Florence art guide

Piazza del Duomo
Piazza San Giovanni

P.za S.Giovanni and P.za del Duomo
P.za S.Giovanni and P.za del Duomo


The Cathedral or Duomo and the Baptistery of Florence stand in a huge rectangular area and occupy two separate but comunicating squares: Piazza del Duomo, which contains the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (the third largest cathedral in the world after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London), and Piazza San Giovanni, with the Baptistery right in the centre, probably the first Christian church in the city, as it was built in late Roman times (4th-5th century A.D.?) on the ruins of what was possibly a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars. However, the Baptistery as we see it today, which has always represented an architectural reference point for Florentine artists, dates from the 11th-13th century, when the external revestmment of marble, the interior and the mosaics in the cupola were completed. The three famous doors in gilded bronze, including the so-called Doors "of Paradise", were cast at a later date, between 1330 and 1452.

The excavations of S.Reparata

A church that could be considered worthy of the wealthy Roman and Christian city of "Florentia", the proud possessor of a bishop's residence from 313 A.D., was soon built opposite the Baptistery. This early church, dedicated to Santa Reparata and now visible after its restoration, was probably founded between the 4th-5th century A.D. under the episcopate of St. Zanobus, later patron saint of Florence with St. John the Baptist. A legend relates that the basilica was built after a miraculous apparition of Saint Reparata accompanied Stilicho's victory in 405 over the Gothic army led by Radagaisus in the hills behind Fiesole. The basilica we see today is the fourth reconstruction of the original temple, the result of the later and fundamental project by Arnolfo di Cambio (1296) and crowned by the revolutionary cupola by Brunelleschi (1420-1436), the real symbol of the Renaissance. Both the Baptistery and the Cathedral were altered, rebuilt and reconsacrated over the centuries, in fact, San Giovanni was used as the city cathedral while Santa Reparata was being enlarged (in 897 and from 1059-1128).

Cambio's facade
Arnolfo di Cambio's facade

Closely linked from the very earliest times, the two churches are still occasionally used as a single place of worship: some religious services start in the Baptistery and conclude in the Cathedral. Their conservation is looked after by the same institution, the Opera del Duomo, whose Museum contains many remains from the various constructions, Brunelleschi's wooden model for the cupola and some masterpieces of sculpture by Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Ghiberti and Michelangelo.

Mediaeval tombs
Mediaeval tombs between
the two churches

The area separating them, used nowadays for the ceremony of the "firing" of the Cart of St. John at Eastertime, was used as a cemetery during in the Middle Ages: excavations in 1972-73 brought a great number of tombs to light, and others have been found on the south side of the Cathedral, towards the Arno. It is interesting to note that the whole of this early Christian complex was built near the north eastern limits of the Roman city: the north wall of Santa Reparata stood only 6 metres away from the first ring of city walls while, several centuries later, that of Santa Maria del Fiore was to be built right on top of them.

Giotto's Belltower
Giotto's Belltower

Giotto's 85 metre Belltower, designed (and a fourth of it carried out) by the famous artist in the last three years of his life (1334-1337), continued by Andrea Pisano and completed in 1359 by Francesco Talenti, who also added the original terrace on the top, stands on the right of the Cathedral facade (the marble revestment we can see today dates from 1876-86 and is the only part of the holy building that is not original). Another point of interest in the square is the Loggia of the Bigallo (the headquarters of a mediaeval institution that gave aid to people in need) and its Museum. The sixteenth century palace of the Archconfraternity of the Misericordia, a company that was once closely connected to that of the Bigallo, is situated opposite, on the corner of Via Calzaioli. Palazzo dei Canonici (1826), with statues of Arnolfo di Cambio and Brunelleschi by Pampaloni (1830) stands beside it.

The Column of St.Zanobus

The Column of St. Zanobus rises up near the North Door; it was placed here in 1384 to mark the site of a dead elm tree which is said to have sprung to life when the beir containing the body of the sainted bishop (who died in 429) passed by during its transfer from San Lorenzo to the new cathedral of Santa Reperata in the 9th century. Last but not least, Palazzo Arcivescovile stands at the rear of the Baptistery (west side), again rebuilt several times over the remains of ancient buildings. The present structure dates from the 16th century, though it was constructed on top of the Palace commissioned by Bishop Andrea dei Mozzi and carried out between 1287 and 1295 (the year in which the prelate ordered work to start on the Bishop's Palace at San Miniato). The courtyard contains the remains of San Salvatore al Vescovo, a small church of 1032 and reconstructed in 1221, whose Romanesque inlaid marble facade can still be seen in Piazza dell'Olio at the rear.

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