WALKS IN FLORENCE: CHURCHES, STREETS AND PALACES
SUSAN AND JOANNA HORNER
Chapter III: The Cathedral - Exterior
The Cathedral of Florence stands on ground once occupied by the parish church of San Salvador, which was demolished by Bishop Reparato, to build the basilica called after the female saint whose name corresponded with his own, Sta. Reparata. At the same time he bestowed the name of San Salvador on another church, whose fašade of black and white marble may still be seen behind the present archbishop's palace. Sta. Reparata had a crypt below; the presbytery above was separated from the body of the church by a flight of steps - a style of architecture still to be seen in the neighbourhood of Florence, at San Miniato al Monte. This basilica only occupied the space within the nave of the present Cathedral; and antiquaries suppose that the fašade of a church in black and white marble, in an ancient fresco in the cloister of Sta. Croce, and there represented beside Sta. Maria del Fiore, is intended for Sta. Reparata. The only record remaining of this building, is that it was used as the parish church when San Giovanni was raised to the dignity of the Cathedral, and that when San Giovanni finally became the Baptistery of Florence, the font was conveyed there from Sta. Reparata.
The Cathedral Church of Sta. Maria del Fiore was begun in 1298 by Arnolfo di Cambio,26 who was ordered "to raise the loftiest, most sumptuous, and most magnificent pile that human invention could devise, or human labour execute." ů "The wisest men of this city," continues the decree, "do hereby opine and resolve that the Republic will undertake nothing, unless with a determination that the performance shall be commensurate with the grandeur of the idea which has emanated from the whole community."
Arnolfo is said to have begun by sinking wells round the foundations of the Cathedral for the escape of the mephitic gases, which proceeded from the volcanic region below, and which he thought would endanger the stability of the edifice. He included in his plan not only the space occupied by Sta. Reparata, but that of several smaller churches, one of which, San Michele, was afterwards rebuilt beyond the first circuit of walls by the Visdomini.27 Two noble families, the Falconieri and the Bischieri, whose houses were threatened with destruction, raised objections to Arnolfo's scheme, and he was accordingly obliged to make several alterations, and to reduce the length of the nave to five instead of six arches; but he left a record of his original intention by still maintaining his six windows, two of which are fictitious, with less space between them than the other four, as he was obliged to reduce the number within the building.
The foundation stone of the new edifice was laid on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, September 12, 1298, by the hands of Cardinal Pietro Valeriani, the first papal legate ever sent to Florence. A decree had been issued two years previously, that every person making a will should bequeath twenty soldi - equal to tenpence of our money - towards the building, and the legate granted indulgences to all who should contribute to this pious work. Arnolfo died in 1311, the year in which Dante was chosen one of the priors of the Arts of whom the Signory or government was composed. The lofty pretensions of the Florentine municipality, and the history of the foundation of their Cathedral, are commemorated in two Latin inscriptions, one of which is outside the building, facing the Campanile; the other inside, south of the choir. From the period of Arnolfo's death (1311) the works were suspended thirty years, when Giotto was appointed master-builder, and, assisted by Andrea Pisano, he continued the Cathedral according to Arnolfo's design. The nave was, however, only completed in 1369, and the tribunes not earlier than 1419. The fašade, usually attributed to Giotto, has recently been discovered to have been commenced twenty years after his death, and to have been the joint composition of several artists - Neri di Fioravante, Benci Cione, Francesco Salsetti, Andrea Orcagna, Taddeo Gaddi, and Nicola Tommasi.28 The school of Niccola Pisano, the reviver of art in Tuscany, was then at its lowest ebb, sufficiently evident in the remains of sculpture which once filled the niches on the fašade, and which are now scattered in various parts of Florence. The design for the fašade was Gothic, with columns and niches containing statues of the Madonna and Child, of saints and prophets, and even of distinguished Florentine citizens.29 It had only reached one-third the height of the edifice when, either from want of funds or some unexplained reason, it was abandoned. In the Opera del Duomo is a careful pencil drawing of what has been called Giotto's fašade.
