History of The Duomo – Florence

This edifice, heavy and lugubrious, is yet magnificent, and, from its imposing bulk, gives grandeur to the city in every distant prospect. The dark and wide interior appears yet more vast from the deep gloom that reigns throughout, the long aisles seem closing in distant perspective, the echo of the solitary footstep returns slowly on the ear, while the reverberated sound, when the multitude fill its walls, is like the noise of the rising storm, or the loud rushing of waters. Its stone walls are rude and unfinished, its aspect dark and gloomy, but yet grand: it is the gloom of vastness, and the grandeur of ancient times, recalling by its forms and monuments the remembrance and names of many ages. The history of this edifice resembles that of almost every other great work, having been many centuries in building, and, consequently, executed by different artists of various tastes and ages—sometimes painters, sometimes statuaries, and seldom professed architects. It was commenced by Arnolfo Lapo nearly at the same period with the Podesta, St Michael’s Tower, and Palazzo Vecchio. The first stone was laid in the year 1289, under the auspices of P. Valeriano, the Pope’s Legate, who was friendly to the Florentines. After Lapo’s death, Giotto being appointed architect, changed the original front, but still kept it purely Gothic. Every part and pillar was distinguished by the colour of its marble, black, white, and yellow, which must have had a strange effect, like the stripes of the zebra; but formal, barbarous, and tasteless. Every colour is now blended; the bars and bands of the various marbles assimilated by time, are mellowed into a fine deep tint, resembling a rich drawing, washed and shaded with umbre. Giotto, in his turn, was succeeded by Brunelleschi, styled the restorer of the arts, Donatello, so bound to him in friendship, Baccio, d’Agnolio, Gaddi, Orcagna, Lorenzo di Fileppo, Verrachio, master to Leonardo da Vinci, and the great Michael Angelo, (or Michael Agnolo, as he was anciently styled,) in erecting and adorning this great building. In the year 1334, thirty years after the death of Lapo, Giotto built the Campanile, a marble tower of admirable height and proportion,. an exquisite specimen of mixed architecture and of beautiful workmanship, towering in the air, and bearing a fine relation to the church and cupola, which it nearly equals in height. Open and transparent, it rises by stories, with noble windows, partly Grecian, adorned with rich Gothic ornaments, and pannels of basso relievo; the whole in fine marble, chiefly white and dove-colour, not so dull as the Duomo, nor so gaudy as the Certosa. A grand square cornice, projecting from the summit, gives lightness to the tower, adding splendour, from its beautiful proportions, to the whole edifice.

Giotto, neglecting no means that might tend to beautify his work, has finely peopled his pannels with scriptural subjects, in basso relievo, producing a finished and rich effect, rendering the whole, I can well believe, the most elegant, as it is the most celebrated, tower in Italy.

In the year 1426, the Duomo, or great Cupola, was finished by Brunelleschi, to whose celebrated name the raising so superb an arch, and hanging it in the air, added new glory; a work of which even the bold and gifted Michael Angelo used to speak with delight. Such was esteemed the difficulty of the undertaking, that years were consumed in consultation upon the subject, and the first architects of England and Spain, as well as those of Italy, were invited to give their judgment concerning it. Among other suggestions, it was proposed, that the structure should be supported on vast mounds of earth, in which, with a view of creating an interest, infusing alacrity in those who assisted, silver and copper coins were to be richly strewed, and become the harvest of those who laboured.

Innumerable plans and models were offered, and equal in number and diversity were the opinions. The parties coincided in one general point, viz. that the ideas given on the subject by Brunelleschi, were those of a madman; and to such a height were the feelings and passions of the assembled judges and artists excited, that he was forcibly carried from their meeting, and hooted by the mob as he passed along the streets.

