The Duomo Cathedral of Florence: Architecture, History & Facts

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you'll explore the creation, development, and significance of one of Italy's most important churches and increase your knowledge of architecture, art, and history. When you are through, test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Duomo of Florence

'The most important building in the world!' This is what the people of Florence might have called the Duomo Cathedral in the 1400s. To them, it probably was the most important building in the world. Instead of competing with other major cities through football games, Italian cities tried to outdo each other's buildings. Whoever had the best buildings won! The Duomo Cathedral of Florence was so big, and so important, it helped start a whole new era of art and engineering. Florence had a right to be proud!

The Duomo Cathedral of Florence, also called the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, is basically a church. A duomo is an Italian word for a cathedral, or a Catholic church where the bishop is located. All cathedrals, including the Duomo Cathedral of Florence, are designed with four perpendicular arms so that the entire building has the shape of a cross, symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ. The long arms running from west to east are called the nave, and the shorter ones from north to south are the transept. The area where the nave and transept meet is called the crossing.

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  • 0:00 The Duomo of Florence…
  • 2:03 Building the Duomo of Florence
  • 4:27 The Campanile of the Duomo
  • 5:34 The Baptistery of the Duomo
  • 6:55 Significance of the…
  • 7:42 Lesson Summary
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Historical Background

During the time when the Duomo was built, Italy was full of city-states, or cities operating as independent governments, that were building up new wealth from international trade. As such, they were constantly competing with each other. Sometimes this meant war, but usually the competitions were simply designed to embarrass the other or prove that one city was the richest and most powerful in the area.

One popular way to do this was by constructing massive buildings that required lots of money, manpower, and technological innovation. Many of these buildings were so complex that the original architects died before they were completed. The Duomo of Florence was so big that it took decades to build and centuries to decorate with statues and paintings. This era of competition, art, inventions, war, and religious fervor was called the Italian Renaissance, which lasted from roughly the 1300s through the 1500s.

Building the Duomo of Florence

As Florence grew to become one of the most powerful city-states in Tuscany, it displayed its wealth by building an enormous cathedral meant to dwarf any other building in the competing cities of Siena, Pisa, or Milan. In 1296, Arnolfo di Cambio began construction on the cathedral, which he designed to be the most beautiful in all of Tuscany and which was to hold a staggering 30,000 worshippers.

In typical Tuscan style, the church's outside is covered in geometric patterns of marble blocks. It's horizontal in design, meaning that it emphasizes its length and width rather than its height. Because the Duomo of Florence was meant to emphasize size, the inside crossing was 140 feet wide. This was entirely new for churches and made the inside feel extremely spacious.

Although the entire cathedral is incredible, the most famous architectural feature is the dome, called the cupola in Italian. Around 1417, the building commission awarded Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti the task of building a dome on the top of the cathedral. Ghiberti ended up dropping out of the project because he was working on another part of the cathedral. Brunelleschi was facing a monumental task. The area that the dome had to cover, the 140-foot crossing, was so big that nobody knew how to build a dome that wouldn't be so heavy it would collapse.

After lots of mathematical calculations, Brunelleschi decided to build a dome with a slight point, rather than a smooth, round top. This style, called ogival, helped reduce the pressure of the structure and made the base of the dome responsible for supporting its weight, which made it stronger. Brunelleschi also invented a double shell system, where 24 ribs held a smaller version of the dome inside the outside shell.

Brunelleschi was a great Renaissance architect, but to make this dome he had to use more than the typical geometric and Roman-inspired designs. Since the dome was the first building project of its kind, Brunelleschi actually had to invent many of the tools and techniques used to build it, including certain kinds of cranes. Brunelleschi even invented the blueprint, but he forgot to teach other people how to read it, so the construction crew didn't know how to build the dome until Brunelleschi came and explained!

The Campanile of the Duomo

The next major addition to the Duomo of Florence came in 1334, when Giotto di Bondone designed the campanile (bell tower) after the death of Arnolfo di Cambio. Giotto's campanile featured seven bells and is made of geometric shapes that could exist either as a group or individually. Giotto's campanile displays several of the fundamental principles of Renaissance architecture: mathematics, logic, and basic geometric shapes like squares and triangles that interact to create a balanced, soothing beauty.

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