Nearly a century later, in 1490, the Cathedral was declared to be in unsound condition, and in the records of the guild of Wool is a notice that the design for this fašade being contrary to all architectural rules and orders, the authorities had resolved on its reconstruction. This resolution was zealously supported by the most influential citizen of the day, Lorenzo de' Medici. A meeting to consider the matter was convened within the Cathedral itself, but, though many eminent artists attended, the discussion ended without coming to a satisfactory conclusion; and the fašade was left in its unfinished state until the reign of the Grand-Duke Francis I., 1575-1587, when an order was issued for its entire demolition; some of the statues and frescos were then carried inside the Cathedral. A new fašade was begun, but almost as soon, condemned and removed. In 1689, on the marriage of Prince Ferdinand, the second son of the Grand-Duke Cosimo III., and brother of the last Medicean Grand-Duke Gastone, with princess Violante of Bavaria, the rubble and cement were covered with a coating of paint, representing columns and other architectural decorations. These have faded away by time and weather, and the Florentine municipality are now engaged in a new fašade, which it is to be hoped will, before many years, complete this beautiful building in a manner worthy of the first design.
The outside of the Cathedral is encrusted with marbles from Sienna, Carrara, Prato, Lavenza, Monsumano, and Monterantoli. The introduction of flat surfaces on which to display many-coloured marbles, mosaics, or frescos, is a peculiar feature of Italian architecture; and the profusion of marbles in Italy led the Italians to cover whole buildings with slabs disposed in panels, or alternate vertical and horizontal bands. Although this method precludes the possibility of giving the depth and richness of genuine Gothic mouldings, yet the brilliant southern sun, rendering the slightest indentation or colour perceptible on the surface at a considerable distance, imparts a peculiar beauty and character, which would be wanting in similar architectural decorations beneath a northern sky. The exterior of the Cathedral nave has two lateral doors on either side, and six windows, separated by pilasters. The tracery and ornaments of these windows are singularly delicate, and the pinnacles above are surmounted by elegantly wrought statuettes of saints. The windows nearest the transepts alone admit light, and are larger, and at a greater elevation than the windows towards the western extremity, which are merely ornamental, and where the spiral columns and tracery are paint. The clerestory windows are circular, very common in Italian-Gothic. A pierced parapet to a projecting gallery is carried along the whole length of the nave and round the octagonal choir. It rests on corbels or brackets, betwixt which are the city arms, and those of the Guild of Wool, with a few others, in inlaid marbles.
On the northern face of the Cathedral, opposite the Via Cocomero, now Via Ricasoli, is a porch of most elegant construction. Mr. Fergusson, in his work on architecture, observes that the porches attached to Italian churches are very characteristic of the Gothic style south of the Alps. They are generally placed on the flanks, and form side entrances, but as they have been added after the completion of the edifice, they seldom harmonise with the rest. Mr. Fergusson, however, acknowledges the porches belonging to Sta. Maria del Fiore to be an "integral and beautiful part of the design." The two marble pillars rest on lions' backs, universally the case in porches throughout Italy, though rarely found anywhere else.30 Cavalcante, in his History of Florence, written in the fifteenth century, relates that a man living in the Via Cocomero dreamt one night that he had been bitten in the hand by a lion, and had died in consequence. Entering the Cathedral the following morning, he thrust his hand into the mouth of one of these stone lions, in order to prove his dream untrue, but unluckily for him, a scorpion lay concealed within, which stung him so severely that he expired in a few hours.
