Gazing upon this noble structure you feel the power and genius of it, mingled as they are with a touch of quaintness and fancy. The massive walls, you notice, rise sheer and broad from the foundation. There are no flying buttresses and none are needed. These walls are faced with marble panels, black and yellow alternately, and incrusted with a beautiful polychrome marble, forming a brilliant marquetry with graceful curves and arches and exquisite sculpture to relieve the monotony ; and above all is the grand dome which lifts itself into the air to a giddy height, its elongated form being characterized by octagonal sides and a pointed lantern.
The Duomo was begun in 1294 on the site occupied by the earlier church of Santa Reparata, who was one of the chief patron saints of old Florence. The first architect was Arnolfo di Cambio, a pupil of Niccolo Pisano, who, you remember, executed the beautiful pulpit in the Baptistery at Pisa, and whose son, Giovanni Pisano, built the Cathedral at Siena. All of this accounts for the marvelous influence of the Pisani and the similarity of the cathedrals of Pisa, Siena and Florence, for the plan of the latter is based upon that of the other two cathedrals, but with some striking differences. At Pisa the dome is relatively insignificant, at Siena it is somewhat larger, but this one, completed at Florence under Brunelleschi, far outdid all previous domes. Arnolfo was succeeded by Giotto, who, like most men of his time, was architect, sculptor and painter. It was Giotto who added the beautiful marble Campanile, the noblest work of its kind in the world.
Until the fifteenth century the cathedral had only a wooden cupola designed by Arnolfo. This was not in keeping with the character of the structure and a permanent dome was undertaken. Brunelleschi declared his opinion that the cupola ought to rest upon a drum at a certain height above the roof, and not upon the roof itself, as Arnolfo had planned. With the assistance of Donatello he constructed a model according to this suggestion and left it with the judges. Being exceedingly impetuous and altogether devoid of patience, he could not bear to remain here in Florence and await their decision, and so he set out on a visit to Rome, where he remained until he was recalled and invited to undertake the work. In 1420, at a great assembly of artists which was called at his suggestion, he proposed erecting a double dome leaving sufficient space between for a man to pass, while encircling the inner dome with a band of oak wood. This was finally adopted, and this dome, whose beautiful ribs make it so much lovelier than any other, required fourteen years for its construction. Its architect, Brunelleschi, was deformed in person and ugly in features, but he possessed an ” immeasured terribility of soul ” that carried him victoriously through all opposition and difficulty, however great. He was wont to say that for years he saw ” the floating vision of the great dome ” he was to build. More than a century after, Michelangelo, while engaged upon the design for the cupola of St. Peter’s at Rome, was told that he now had an opportunity of surpassing the dome of Brunelleschi, the pride of Florence. He replied :
” Io farô la sorella
Più grande gia, ma non più bella.” (” I will make her sister dome Larger; yes, but not more beautiful.”)
The copper bell and cross were added by Andrea Verrocchio in 1469.
In the year 1492 (the year of the discovery of America) the lantern was struck by lightning and a heavy block of marble displaced which fell through the dome to the pavement, crushing in its fall the Medici banner, which was suspended within the building. Lorenzo de Medici at the time lay seriously ill in his elegant villa at Careggi, and the incident was supposed to fore-shadow his death, which occurred soon after.
The beautiful façade of the cathedral, on which many of the best sculptors of the time were employed, was not finished when Giotto died, and indeed it was never completed. It was torn down in 158o and the front of the cathedral remained a crude and shapeless mass of rubble until 1875, when the present façade was added by De Fabris.
It is well to remember that when this cathedral was finished it was the largest church in Italy, and St. Peter’s at Rome was built to outdo it, and, until then, this was the largest dome ever erected. The commission which was given to the first architect of the structure illustrates the noble character and remarkable intelligence of the men who, at that time, directed the affairs of the city. It read as follows:
” Since the highest mark of prudence in a people of noble origin is to proceed in the management of their affairs so that their magnanimity and wisdom may be evinced in their outward acts, we order Arnolfo, head master of our commune, to make a design for the restoration of S. Reparata in a style of magnificence which neither the industry nor the power of man can surpass, that it may harmonize with the opinion of many wise persons in this city and state who think that this commune should not engage in any enterprise unless its intentions be to make the result correspond with that noblest sort of heart which is composed by the united will of many citizens.”- Perkins : Tuscan Sculptors.
