A Dome, 463 Steps and a View
May 23, 2019
Our first tourist destination in Florence was the magnificent Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on this building began more than 700 years ago, in 1296, and was completed 141 years later, in 1436. The original designer of this Gothic-style building was Arnolfio di Cambio, and its crowning glory, il duomo, was the creation of Filippo Brunelleschi.
Wikipedia is quite helpful (and also quite interesting) in explaining what Gothic architecture is: “[The] most prominent features included the use of the rib vault and the flying buttress, which allowed the weight of the roof to be counterbalanced by buttresses outside the building, giving greater height and more space for windows. Another important feature was the extensive use of stained glass and the rose window, to bring light and color to the interior. Another feature was the use of realistic statuary on the exterior, particularly over the portals, to illustrate biblical stories for the largely illiterate parishioners. Some key architectural features, such as the pointed arch and a decorative kind of rib vault, existed earlier outside Europe, and may have been derived from Islamic architecture.These features had both existed in Romanesque architecture, but they were used more extensively and in more innovative ways to make Gothic cathedrals higher, stronger, and filled with light.”
Having purchased a ticket to climb to the top of the dome, we entered the cathedral through a side door (the baptistery and cathedral were a separate tour) and once all of us with tickets for the appointed time had gathered, we immediately started climbing. We climbed and climbed and climbed, with an occasional break to have a look around at pre-designated stages on our way up (you can see the walkways around the inside of the dome in a couple of the photos above). As we climbed higher and higher we were able to get a closer view of the frescoes of the Last Judgement inside the cupola, designed by Georgio Vasari but “mostly painted by his less talented student, Frederico Zuccari” (what a way to go down in history!) They were completed in 1579, and cleaned relatively recently (1996) — apparently to the consternation of many of Florence’s residents who felt that the money could have been better spent.
The passageways containing the stairs are very narrow with low ceilings, and the steps are steep: they were used by the workers during construction, and no one back then ever envisioned that the public would use them – especially not in the great numbers that now visit the cathedral every day (except Sundays). The higher up we went, the farther below us was the floor of the cathedral: from the “lantern” (the walkway inside the cupola), the drop is 40 metres, according to the “Visit Florence” website. The site encourages those with a fear of heights and small spaces to think twice before they sign on to this tour.
In all, we climbed 463 stairs.
As I had already learned in Siena, in addition to the view that awaited us at the top, climbing hundreds of stairs is a great way to meet people from all over the world who are climbing along with you. Misery loves company.
The climb, of course, was worth it. Once we got out onto the terrace no one regretted having made the trek — at least not until we remembered that going down such narrow steps was going to be even more disconcerting than climbing up had been.
A story I loved reading during my research for this post involved a balcony that Baccio d’Agnolo started to build at the base of the dome in 1507. It took him eight years to complete one balcony on one of the eight sides. At that point, “someone asked Michelangelo – whose artistic opinion was by this time taken as cardinal law – what he thought of it. The master reportedly scoffed, ‘It looks like a cricket cage.’ Work was immediately halted, and to this day the other seven sides remain rough brick!”