Above the canopy over this door is a statue of an aged man holding an open book, probably one of the evangelists. It is the work of Donatello, and is mentioned by Vasari as approaching nearer the antique than anything that had been executed in Middle-Age sculpture. In the lunette beneath is a group of the Virgin and Child between worshipping angels, attributed to Jacopo della Quercia, a Siennese artist of the latter half of the fourteenth century, whose most celebrated work in this Cathedral is above the door facing the Via dei Servi. The capitals of the pilasters of this latter door are decorated with images of prophets, and in the center is a pyramidal frontispiece, containing a bas-relief with an oblong-shaped glory or Vesica Pisces, usual in early representations of the ascension of the Virgin and of our Lord, called by Italians the "mandorla" or almond.31 The Virgin, supported by angels, lowers her girdle to St. Thomas, who receives it kneeling. Opposite the apostle, the artist has represented a bear climbing a pear-tree, a quaint fancy, the meaning of which has baffled antiquarian research.32 Although this relief is considered one of the finest works of Jacopo della Quercia, Baldinucci attributes it to Nanni di Banco. It is undoubtedly the product of an age when art had received an impulse from the genius of Donatello, who executed the heads of the aged and youthful figures (possibly St. Peter and St. John) on either side of St. Thomas and the bear.
The lunette beneath contains a mosaic of the Annunciation, which is perhaps the finest specimen known of this branch of art. It is by Domenico Ghirlandajo, who lived about the end of the fifteenth century. Cavalcaselle observes, "The Annunciation, on one of the portals of Sta. Maria del Fiore, worked with power equal to that of the master's best works, proves his ability in all phases of his art, and bears no date."33
The portal beneath, with its exquisitely carved foliage and figures, was the work of Nicolo di Piero di Lamberti, of Arezzo, assisted by Antonio di Banco and his son Nanni. The chief part was executed by Nicolo di Piero, an artist whose Italian treatment of his subject was not without German influence, derived from one Pietro di Giovanni, supposed to have been a German from Cologne, who had already been employed on the portals of the Florentine Cathedral, and who introduced into Italy new principles of art. Nicolo's success in this gate obtained for him the epithet of "Maestro della Porta." In the third figure, to the right, of a child playing on the mandolin, may be seen the prototype of the angels of Fra Bartolommeo and other Florentine masters. Hercules and Cacus, and subjects taken from ancient fable, are strangely introduced into a Christian temple, but prove how much the antique was studied at that period. Rich foliage and arabesques are carved in high relief, though flat in surface.34
The southern lateral door nearest the apse is no less beautiful than the corresponding door on the northern side. The garland of fig-leaf, so exquisitely carved round the lintels, has been ascribed to Arnolfo di Cambio, and is supposed to have represented the badge of his family, but later researches prove the artist to have been the German Pietro di Giovanni, from whom Nicolo di Piero derived his style. He is mentioned by Ghiberti as remarkable for his skill in the representation of the human form, though his standard of proportion is too short. He died during the pontificate of Martin V., 1418-1431, but appears to have come to Florence about 1386, and worked there until 1399. Nothing, however, can be attributed to him, with any certainty, except this door. Besides representing the fig and oak leaf with marvelous delicacy, truth, and breadth of treatment, he has introduced every variety of animal, as well as men, women, and children: one of the women is dressed in the German costume of the period.35 Minute as are all the details on this door, they are worthy of a careful examination; the more so, as these cathedral portals had an influence on the progress of Florentine art, whether in sculpture of animal life, or of ornamental scrolls.36
Above the door-posts are the statues of prophets, surmounted by an angel with metal wings. Still higher is a PietÓ in basso-relievo. The lunette contains a Virgin and Child between adoring angels, who have also metal wings. These statues are by Giovanni Pisano, who, after completing his work on the cathedrals of Arezzo and Orvieto, came to Florence for the purpose of becoming acquainted with Giotto. The Madonna is dignified and full of majesty, and resembles the manner of the Florentine master.
The door nearest to the Campanile or belfry is inferior to the three others; successive tiers of pilasters terminate in two tabernacles, decorated with statuettes of the angel Gabriel and of the Virgin. Within the lunette is a relief of the Virgin and Child, supposed to be the work of Nicolo di Piero of Arezzo, but not of transcendent merit. Above is represented the Eternal in the act of benediction, with a book in the left hand.