The view from the lantern of the dome is remark-able, extending as it does from Signa to Vallombrosa and from Monte Senario to the mountains that surround the Campagna about Rome; while its loveliness justifies the legend that the city was built on a plain that used to be literally covered with flowers, and hence its name.
The interior of the cathedral, being destitute of vistas and long rows of columns, looks somewhat cold and bare, for the pillars and arches are painted a dull brown and the only brightness and color in the entire structure stream from the richly stained glass windows. Back of the high altar is an unfinished Pieta, the last work of Michelangelo, executed in 1555, when he was in his eighty-first year.
By the side of the cathedral you observe the beautiful Campanile, one of the loveliest architectural works ever planned. In sunlight and starlight its rich and lustrous splendor resembles the peerless opulence of an oriental gem. That exquisite structure, with its broad, smooth, snowy surface ; that serene height of mountain alabaster, ” colored like a morning cloud and chased like a seashell,” has been called ” the model and mirror of perfect architecture.” The bas-reliefs around the lower story of the tower were all designed by Giotto and some of them were executed by his hand. They recall the friezes and pediments of an ancient temple, and symbolize the principal epochs of civilization. Those above are the work of Luca della Robbia and Andrea Pisano. Of the four statues seen over the eaves of the roof of the Baptistery, the first three were executed by Donatello, and represent John the Baptist, David and Jeremiah. The fourth, Obadiah, was the work of his assistant, Rosso. The Campanile or bell tower was begun by Giotto in 1334, and the work was carried on after his death by Andrea Pisano and Franc. Talenti. It was completed in 1387. The structure is two hundred and ninety-five feet high, and, as you observe, consists of four stories, the windows of which are enriched with beautiful tracery in Italian Gothic style and increase in size with the different stories. It was Giotto’s plan to crown the structure with a spire one hundred feet high, and he even lived to build the piers on the summit of the tower upon which it was to rest. You ascend to the top by a staircase of four hundred and fourteen steps, and, as from the dome of the cathedral, the view is superb.
In speaking of this marvelous structure, which requires long and careful inspection rather than description or explanation, Ruskin says :
“The characteristics of power and beauty occur more or less in different buildings, some in one and some in another. But all together and all in their highest possible relative degrees, they exist, so far as I know, only in one building in the world, the Campanile of Giotto.”
In front of the cathedral is seen the octagonal cupola of the Baptistery, the date of whose erection is unknown, but it is the oldest building in Florence, including portions of an old Roman temple, and it was the original cathedral. Like all such structures, it is dedicated to John the Baptist. It is composed of three stories, ornamented with round arches and flat pilasters. The celebrated bronze doors of this ancient structure are the most beautiful of their kind in existence, ” fit,” as Michelangelo expressed it, ” to be the gates of Paradise.” When the glorious gates of Andrea Pisano, which are on the south side of the building and executed in 1330, were completed and set up in the doorway of the Baptistery, ” all Florence crowded to see them ; and the Signoria, who never quitted the Palazzo Vecchio in a body except on the most solemn occasions, came in state to applaud the artist and to confer upon him the dignity of citizen-ship.”
The gates of Pisano represent in relief scenes from the life of the patron saint, John the Baptist. Those on the north side, the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti, are de-voted to the life of Christ, to whom John bore witness. Those on the eastern side, also by Ghiberti and which occupied him for twenty-seven years, or until his death, deal with Old Testament scenes. These last have been duplicated several times in bronze, and a pair of such gates are now in Trinity Church, New York City, the gift of the Astor family. The government has long considered the advisability of removing these bronze doors to the large hall of the Bargello Museum for their better preservation, even bronze wearing away beneath the velvet touch of Time’s effacing fingers. Then, too, they could be seen and examined in the hall to better advantage, but, as yet, owing to the opposition of the citizens, who love and venerate their ancient cathedral, in which every babe born in Florence has been baptized for nearly a thousand years, the change has not been attempted.