We are told that he was of a most irascible nature, but having long and deeply studied this point, and being certain of his aim, he bore his disgrace with perfect calmness. Accordingly, after the lapse of a short period, overtures to obtain his assistance were renewed, the plans which had been offered being all found in some one point to present insurmountable difficulties; on being earnestly entreated to submit his model to the judgment of the artists, he replied, that he would assuredly consent to place it before the person who should be able to balance an egg on the surface of the smooth marble pavement. The assembled artists, after having for a considerable time, with equal success and gravity, persevered in the attempt, required that he should himself assay it, when, taking the egg,* and striking it against the pavement with a force just sufficient to flatten the extreme point, it stood poised before them; their anger on seeing themselves thus baffled, was vented in reproaches, declaring that if he had explained his meaning, they should also have succeeded as he had done. Assuredly, he replied, as you would also have known how to raise the cupola, had my model been laid before you.

In the accomplishment of this great work, Brunelleschi raised the noblest monument of Florence, seen from afar, giving dignity to the city, and imparting a share of its grandeur to every inferior edifice. This edifice owes much to its site, which gives additional magnificence to its antique form, being built in an open space in the centre of the city, and surrounded by houses of various heights and corresponding antiquity. The approach is by a wide street, which in lengthened perspective you see opening into the irregular square, where the Duomo stands. The extreme length, or shaft of the church, which is divided into a nave and two aisles, is 260 braccia. The nave, opening up into the cross and tribune, presenting a length of 166 braccia, is 78 braccia in width; the two aisles are 48. The circuit of the church measures 1280 braccia; the cupola, 154; the lantern, which was finished 1465, 36 braccia.

Formerly the great front was purely Gothic, where, in vast niches, stood the four statues of the Evangelists, larger than life, by Donatello, placed there at the period of the building of the cupola; but of all that it may have lost, we cannot exactly tell. At present, nothing is seen but a wretched front of rudely plastered brick, coarsely painted in fresco, with Corinthian pilasters of seventy feet high; the style of the rest of the fabric is Gothic, and peculiarly heavy and ponderous; no spiry pillars, no rich fantastic fret-work, grouped columns, or fine arched doors, give light or breadth to its aspect; the whole edifice lies before you dismal and heavy, varied only by gloomy marbled pannels, the general pilasters being scarcely distinguishable as such. The great base lines and their arches being limited by tall flat pilasters, admit no opening for high Gothic windows; neither are there slits or curious wheel-like circles for Gothic fret-work, or painted glass.

The cupola, of immense height and bulk, stands up, round and vast; while domes, similar in form, but lower, rising on each side, combine with the small cupolas, forming the facade of the shaft of the cross, to give solidity and fixed grandeur to the whole edifice.

Such is the exterior of the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo of Florence, in which the Church of San Reparata was incorporated. It is more majestic than the Cathedral of Milan, more solemn than the Certosa, with a magnificence arising chiefly from imposing bulk. Many a pile of this majestic nature is justly termed Gothic, though all are so unlike each other; but the epithet may be regarded chiefly as applying to a particular period of antiquity, the period of romance, of caprice, and varied fantastic forms, before the noble architecture of Greece was revived, and when the art had general character, but no fixed order or determined proportions.

The Duomo does not possess the beauty of lightness, or of elegance, in which respect it differs greatly from the Cathedral of Milan; neither does it possess the friezes, nor rich and many-coloured pannels of the Certosa; yet the character, although so dissimilar in form, belongs to the same class.

The great front exhibits three gates of Gothic architecture, the arches of which are small and much pointed. There are also four lateral entrances, two at each side of the church. The aisles are divided from the nave by ranges of large grouped Gothic columns, with swelling capitals of rustic form, and rich with leaves. Superb arches springing from these, but resting on a firm base, rise to such an enormous height, that in the gloom of the place the columns, and the walls which they support, are but dimly seen.