One of the best views of the Cathedral is from the corner of the Via del Proconsolo, from whence alone can be seen the only portion of the gallery and mouldings which are complete - the work of Baccio d' Agnolo. This gallery was much admired at the time of its erection, but a remark of Michael Angelo is said to have prevented its continuation; to the mortification of the Florentines, he compared it to the reed cage of the grilli, or mole cricket.37
Until the commencement of the fifteenth century, Arnolfo's wooden cupola was still in existence; and some idea of its appearance may be obtained from the fresco of Simone Memmi, in the Spanish chapel of the cloisters of Santa Maria Novella. In 1417 a committee of architects and engineers was summoned by order of the Consuls of the Guild of Wool, to advise how best to construct a cupola of greater strength and solidity. It was then that Brunelleschi, already enjoying a high reputation for skill in architecture, declared his opinion that the cupola ought to rest on a drum at a certain height above the roof, and not upon the roof itself. With the assistance of Donatello and Nanni di Banco he constructed a model, which he presented to the judges. His impetuous nature could not wait their decision, and he left Florence for Rome, where he remained until his advice became so indispensable that he was entreated to return, when he repeated his conviction that a circular cupola was impracticable, and recommended an octagon; he at the same time advised that artists from all parts of Italy, Germany, and France, should be invited to compete for the best design.
After giving this advice, Brunelleschi affected indifference, and resisting urgent entreaties to remain, he returned to Rome. It was only in 1420, at the great meeting of artists in Florence, that he again presented himself, and proposed to erect a double dome, leaving sufficient space between the two for a man to pass, whilst encircling the inner dome with a chain of oak wood. At this meeting the same story is related of Brunelleschi as of Columbus. Calling for an egg, he requested any one present to make it stand on end; and all declining, he himself struck the egg on the table: every one now declared that he could have done as much, when Brunelleschi replied, that no doubt they would also be able to make his cupola were he to explain to them his method. He was ultimately accepted as architect; but, so cautious were these old merchants when the undertaking involved the outlay of a considerable sum of money and the honour of their city, that, as an additional security, Lorenzo Ghiberti was appointed his coadjutor. A rivalry arose between the two architects, which threatened serious interruptions in the building, and harassed the workmen; Brunelleschi therefore, feigning illness, desired the men to take their orders from Ghiberti, who he knew to be totally incapable of directing them; at the same time requesting Ghiberti either to finish the cupola himself, or to rest contented with the construction of the chain for its support, in imitation of that round the cupola of the Baptistery. Ghiberti was forced to accept the latter task, and Brunelleschi finished the dome of Sta. Maria del Fiore. The difficulties and persecutions the architect underwent recall the trials endured by Sir Christopher Wren from the commissioners who employed him to build St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and which are graphically described by the late Dean Milman;38 and we must acknowledge that Brunelleschi's obstinate resistance to all interference was amply justified. More than a century after his death, Michael Angelo, when engaged on his design for the cupola of St. Peter's at Rome, was told that he had now an opportunity of surpassing the dome of Florence; he replied: -
Io far˛ la sorellaThe copper ball and the cross were added by Andrea Verrochio, though not until twenty-three years after the decease of Brunelleschi in 1469. He of the "correct eye" was well chosen to crown the edifice.
Pi¨ grande giÓ; ma non pi¨ bella.39
A hundred and sixty years passed away before the
Cathedral arrived at its present condition, in which it has
ever since remained, with its unfinished fašade; so that when
a Florentine spoke of anything which was destined never to be
completed, he would compare it to the Cathedral, "La non sarÓ;
giÓ l' opera di Santa Maria del Fiore." ("It will never
be finished; yes, indeed, like the works of Sta. Maria del
On the side nearest the Campanile may be traced the remains of the old walls of Santa Reparata, on which, as well as on the sides of the marble steps leading to the western front, are inscribed the names of many families still existing in Florence, whose vaults for interment are beneath. Here lie the bones of the Falconieri, who refused to yield up their houses to make room for the Cathedral; the Cavalcante, and Portinari (friends of Dante), the Ridolfi, Orlandini, Tornaquinci, &c.
