Florence Cathedral is the heart of the city, both geographically and emotionally. It’s the pride of Florence, and one the most impressive churches in the world. If you only have an hour to visit, spend it in Piazza Duomo and the surrounding streets. If you have more time, climb the dome for a breathtaking view of the city.
Florence Cathedral has been a symbol of grandeur since the time of its construction. Easily the largest church of its time, it was intended as a way to publicise the city’s wealth and power, and stand out from the cathedrals of rival cities Siena and Pisa.
This phenomenal church can seem almost too big. It towers above the narrow streets of the city centre, and is clearly visible from every direction, including the surrounding hills.
Florence Cathedral – Facts and trivia
From up-close the cathedral of Florence is a feast for the eyes. It has three apses, crowned by miniature copies of the major dome and is flanked by the magnificent Gothic bell tower by Giotto. The marble facade is more recent. It was only finished in the 19th century, a stunning example of the Neo-Gothic style.
Even if you are not impressed by its size, and that’s unlikely, you’ll be impressed by its numbers. The structure is 116,50 meters tall, its dome weights 37.000 tons and inside there are 3600 square meters of frescoed walls.
Arnolfo di Cambio laid the first stone in 1296, on the holy site of the crumbling former cathedral dedicated to Santa Reparata. From that day, the church took 170 years to finish. The bell tower, on which Giotto worked, was completed in 1359. Meanwhile the Dome, which Brunelleschi started in 1418, took only 16 years to complete and was built entirely without scaffolding. A revolutionary achievement by any standards.
What to see and do in the Duomo of Florence
CLIMBING THE DOME
Climbing to the top of the Dome, surrounded by sumptuous frescos by Vasari and Zuccari, is one of the most memorable things you can do in Florence. You’ll glimpse different aspects of the city as you walk up the 463 steps. And the view from the top over the sea of red roofs is well worth the effort.
Alternatively climb the 84 meter Giotto’s bell tower, covered in pink and green marble, for wonderful views of the Cathedral.
THE INTERIOR OF FLORENCE CATHEDRAL
By contrast, the vast interior of the Duomo with its huge columns feels almost empty and austere. Most of the original decorations have been moved to the Museo Opera del Duomo. It is free to visit the Cathedral. Enter via the door on the left of the facade, there’s usually a bit of a queue but it moves quite quickly.
The Duomo was built as a “state church”, paid for with Comune money. As such it reserved some of its space to honour illustrious men. Noteworthy are: Dante’s portrait by Domenico di Michelino, commissioned in 1465 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth. And the elegant Paolo Uccello’s equestrian statue fresco, depicting the dead condottiero (soldier of fortune) Sir John Hawkwood. Hawkwood served in the Florentine army and became an honorary citizen. He was originally promised a statue but being too expensive, the city opted for the fresco.
Paolo Uccello also painted the clockface on the inside above the main doorway. This is interesting for its 24-hour Roman numerals. It has only one large hand which marks the hours after sunset in an anticlockwise direction, copying the movement of the shadow in a meridian.
Each of the apses houses five chapels that have splendid 15th century glass windows.
TICKETS FOR FLORENCE CATHEDRAL COMPLEX
It is free to enter the Duomo. But you can buy a combined ticket that will get you access to: Climbing the Dome and the bell tower, the crypt, the baptistery and the newly revamped Opera Duomo Museum. Tickets are available online through the official website: operaduomo.fi.it
Since november 2016 it is mandatory to reserve in advance if you want to climb the Dome.
Did you know?
THE PAZZI CONSPIRACY IN FLORENCE CATHEDRAL
The Church of Santa Maria del Fiore was the setting of a bloody drama in 1478. At that time the Medici family was ruling the city. On the morning of the 26th of April, during Easter mass, Lorenzo de’ Medici and his younger brother Giuliano were attacked by a gang of men. The episode was the final act in what was known as the “Pazzi Consiracy”, ending with Giuliano’s death and Lorenzo hiding, wounded, in the Sacristy. The Pazzi family, who were supported by the Pope, had planned to have them both killed and take over power over the city, but the conspiracy failed. Lorenzo managed to escape and the Pazzi family were done away with: all of them killed, imprisoned or sent into exile.