Vasari and Zuccaro (yes, it’s correct whether you say “Zuccaro” or “Zuccari”) were just fingertips away beneath a shield of hard plastic. “Silence!” and “Keep moving, do not stop” were posted in an assortment of languages. Joel and McCrae were lagging behind, but I pushed forward, eager to explore.
The set of stairs at the opposite end of the dome was narrower than the last, and eventually compressed into a tight spiral staircase. I was fascinated by its architecture: how each stone was cut into a wedge, the tip stacked into a long narrow pole at the center of the spiral and the long edge built into the wall. I wondered how much care had been put into laying each block, how straight the center spire was, how much weight each step could hold, if one were ever to crumble whether the whole staircase would collapse, and how I must look in a cross view of the staircase, climbing steps that seemed to float in midair.
The spiral staircase was so tight, if I ran up the steps too quickly I became dizzy. But the dizziness, the adrenaline, the anticipation to escape the tight stonewalled confines and breathe the fresh air at the summit was intoxicating.
There were a few people I passed coming down; most were fretting as they picked their way past me. I had long since lost my companions and relished the freedom of adventuring at my own pace, skipping ahead when the moment seized me or pausing at some sliver of a window to catch a quick breath or snap a photo.
At the very end of the climb the stairs were hardly more than a ladder rising up through a hatch in the cupola floor. At long last! I rushed to the edge of the railing and drank in the sun and the air and the Tuscan panorama.
I wandered around the circular platform, taking pictures and notes and dodging other tourists’ selfies. Nearly everyone had a contraption whose arm extended for taking selfies on their phones. Those things were being heavily peddled by shrewd hawkers all over Florence. I slipped into a corner overlooking Giotto’s campanile (bell tower) and took a moment to write.
Looking out over the city you can deconstruct it, visualizing the ancient city beneath. First, peel away the houses and apartments. You have the Renaissance landmarks: the Duomo and its bell tower, the Uffizi, the Palazzo Vecchio, Palazzo Pitti across the river, Santa Croce, and other small churches and structures. In front of Palazzo Vecchio is Piazza della Signoria, a large square that was created after Uberti homes were razed following power struggles between the Guelphs (who supported the Pope) and the Ghibellines (who supported the Holy Roman Emperor), ensuring that no Uberti (Ghibelline) home could ever be rebuilt. At the time the palazzo was called Palazzo della Signoria, so named for the rotating council called the signoria that governed the city (well, while it lasted between the power feuds). Savanarola, a friar who ardently preached against secular art and culture and staged “bonfires of the vanities” where worldly goods were burned en masse until he lost favor and was excommunicated, has a plaque in the square marking where he was hanged and burned in the same spot of his bonfires. Fans of the Renaissance may think it was full of happy artists and inventors pursuing an idealized life, but in reality the Renaissance was messy and brutal.
Dig deeper. The medieval stone buildings are austere and secure. The paving is uneven and pitted. The city stinks of Black Death, but inspires Boccaccio to write The Decameron. His characters fled to the surrounding hills which rise rugged and blue-tinged around the stiff and feuding civilization below. Dig deeper. The Duomo is unrecognizable, a fraction of its current size and dating back to between the 4th and 6th century. The basilica then was dedicated to Saint Reparata, a virgin martyr whose body according to legend was set afloat in the sea and eventually arrived in Nice, France. You can go down into the catacombs of the cathedral and see the excavations, including mosaic floors, frescoes, marble tombs, and broken columns. Dig deeper and you find a Roman ground level, probably comprised of plebeian villas, and a Roman wall dating to the 2nd century AD. The Duomo is gone, and the baptistery is a pagan temple, and Piazza Repubblica is the Roman forum, but there is a colosseum and amphitheatre, which you can still trace along the gentle slope and curve of the modern roads. Go back to 59 BCE and the city is just a Roman army camp called Florentia (“the flourishing one”).
But even beneath all that, there are traces of Etruscan and Liguri Neolithic settlements, and you finally realize how much there is to Florence besides just the Renaissance. How many thousands of years, and we are still living next to the Arno River, still building with recycled stone, bartering for leather and textiles, and doing all the mundane things of daily life, no matter how decorated the backdrop is.
The bell tower sounded the hour. I had already lingered at the cupola for too long, so I slipped down the hatch and descended the long narrow stairs, past graffiti proclaiming “Brunelleschi is magic” in black magic marker, and away from the mother fretting in Russian to her son, past the small group of Americans puzzling over the iron reinforcements linking blocks of stone.
“Now I wonder what these are for? Do you remember if that book said anything about them? I know it talked about those air shafts we passed just a minute ago, but I don’t remember it talking about these. Here, let’s let this person pass,” a man in the group said, and I smiled at them appreciatively as I crept along the chilly stone wall.
“There you go,” the man said as he let me past. “Though you never know, you might want to stick around! You could learn something!”
“Haha, no thanks,” I laughed amiably. “I already took the class on Renaissance art and architecture when I studied abroad here, so I think I’m good.” And I skipped down the spiral stairs as they stood gaping after me. I popped through the interior of the painted dome again, this time with a fabulous view of The Last Judgment and Satan gorging himself on human flesh. Then another staircase, a final glance to the dome at floor level of the cathedral and out the opposite side door to where McCrae and Joel were waiting with the pigeons and the hawkers.