The vast body of the church, opening into the cross and tribune, which terminates in an octagon form, presents a space of the most imposing magnitude, lighted by the chastened but splendid glare of a richly painted Gothic window. The great altar, standing in the centre, is enclosed by a circle of double Ionic columns of fine marble, carrying a cornice founded on stylobates: and such is the extent of the space, that at the marriage of Prince Carignani with the youngest daughter of the Grand Duke, the Princes of Turin and Florence, the ambassadors, the officers of the guard, the priests, and all the attendants and splendid gala of a royal marriage, with all the Florentine nobles and English strangers, were ranged within its bounds.

The effect I observed on this occasion produced by the slanting rays of the sun, casting its rich gleams through the painted glass of the Gothic window on in numerable burning tapers, giving them the appearance of thousands of glittering golden stars, was beautiful, rendering the whole coup d’oeil striking and splendid.

The marble pannels of the stylobates, which are eighty in number, are filled with histories from Scripture, in basso relievo; the choir, designed and executed in wood, by Brunelleschi, was, in the year 1547, removed for one done in the same manner in marble, by Guiliano, son and successor to Baccio d’Agnolo. The marble is of a reddish colour; and the basso relievos in white, representing tall untoward figures, are executed by Bandinelli, who was engaged in every great work; while the able and talented Benvenuto Cellini, tormented and oppressed by debts not his own, was employed in setting paltry rings for the Grand Duchess. Bandinelli did not lose his opportunity, but selected this place to set up his statues, and snatch at a hasty reputation, by carving hastily, and pleasing the mob: for what other object could he have in setting on high, as he has done, on the great altar, a vast image of God the Father, as if the God of Nature was to be exalted by the size of the block of marble from which the representation of him is drawn!

This gigantic piece, for which the Pieta of Michael Angelo was displaced, consists of three figures, two of which are too large for statuary, and too small for architecture. It does not represent an oblique or enormous block, carved in rude ages, to give some magnificent idea of a divinity, but statues too large to resemble nature, too bulky to represent the human form, and yet with-out grandeur; the work conveying no other idea than that of the failure of the artist, and showing in every part how difficult it is to represent unnatural bulk with-out coarseness. The design is, if possible, worse than the execution: our Saviour, the principal figure in the group, is represented as taken down from the cross, and laid out in a reclined posture, supported by an angel, and mourned by the Almighty. The head of our Saviour rests on the knee of an angel, who is seated in the back ground, and is of an upright slender form, though without grace, and infinitely too small in proportion to the weight he sustains; while the heavenly Father, in the higher part of the altar, above this mournful group, is seen kneeling amidst large folds of heavy drapery; the right hand, which is cloddish, and much too short, being raised, and the two fore-fingers pointing, seemingly with a threatening action, like the pedagogue of the Niobes.

The head, the eyes, the mouth, and beard of the Saviour, have a fine character; but the body, as it is extended before you, nine feet in length, appears enormous and uncouth; the breast flat, the arms and limbs fleshy, gigantic, and purely material. The left arm, which lies obliquely across the body, is too short, while the hand is coarse and large.

Christ is figured to our minds as the most beautiful of the children of men, mild, retired, sorrowing, waiting another life, preaching God’s wide and universal peace, and that he was the messenger of redemption. What a subject for contemplation ! and how difficult for the artist to rise to that sublimity of personification ! nor can anything be more painful in the Roman Catholic religion, than the continual representations of the crucified Saviour.

Behind the altar stands the Pieta of Michael Angelo, a heroic group, large, but not colossal, and bearing every mark of the independent spirit and grand style of this great master. It is a sbozzo, or sketch, unfinished from want of marble, or caprice. He cut his figures out of the block, as others would sketch a design upon waste paper, which might prove too small for the intention. There is much grandeur and feeling in the work, and though, like so many of Michael Angelo’s marbles, it is but a sketch, it deserves notice.