The interior of this structure is much larger and handsomer than even the exterior would lead us to suppose, for, externally, the Baptistery is dwarfed by the cathedral and surrounding buildings. Within are some remarkable early mosaics and inlaid marble-work, and the whole edifice is glowing and radiant with baptismal symbolisms. Its font is the only one in Florence, and it is adorned with antique bas-reliefs representing the baptism of Christ and other scenes in the life of John the Baptist. The interior of the dome is covered with mosaics representing a colossal figure of our Lord in the center surrounded by Angels, Thrones, Dominions and Powers.
On April the 8th, 1425, Jacopo Bellini was condemned to do penance in this Baptistery for thrashing an enemy of his who had thrown stones into his studio.
” The interior of the Baptistery has a charm of solemnity, almost of sadness, like some old mother brooding over generations of her children who have passed away-old, old, meditative still, lost in a deep and silent mournfulness. The great round of the walls, so unimpressive outside, has within, a severe and lofty grandeur. The vast walls rise up dimly in that twilight coolness which is so grateful in a warm country-the vast roof tapers yet farther up, with one cold pale star of light in the center; a few figures, dwarfed by its greatness, stand like ghosts above the pavement below-one or two kneeling in the deep stillness ; while outside all is light and sound in the Piazza, and through the opposite doors a white space of sunny pavement appears dazzling and blazing.”
And what a cloud of memories rises from that ” dazzling and blazing ” pavement set in the midst of this famous cathedral group, the most vivid and touching of which are connected with the eloquent preaching of Savonarola, when the people rose in the middle of the night in order to secure places for the sermon, standing outside the cathedral for hours waiting for the doors to open, shivering in the cold and the wind, and many standing with bare feet on the icy pavement. In this crowd were old men and women and little children, the whole company being moved with tumultuous joy and eager expectation, as though they were about to witness some glad and magnificent spectacle rather than to listen to a religious discourse. When once inside the cathedral the silence was profound.
“And though many thousand people were thus collected together, no sound was to be heard, not even a `hush’ until the arrival of the children, who sang hymns with so much sweetness that Heaven seemed to have opened. Thus they waited (standing) three or four hours till the Padre entered the pulpit, and the attention of so great a mass of people, all with eyes and ears intent upon the preacher, was wonderful; they listened so, that when the sermon reached its end, it seemed to them that it had hardly begun.”-BURLAMACCHI.
Over the roof of the old cathedral, halfway between its dome and the Campanile, is seen the church of Santa Croce. Two things especially characterize this church: the Holy Cross, in honor of which it is named, and which is represented over and over again in its interior decorations, and the Franciscan order of monks by whom it was built and to whom it belonged ; and hence its works of art are largely taken up with the glorification of St. Francis and his order. When the church was built in 1294, its site was in the poorer portion of the town, for among this class the Franciscans – the Salvation Army of their day – worked. The frescoes of this church, many of them by Giotto who built the beautiful bell tower, are among the finest in Italy.
As the Franciscans were a body of preachers, they built their church broad and spacious, and by dispensing as far as possible with pillars, they obtained a large unobstructed space, even the nave having no side chapels. This kind of a structure was admirably fitted to accommodate a large number of hearers, and its great width and empty spaces gave room for many burials, more so, in fact, than any other structure in Florence. Therefore it is not surprising that it became the Pantheon or Westminster Abbey of Florence, the burial place of the greatest of those many gifted and illustrious men who have added so much to the influence and glory of the city.
“In those graves, piled with the standards and achievements of the noblest families of Florence, were successively interred-not because of their eminence, but as members or friends of those families-some of the most illustrious personages of the fifteenth century. Thus it came to pass, as if by accident, that in the vault of the Buonarroti, was laid Michelangelo; in the vault of the Viviani, the preceptor of one of their house, Galileo. From these two burials the church gradually became the recognized shrine of Italian genius.”- DEAN STANLEY.
“In Santa Croce’s holy precincts lie Ashes which make it holier, dust which is Even in itself an immortality ; Though there were nothing save the past, and this, The particle of those sublimities Which have relapsed to chaos ;- here repose Angelo’s, Alfieri’s bones, and his, The starry Galileo, with his woes ; Here Machiavelli’s earth returned to whence it rose.”
