The Florence You’ve Never Seen

Along with the restoration of its famous Baptistery, recently mentioned in these pages, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – or “Duomo” – in Florence is also celebrating the reopening of its museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, following a two-and-a-half year renovation. One of the highlights of the newly-expanded Opera is a recreation of the original façade of the Cathedral, which was never completed, and ended up being demolished in the 1500’s. Based on careful analysis of old drawings of what the Duomo’s original façade looked like before demolition, researchers created an installation which copies the lower half of the structure in full scale, in what is now one of the single largest exhibition rooms in Italy. They have also included the original sculptures from the façade, or copies of them, placed in their approximate original location.        

This reconstruction may come as a surprise to many, of course, since visitors to Florence may be unaware that the present façade of the Duomo is not what the entrance originally looked like. Built between 1876-1887, the “face” of the Cathedral is lavishly decorated in colorful marble, with geometric shapes and statues that coordinate well with the neighboring Campanile and Baptistery. With Italian unification and independence, not to mention the scores of foreign tourists passing through Florence on the Grand Tour, no doubt it became obvious to the 19th century Florentines that they should really get round to finishing their most famous building.  

Because of the expense involved in building and decorating the entryway to a vast church like the Duomo, it is not at all unusual in European architecture to find a significant lag between the start of construction on one of these historic houses of worship and their completion. Two other famous churches in Florence, for example, never received their final facades. The Basilica of Santo Spirito and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, both of which house works of art by some of the major artists of the Florentine Renaissance, were principally designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the same architect who built the famous dome of Florence’s cathedral. At present, both have plain, unfinished facades, even though Brunelleschi’s designs for the former, and Michelangelo’s model for the latter, still exist. In fact, there is currently an ongoing debate in Florence as to whether Michelangelo’s design for San Lorenzo ought to be built.

In other cities, with the arrival of the industrial revolution, newly wealthy elites were able to fund the completion of such projects. In Barcelona, Holy Cross Cathedral was finished by about 1420, after around 150 years of construction. However the main façade, with its soaring, pierced towers crowned by angels and saints, was only completed in 1913, when the money became available to dust off the original 15th century plans. Similarly in Cologne, the current Cathedral of St. Peter was built in stages, but major work effectively ceased in 1473. The project only resumed in earnest in the middle of the 19th century, with the main façade finally being finished in 1911.

While experts at the Opera admit that their reconstruction of the Duomo’s original façade is, in places, an educated guess, the end result is enormously interesting to those of us who appreciate history, art, and architecture. What is also particularly instructive with this installation is the greater appreciation it gives us for the virtue of patience when it comes to completing a great task. With our contemporary society being used to having a fully-cooked meal in hand within 90 seconds or less, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that sometimes great things can take a great deal of time to complete.


Reconstruction of the Duomo Façade, Florence

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