[The West Fašada, built since the Horners' writing of their book]
The traveller turns from the rough wall composing the front of the Cathedral to admire the delicate beauty of Giotto's Campanile, which stands isolated to the right. It is encrusted with many coloured slabs of marble from the base to the summit, and no engraving or photograph can give an idea of the elegance of the columns, and tracery of its windows, which give lightness to this solid quadrangular tower, nor of the finish and soft harmony of the whole building. The basement story is decorated with bas-reliefs; two on the northern face, representing Sculpture and Architecture, were executed by Giotto himself: the remaining five on this side are by Luca della Robbia, after Giotto's designs, and all the rest are by Andrea Pisano. In describing the sculpture of the Campanile, we cannot do better than cite Lord Lindsay's words: - "I think there can be little doubt as to the grand outline contemplated by Giotto, and that he has intended to sketch the first stage of society, the patriarchal, in the compositions on the western face; the second, or national, in those on the southern; the third, a period of discovery and colonisation, marked by the introduction of a new law of association and civilisation in Christianity, in those on the eastern; and the fourth, or period of intellectual and moral development under which we live, that, in a word, of Christian Europe, on the northern."40 Above the hexagons which contain these bas-reliefs are lozenges also containing reliefs; those on the western face towards the Baptistery represent the Seven Cardinal Virtues; those on the southern, the Seven Works of mercy; those on the eastern, the Seven Planets; and those on the northern, facing the Cathedral, the Seven Sacraments - although only six remain entire, as the seventh is mutilated by the introduction of a door which formerly communicated with the Cathedral. Above these lozenges are four niches on each face, containing statues, several of which are by Donatello. The statues of St. Matthew and St. Mark, on the western face, are portraits of Giovanni Balduccio Cherichini, and Francesco Soderini, friends of the artist. The former has a bald head, popularly called a Zuccone or great gourd, by which name this statue is known; it is admirably executed, and exhibits one of the qualities in which Donatello peculiarly excelled, the work being exactly calculated to produce the intended effect at a given distance; and thus the statue which, in the artist's studio, appeared a failure, was one of his most successful productions. Whilst working on his Zuccone, Donatello was so delighted with the animation he had given the statue, that he was heard to bid it speak, and such was his confidence in his success, that his favourite oath was, per la fŔ che porto al mio Zuccone - "by the faith I have in my Zuccone." Four prophets decorate the southern face; three of them are by Andrea Pisano, the fourth by Giottino. The eastern face contains the patriarchs of the Old Testament; in the centre a prophet, and the Sacrifice of Isaac, are by Donatello; the two others are attributed to Nicolo di Piero of Arezzo, after designs by Giotto; Cicognara has engraved these in his History of Art, and calls them ne plus ultra of their kind. The northern face, opposite the Cathedral, contains three statues by Luca della Robbia, and one by Nanni di Bartolo, surnamed Il Rosso.
The Campanile is supposed to occupy the site of the small church of San Zenobius, in which the "Seven Servants of the Blessed Virgin" were miraculously called to lead a life of contemplation. The foundations of the Campanile were laid in 1334, thirty-six years after the foundation of the Cathedral, in the presence of the bishop, clergy, and magistracy of the city. The windows commence about a third of its height, two of them giving light to the interior of the lower storys, while the upper part of the building has one bold opening on every face. Mr. Fergusson, who considers the equal width and depth of the Campanile from top to bottom a defect, observes, "The slight expansion of the base would have given it apparent stability which its height requires;" and, again, "another fault is its being divided by two strongly-marked horizontal courses into distinct storeys, instead of one division falling by imperceptible degrees into the other, as in northern towers."41 Nevertheless, this edifice is as perfect a work as can be found, and Ruskin's summary of the qualifications requisite to produce power and beauty are all united in this most lovely gem. We cite the passage from his "Seven Lamps of Architecture:" -
"Considerable size exhibited by simple terminal lines; projection towards the top; breadth of flat surface; square compartments of that surface; varied and visible masonry; vigorous depth of shadow, exhibited especially by pierced traceries; varied proportion in ascent; lateral symmetry; sculpture most delicate at the base; enriched quantity of ornament at the top; sculpture abstract in inferior ornaments and mouldings, complete in animal forms, both to be executed in white marble; vivid colours introduced in flat geometrical patterns, and obtained by the use of naturally coloured stone - these characteristics occur more or less in different buildings, some in one, some in another - but all together, and all in their highest possible relative degrees, they exist, as far as I know, only in one building in the world, the Campanile of Giotto at Florence."42The Campanile continues to excite the same wonder and admiration as when the citizen of Verona visited Florence, when it was still unfinished, and involuntarily exclaimed, at the sight of this matchless work of art, that the resources of two monarchies could hardly suffice to build such a monument; for which observation the luckless stranger was cast into prison, and kept there several weeks; nor was he allowed to leave Florence before he had been shown the public treasury to convince him that, were the Florentines so inclined, they could build their whole city of marble.