The name of the great Italian statesman, Niccolo Machiavelli, whose body rests here, is interesting to English-speaking people, for, as Macaulay said, ” out of his surname we have coined an epithet for a knave and out of his Christian name a synonym for the devil.” Or, as Butler puts it:
” Nic Machiavel had ne’er a trick, Though he gave his name to our old Nick.”
It is a much mooted question whether in giving this name the devil got more or less than his due.
The church is literally surrounded with monuments to the great men of Italy, one of which, that of Michelangelo, we shall inspect later. We are not surprised that Alfieri said that the love of fame first came to him as he was walking among the illustrious dead in this church of Santa Croce.
In this church is a beautiful Capella Medici, erected by Michelozzo for Cosimo de’ Medici, and where the body of Galileo rested from’ his death in 1642 until 1757, when it was removed to the nave of the church.
In the chapel of St. Louis and St. Bartholomew in this church, over the altar, is a crucifix by Donatello which recalls a circumstance in his life. Donatello, when a young man, executed this crucifix, which Brunelleschi frankly criticised by saying that the figure looked more like that of a common peasant than the Saviour of the world. Donatello, smarting under this reproof, replied that it was easier to criticise than it was to perform. Brunelleschi made no reply, but shortly after invited Donatello to breakfast with him in his studio ; and as the young man entered the room, his apron full of eggs, cheese and fruit, for, after the simple custom of the times, the breakfast was gotten up on shares, the first thing he beheld was a crucifix his host had just finished. The eatables fell to the ground as he exclaimed with uplifted hands and genuine admiration, ” Brunelleschi is capable of forming a Christ, but I can only make a peasant.”
A little to the left of Santa Croce, at the corner of the Via Buonarroti and the Via Ghibellina, is the house of Michelangelo. The last of the Buonarroti, to which family the artist belonged, bequeathed the house, together with a collection of pictures and antiquities, to the city of Florence, to be called the Galleria Buonarroti. It contains the designs and other reminiscences of Michelangelo.
Directly back of the church of Santa Croce, on the Via dei Malcontenti, is a great workhouse established by Napoleon I, where three thousand persons, who could not otherwise be provided for, maintained them-selves in comparative comfort. The tower seen to the right of the Campanile, and over the lantern on the dome of the Baptistery, belongs to the church of La Badia, which contains a glorious Madonna by Filippino Lippi, and, perhaps, the greatest of his works. To the left of this spire you may see the battlemented roof of the Bargello, or National Museum.
Just to the left of the bronze ball on the lantern of the Baptistery is seen a house whose upper wall is white with sunlight. That is the house in which Dante was born in 1265 and in which he lived. His parents belonged to the Guild of Wool. The stories that Dante was unhappy with his wife rest upon no foundation of facts, for Boccaccio, who is responsible for their publication, states : ” Truly I do not affirm that these things happened to Dante, for I do not know.” The truth seems to be that Dante’s wife was not naturally a very agreeable person to live with, and their four children, Dante himself asserts, were extremely homely. We are not accustomed to think of Dante as Pathmaster or Road-Commissioner, but documents recently brought to light show that for a short time he served the city of Florence in that capacity. This home and birthplace of Dante afterwards became a wine-shop, kept by the artist Mariotto Albertinelli, who thus mingled commerce with art; and to his hospitable board Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini and other famous characters were wont to resort. This house was one of the most curious landmarks in Florence until 1877, when it was completely renovated and scarcely a vestige of the former building was left. The poet is buried at Ravenna, but in the church at Santa Croce was erected in 1829 a huge pile of marble to his memory, the work of Stefano Ricci, a tardy act of acknowledgment by the city of her greatest poet, who had been dead for five hundred years, the Signoria having ignored the suggestion when it came from Michelangelo, who offered to prepare plans for such a monument. Of his grave at Ravenna one writes :
“I pass each day where Dante’s bones are laid; A little cupola, more neat than solemn, Protects his dust; but reverence here is paid To the Bard’s tomb and not the Warrior’s column.”
