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The Florence Cathedral is among the most iconic buildings in the world and the best things to see in Florence, so you might be surprised to learn that for many years a very important part of it – the original façade – was missing. The medieval façade of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore was designed by its first major architect, Arnolfo Di Cambio.
Although he isn’t as well-remembered by the general public as Filippo Brunneleschi, who designed and built the Cathedral’s immense dome, Di Cambio was a titan of the late medieval period and was responsible for much of the architectural foundations of the building.
When he died in 1302 the Cathedral and his stunning façade, featuring works by Donatello, and Nanni Di Banco, were only partially finished. Nearly 300 years later the façade was torn down and replaced, its various parts packed into storage and largely forgotten.
In a masterstroke of archaeological detective work, the curators and artisans of the Florence museum, Il Grande Museo Del Duomo, have reconstructed the original façade and put many of its beautiful sculptures on display. By painstakingly studying a single 16th century drawing by Bernardo Pocetti, artists and researchers rendered a scale model of the lost façade from resin and marble dust.
In the same room they have restored Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Heaven” Baptistery doors to their original position vis a vis the facade in order to fully recreate the original vision and iconographic relationship between the Cathedral and Baptistery.
The Façade’s unveiling to the public coincides with the re-opening of one of Florence’s most stunning but overlooked museums. The organization behind it, the Opera del Duomo, has overseen construction and refurbishments on the Duomo for over 700 years.
During this time they have collected a horde of Medieval and Renaissance masterpieces like none other on the planet including a Pietá by Michelangelo and those Baptistery doors whose recreations sit in the Piazza del Duomo behind a permanent crowd of selfie-taking tourists. But despite all its incredible art, the museum has long sat semi-forgotten in a corner of the Piazza del Duomo, seemingly under constant refurbishment and mostly overlooked by tourists on the normal Florence museum trail going from the Duomo to the Accademia, and finally the Uffizi.
The problem, museum director Monsignor Timothy Verdon explained in a press conference, was not getting ahold of great art, it was “how to exhibit more than 100 fragments of the cathedral’s lost medieval facade… forty statues, many monumental in scale, and some sixty architectural elements”.
To accommodate this kingly collection the museum has expanded to more than double its old size thanks to the acquisition of an old parking garage. In doing so it has become half gallery, half architectural immersion experience.
The innumerable parts of the old Cathedral reassert themselves in space and time, creating within the blank slate of the museum a sort of shadow cathedral that never was, but could have been if history had just been slightly different. It reminds us that art is, first and foremost, based on ideas and no matter how solid or monolithic the medium, the real genius resides in the mind.
This is one museum you can no longer afford to miss. Find out what to see and how to see it below.
Things to see in Il Grande Museo Del Duomo:
- Lorenzo Ghiberti’s two masterpieces: The more accomplished of the two bronze doors depicting biblical scenes is the one facing the reconstructed Duomo Façade. Michelangelo himself called it the “Gates of Paradise” and it’s this door’s copy that draws the crowds in the Piazza. Perhaps the more historically significant door is the North Door. When Ghiberti won the commission for it he beat (and seriously annoyed) the up-and-coming Filippo Brunneleschi who was forced to turn his attentions to the now-iconic dome.
- Donatello’s Penitent Magdalen (Maddalena Penitente): this wood sculpture was unprecedented in its time for depicting a hyper realistic, almost macabre, image of a very emaciated Mary Magdalen. If you have ever wondered what thirty years of penitence in the desert will do to your skin, Donatello’s work is the perfect study.
- Michelangelo’s Other Pieta: Visitors to St. Peter’s know you can’t miss Michelangelo’s depiction of loss and motherly sorrow in the Pietá, but not all of the artist’s works were resounding successes. As an old man Michelangelo returned to the scene of the Jesus’ crucifixion to begin work on another Pietá intended for his own grave. Things apparently did not go well – he eventually took a hammer to the piece and left it unfinished. Despite, or perhaps because of its shortcomings, this sculpture offers a unique and intimate insight into the mind of a master.
- The Gallery of Brunelleschi’s Dome: if you don’t know the story behind one of history’s great architectural feats (or especially if you do) you have to see the section of the museum dedicated to the creation of the Cathedral’s titanic dome. With models, drawings, and even some of the tools used to build the cathedral, the improbable feat is brought breathtakingly to life and will especially appeal to children.
- They save the best for last: If you walk through the entire museum the final room is a panoramic terrace that gives you a spectacular view of Brunelleschi’s dome.
How to see Il Grande Museo Del Duomo
Il Grande Museo Del Duomo opens seven days a week from 10.15am to 5.00pm and booking is mandatory. Please check the Duomo Museum website for an updated schedule and kindly note that the times of access to the monuments are also subject to changes due to extraordinary events.