Standing tall over the city of Florence in Italy with its magnificent Renaissance dome along with the baptistery and the Giotto’s bell tower across, the vast Gothic structure of Florence Cathedral, officially named Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, was built on the site of Florence’s second cathedral dedicated to Saint Reparata.
Although the construction of the structure began in 1296 to a design of Arnolfo di Cambio, it took 140 years to get it structurally completed by 1436, with the dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugene IV on 25 March 1436, well before the completion of the exterior decoration.
The construction of a new church building became an urgent necessity as the structure of the age-old Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze was crumbling and was not sufficiently spacious to accommodate the growing population of the city. After the design submitted by Arnolfo di Cambio was approved by the City council in 1294, the first stone was laid on 9 September 1296 by Cardinal Valeriana.
But the progress of the project was considerably slow from the very beginning and was postponed after the death of Amollfo in 1302. However, it earned momentum after the discovery of the relics of Saint Zenobius in Santa Reparata in 1330, and the work fully resumed in 1334 by Giotto, who designed the bell tower. After Giotto passed away on 8 January 1337, the work was continued by Andrea Pisano which was halted again in 1348, due to the Black Death, a bubonic plague pandemic that killed millions. Nevertheless, the nave was completed in 1380, and only the dome remained incomplete until 1418.
Filippo Brunelleschi sculptured the statues for the dome and designed an innovative project to create the dome of the Florence Cathedral the largest of its time. The dome was completed after 15 years after the completion of its polygonal base. On completion, the red dome, 148 feet (45 m) in diameter and 328 feet (100 m) high, became the crowning glory of Florence. The original gilded copper orb on the dome was designed, cast, and was fixed between 1466 and 1471, which was destroyed by lightning around 1600, and was subsequently protected by a modern lightning arrester.
Built as a basilica, having a wide central nave of four square bays, with an aisle on either side, the enormous building of the Florence Cathedral, covering an area of 89,340 sq feet (8,300 sq.m), was the largest cathedral in Europe when it was built. While its exterior is covered in a decorative mix of pink, white, and green marble, the interior is pretty stark and plain by contrast. The original façade of Florence Cathedral, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and usually attributed to Giotto, was completed in only its lower portion, which was dismantled in 1587-1588 as it appeared outmoded in Renaissance times. Work on the new façade, based on the design by Emilio di Fabris, began in 1876 and was completed in 1887. The neo-gothic façade in white-green-red marble, a harmonious entity with the cathedral, was dedicated to the Mother of Christ.
The Gothic interior of the Florence Cathedral is vast and gives an empty impression. Originally planned for a timber truss roof, it was changed to a ribbed groin vault in the mid-1300s. Huge arches were used to create large bays to make the inside more open between its nave and the side aisles. Out of the six side windows separated by pilasters, or rectangular columns, four closest to the transept admit light, while the other two are simply ornamental. However, the church is particularly notable for its 44 stained glass windows. While the circular windows in the drum of the dome or above the entrance depict Christ and Mary, the windows in the aisles and the transept depict saints from the Bible. The side doors, the Door of the Canonici to the south and the Door of the Mandorla to the north, are decorated with sculptures by Nanni di Banco, Donatello, and Jacopo della Quercia. The big liturgical clock above the main door on the inside, designed in the 18th century and decorated with portraits of four Evangelists by Paolo Ucello, indicates 24 hours of a day ending at sunset and is still in working condition.
The inner walls of the cathedral are enriched with splendid frescoes by eminent artists. However, the biggest of them is the Last Judgment, designed by Giorgio Vasari and painted inside the dome by his disciple Federico Zuccari. Other important artworks alongside the left nave include, Dante Before the City of Florence by Domenico di Michelino which apart from the scenes of the Divine Comedy, depicts a view on Florence in 1465; The Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, almost a monochrome fresco transferred to canvas by Pablo Uccello (1436), and the Equestrian statue of Niccolo da Tolentino (1456), also transferred to canvas as the previous one, and painted in a colour resembling marble.
Standing adjacent to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Flore and the Baptistery of St John stands the slender structure of the 277`9 feet (84`7 M) tall Giotto's bell tower, also known as the Campanile, equipped with seven bells. The panels on the lower level, hexagonal in shape, depict the history of mankind, inspired by Genesis, which includes the creation of man and woman and the beginnings of human work. The lozenges, on the next level, are decorated with marble statues representing the planets on the west; Faith, Charity, Hope, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude on the south; Astronomy, Music, Geometry, Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, and Arithmetic on the east; and the seven sacraments on the north. While there are four statues in niches on each side of the next level, the top three levels that look exactly equal in size when seen from below, are actually different in size, and each level is larger than the lower one.
Located in Piazza del Duomo, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, along with the Baptistery of St John, and Giotto's Campanile are major tourist attractions of Tuscany, and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.