It is well to remember that in Florence there is scarcely an historical sight or a house once inhabited by an eminent per-son which is not marked by an inscription, and that the city is still radiant with the glory of a literary constellation which held four stars of the greatest magnitude, Dante, Boccaccio, Savonarola and Galileo ; while numerous others of lesser magnitude have, at times, illumined the place by their presence. Petrarch was an occasional visitor here, “being,” as he expressed it, ” entertained by my friends.” His mother was born in the Palazzo Canigiani, Via de’ Bardi, No. 24. Milton came to Florence in the autumn of 1638 and paid a visit to Galileo. A year later he returned for a subsequent visit. Amerigo Vespucci, who gave the name of America to a continent, was born at Borgo Ognissanti, No. 18. His house is now occupied by a hospital founded by him. In this house he wrote the letter which Martin Waldseemuller quotes in his Cosmographice Introductio in 1507, with the remark, “Now a fourth part of the world has been found by Amerigo Vespucci, and I do not see why we should be prevented from calling it Amerigo or America.”
Montaigne visited Florence in 158o and stayed at the Angel Inn. He paid seven reals a day for man and horse (very expensive then), a real being a Spanish coin and worth about five cents. Thomas Gray and Horace Walpole were the guests here of Thomas Mann, the representative of the Dutch Government, and remained for fifteen months. They had time for long visits in those early days. Both Mrs. Trollope and Mrs. Browning died here, and Byron paid two short visits to the city, and it was said of him by one who knew him well that he was the only man in Florence ” who, if he saw something yellow in the distance and was told it was a buttercup, would be disappointed if he found it was only a guinea.” Leigh Hunt lived on the Via della Belle Donne. Longfellow, in 1828, lived in the Piazza S. Maria Novella, which is a little back of our present point of view. Walter Savage Landor lived for years in the Villa Landor on the Via della Fontanelle, now the home of Prof. Willard Fiske, and Fenimore Cooper spent the winter of 183738 in the city. Charles Lever came to Florence in 1847 and lived for several years in the Villa S. Leonardo on the Via S. Leonardo. Here he wrote The Martins of Cro Martin, Roland Cashel and The Dodd Family Abroad. Some distance to the left of the Duomo in the Villa Trollope, in the Piazza Independenza, George Eliot wrote Romola, and the beautiful English cemetery at Florence is the resting place of many English and American writers and artists.
To the left of the church of Santa Croce, and directly back of the dome of the cathedral, is the new Jewish synagogue, in the Alhambra style, and it has a pleasing oriental effect. The Jews have always had a quarter in Florence which, in the Middle Ages, as in other Italian cities, was shut off from the rest of the town by gates, and they were not allowed to be buried in the same cemetery with Christians. This tyranny caused many Jews in Florence, and elsewhere, to leave money in their wills to carry their bodies to Jerusalem for burial.
Beside the fortifications, built according to his plans, the works of Michelangelo in Florence are numerous. Among them may be mentioned the new sacristy. of the church of San Lorenzo, built for the Medici, but which, in 1534, in bitterness of soul at the abolition of the Republic by Alessandro dè Medici, he left unfinished. Nevertheless it re-mains a work of wondrous beauty. In this sacristy is Michelangelo’s monument of Giuliano dè Medici, who is represented as holding a general’s baton in his hand with an air of proud confidence and energetic alertness ready to meet the approach of any danger. His sarcophagus is adorned with figures representing Day and Night, the latter a remark-able work of art. Strozzi, a poet of the day, wrote of this statue:
“‘Tis Night, in deepest slumber ; all can see She sleeps (for Angelo divine did give This stone a soul) and, since she sleeps, must live, You doubt it? Wake her, she will speak to thee.”
Michaelangelo, in allusion to the suppression of political liberty by the Medici which, as an ardent republican, he never forgave, responded (he was poet as well as architect, painter, sculptor and engineer,)
“Ah! glad am I to sleep in stone, while woe And dire disgrace rage unreproved near – A happy chance to neither see nor hear, So wake me not! when passing, whisper low.”
Swinburne composed a sonnet entitled, “In San Lorenzo,” and beginning,
“Is thine hour come to wake, O slumbering Night?”
Doubtless the great artist’s most popular work in the city is his David, in the Academia delle Belle Arti, a quarter of a mile to our left.