Andrea Pisano b. 1273 - d. 1349
Andrea Verocchio b. 1435 - d. 1488
Arnolfo di Cambio b. 1232 - d. 1311
Baccio d' Agnolo b. 1462 - d. 1543
Brunelleschi b. 1379 - d. 1446
Campanile began 1337
Cathedral began 1298
Cathedral finished, except the fašade 1358
Cathedral fašade demolished between 1575-1587
Cathedral fašade painted 1689
Cathedral cupola proposed 1417
Cathedral, ball of cupola added 1469
Cathedral lantern struck by lightning 1492
Donatello b. 1386 - d. 1466
Ghiberti b. 1378 - d. 1455
Giotto b. 1276 - d. 1337
Jacopo della Quercia b. 1374 - d. 1438
26 Arnolfo di
Cambio is sometimes confounded with Arnolfo de' Lapi, who
repaired the Baptistery.
27 San Michele Visdomini, ViÓ de' Servi. See Introduction, part ii.
28 See Crowe and Cavalcaselle, "History of Italian Painting," vol. Iii. P. 185. Cavalcaselle cites Ces. Guasti, "Archivio Storico, Nuova Serie," vol. Xvii., part i. Florence, 1863.
29 Some of these statues of very mediocre merit, are at the foot of the avenue leading to the Poggio Imperiale, outside the Porta Romana; others are in the Cortile or Court of the Riccardi Palace, and others in the Bargello. The statue of Boniface VIII., under whose auspices the cathedral was founded, is preserved in the Orto Rucellai or Oricellai, gardens once frequented by the Medici and the members of the Platonic Academy.
30 See "Handbook of Architecture," by James Fergusson, vol. ii. p. 739.
31See "Legendary Art," by Mrs. Jameson, p. 12.
32 The bear is the badge of the kings of Spain. It is possible that some scion of the royal house had contributed to the expense of this part of the Cathedral.
33 See "History of Italian Art." Crowe and Cavalcaselle. Vol. ii. p. 189.
34 See "Donatello, seine Zeit und Schule," by Dr. Hans Semper, p. 24
35 Ibid., p. 12
36 Ibid., p. 23.
37 The mole cricket, an insect well known in Italy. A custom exists of catching them on Ascension Day, and confining them in little reed cages. They are supposed to be typical of human life, and that the longer the grilli can be kept alive, the longer will be the life of its owner. The custom dates from old Etruscan and Greek times. The reed cages are figured on the walls of Pompeian houses, and the Sicilian Greek poet, Theocritus, alludes to them. Annually still, on Ascension Day, whole families may be seen flocking to the Cascine at Florence, and after securing their prisoners, they sit down on the grass and partake of the merenda or luncheon.
38 See "Annals of St. Paul's," by the Rev. H. H. Milman, late dean of St. Paul's.
39 See Harford's "Life of Michael Angelo," vol. ii. p. 91: -
I will maker sister dome40 See Lord Lindsay's "Christian Art," vol. ii. p. 250. The subjects are -
Larger; yes, but not more beautiful.
Chapter IV: The Cathedral (Continuation) - Interior
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