Entering the Cathedral, one is struck by the building’s vastness and the sobriety of its furnishings. The color and rich patterning of the exterior, which serve to relate the mass of the structure to the smaller scale of surrounding buildings, here give way to a simplicity that underscores the titanic dimensions of this church (the largest in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century; 153 meters long, 90 wide at the crossing, and 90 meters high from pavement to the opening of the lantern).
The relative bareness of the interior of Santa Maria del Fiore corresponds to the austere spiritual ideal of Florence in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance; it suggests, in architectural terms, the spirituality of the great reformers of Florentine religious life, from Saint John Gualbert to Saint Antoninus and Fra Girolamo Savonarola. The formal matrix is two-fold: on the one hand, the rude strength of Romanesque country churches, and, on the other, an elegant simplicity typical of Mendicant basilicas like Santa Croce (also designed by Arnolfo di Cambio). The enrichment of the interior with splendid pavements in colored marble, and temple-niches on the walls, in fact belongs to a later period, under the patronage of the Grand Dukes in the 16th century.
A – North door (façade)
B – Middle door (façade)
C – South door (façade)
D – Bell Tower Door
E – Canon’s Door
F – Almond Door
G – Bale Door
a) Mosaic by Gaddo Gaddi, The Coronation of Mary;
b) Frescos by Santi di Tito, Music-making Angels;
c) Clock, painted by Paolo Uccello;
d) Stained glass window by Lorenzo Ghiberti, The Assumption of Mary to Heaven.
2) Bust of Brunelleschi.
3) Bust of Giotto.
4) Bust of Marsilio Ficino.
5) Bust of Emilio De Fabris.
6) Bust of Arnolfo di Cambio.
7) Bust of Antonio Squarcialupi.
8) Fresco depicting Niccolò da Tolentino, by Andrea del Castagno.
9) Fresco depicting Sir John Hawkwood, by Paolo Uccello.
10) Monument to Dante and the Divine Comedy, by Domenico di Michelino.
11) Choir enclosure, by Baccio Bandinelli.
12) High Altar.
13) Bishop’s Chair or “cathedra”.
14) Crucifix by Benedetto da Maiano.
a) Bronze doors by Luca delIa Robbia;
b) Relief by Luca delIa Robbia, The Resurrection of Christ.
16) The “Mass Sacristy” with 15th century intarsias
17) The altar of Saint Zanobius and of the Blessed Sacrament:
a) The urn with Saint Zanobius’relics, by Lorenzo Ghiberti;
b) Last supper by Giovanni Balducci (1560-1603).
18) Relief by Luca delIa Robbia, The Ascension of Christ.
19) Entrance to the excavation of the former cathedral, Santa Reparata.
Santa Maria del Fiore was built with public funds as a “state church”, and important works of art in the side aisles constitute a “civic program” honoring illustrious men. This program includes: frescoed equestrian monuments to the military leaders, Sir John Hawkwood (by Paolo Uccello, 1436) and Niccolò da Tolentino (by Andrea del Castagno, 1456) (9) and (8) the painting by Domenico di Michelino showing Dante, dated 1465 (10) sculptural portraits of Giotto (3) Brunelleschi (2), Marsilio Ficino (4), and Antonio Squarcialupi, Cathedral organist (7), all works of the 15th and early 16th century. The portrait reliefs of Arnolfo and Emilio De Fabris, (5) and (6) are 19th-century creations.
Besides this civic iconography, there is a religious program as well, occupying the area of the Cathedral meant for worship. Two large images at opposite ends of the central nave suggest the religious emphasis: a mosaic over the principal entrance, by Gaddo Gaddi in the early 1300s, and the circular, stained-glass window high above the main altar (the only one of the eight “eyes” of the drum visible from the nave), designed by Donatello between 1434 and 1437. Both these works depict the coronation of the Virgin – Mary’s elevation to glory after her death, that is.
There is thus a convergence of meanings in the civic and religious programs, both of which illustrate the dignity of man: his human greatness and the elevation God gives him. In the works celebrating illustrious men, stress is laid on an historical dignity, defined by the correct use of one’s talents in service to the community. And in the mosaic and stained glass window (as elsewhere in the specifically religious iconography of Santa Maria del Fiore), man’s spiritual dignity is stressed, his destined transcendence of history, his call to “reign with Christ”: a universal vocation anticipated in Mary’s Coronation. And even if that definitive “elevation” will occur only after death, when men and women enter the “time of the Risen Christ”, it nonetheless begins right now, in the time of history. A colossal clock over the main door suggests, among other things, this rootedness in historical time. Painted by Paolo Uccello in 1443, it is a “liturgical” clock which calculates the 24 hours of the day starting at sunset of the previous day, just as the Church calculates the beginning of religious festivities. Four heads of prophets at the clock’s corners hint, finally, that this “real time” of the Church looks toward another time, a future in which the meaning of the present will be fully revealed.