The subject is the taking down of our Saviour from the cross. The group being composed of four figures, those of our Saviour, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and an Angel. The whole expression is very touching and mournful. Our Saviour forms the principal figure, and seems to hang suspended in the arms of Joseph, who supports the body from above. The figure of the Virgin is seen assisting under the shoulder to uphold the weight; whilst her face is turned up towards the body. The melancholy of the scene is beautifully represented. The head of Christ rests upon her shoulder; the lengthened form of the body, supported in the arms of the assistants, seems extended by its own weight, while the suppleness and lankness of recent death is finely marked by the manner in which the limbs hang in gentle bendings, and seem falling towards the ground, with the most natural dispositions of the arms, as if affected by every motion. The left arm hangs over the shoulder of the Virgin, while the right crosses her neck, and rests upon a lesser angelic figure, which might have been omitted without injury to the piece. Joseph, who is bending over the group, and holds up the body, is superfluously coarse. His large-featured grim visage, and square form, enveloped in a voluminous cloak of the rudest stuff, turned back upon the forehead as a monk’s cowl, is totally out of keeping and harmony with the other figures. The interest of the piece lies in the melancholy but placid countenance of the Saviour, and the declination of the head, which is lacerated by the crown of thorns, and seems thus to have drooped in the awful moment, when the ” vail of the temple was rent, and the sun was darkened.”

We might almost say of this work that its charm is in some degree diminished by the very excellence of the artist. The representation is but too faithful. It is hardly imagination; it seems reality. It is indeed dark and fearful death: but our Saviour’s body, even in death, should, if possible, appear immortal.

Every part marks the bold chisel of Michael Angelo; but aware how much of the character of the hand and arm depend upon the form of the wrist and its prominent bones, he has here, as in all his sketches, caricatured the wrist, as if he were setting his figure for some young pupil, and was fearful lest it should be too feebly marked.

As I wandered this morning through the long aisles of the Duomo, the deep gloom, the stillness, the silence that reigned around, almost insensibly, yet powerfully, awakened painful feelings of solitude and desolation. It is a place where the sun has no cheerfulness, where the day is like a dusky evening, where the sinking of the spirit is inexpressible. As I contemplated the works of other times, and dwelt in idea on the memory of worthies now lying low in the dust, sensations of sadness pressed heavily on my mind; and it seemed to me difficult to say, whether one feels most indifferent to existence, and most reluctant to renew the toils of life’s weary round, in the solitude of a church, among the memorials of the dead; or in the brilliant, gay, and trivial assemblies of the living, where men and women lisp something which is hardly to be defined, so wide from nature, affection, or reason, where the same nothingness of human existence presents itself in so many forms, that one is sated and weary, cold and indifferent, and again becomes a mere spectator, to wonder and gaze alone in the crowd.

I was suddenly roused from this train of thought, and my ideas were directed to a new contemplation of the human mind, by the unexpected approach of the custode, or cicerone, who attended me in most of my wanderings in Florence. This person has upon several occasions particularly attracted my attention; he is a man of no mean talent; one in the vale of years, but on whom time has sat lightly, and who in his day was distinguished as an improvisatore. The fire of youth is now spent; but his deep dark eye still speaks the language of the soul, and the unbroken tones of a mellow and sonorous voice gives a powerful effect to his language.

A stranger listening for the first time to an Italian, excited by an interesting subject, feels, with astonishment, the varied charm and power of the improvisatore. The fine flow of poetic language, the fire that kindles in his eye, as he rises in his narration, strikes on the mind and senses with a sort of electric force. Or if, perchance, he turns from gayer themes to scenes of anguish and terror, the deep pathos of his altered tones, his pallid cheek, his hollow voice, as in lowered and agitated ac-cents he tells the tale of murder, or of sorrow, paints the deed to the imagination with a power that comes to shake the heart with the magic of reality. In my cicerone, or custode, of this morning, chance presented me with a happy opportunity of judging of what may be styled this national gift. While he stood on the transept, resting against the balustrade that encircles the high altar, with animated feature and gesture, he poured out varied descriptions of his country, and of the Medici; when an increased shade deepening on his brow as he thought of the days of regretted grandeur, he commenced an animated account of the assassination of Juliano de Medici. The language was powerful, and often poetic, and could not fail to arrest the attention.