The Florence Cathedral, the iconic Cathedral of Florence, symbolizes the city.
If you have ever seen a postcard of Florence, 99% of the time, you will find either the Ponte Vecchio or the Santa Maria del Fiore Church, both undisputed city symbols. Impressive, majestic, and distinctive on the outside, severe, linear, and austere inside. Behind the precious polychrome marble cladding of the Florence Cathedral, you will find Giotto’s Campanile and Brunelleschi’s Dome. But Santa Maria del Fiore is not just about its “appendages.” Its history and what it holds inside are equally stunning, making it a top must-see in Florence.
What to see in Florence: Santa Maria del Fiore Church
It needs no grand introductions; it is one of Florence’s most beautiful churches and the protagonist of practically every postcard. The Florence Cathedral, known as Santa Maria del Fiore, is an exuberant display of the world’s unique architecture, art, and history. Before visiting it, here’s everything you need to know so that you will get all the details of its monumental history and artistic significance.
The history of Florence Cathedral: Curiosities to know
It’s impossible to condense centuries of history into a few lines. However, it’s worth knowing that beneath the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral lie the foundations of the ancient Paleochristian Church dedicated to Santa Reparata. At that time, in the 7th century, the current Florence Cathedral was outside the walls of Florentia.
Only after the construction of new defensive walls in 1078 did this part of the city become the center of religious and civil life, housing buildings of great interest and utility for the city. The turning point came after Florence’s victory in the wars against the rival city of Siena. After the victory in the Battle of Colle in 1269, it was necessary to emphasize the power and wealth of the city as a warning to future clashes with cities daring to challenge Florence.
Santa Reparata Church also became the subject of redevelopment. Initially, restoration work was attempted, but it was eventually decided to rebuild it, larger, more imposing, and more prosperous. Architect Arnolfo di Cambio, already well known in Florence, was entrusted with the project, which began on September 8, 1296. After his death, the work stopped only to resume with renewed vigor when the relics of San Zanobi, a beloved bishop of Florence, were found among the foundations. At this point, Giotto’s genius comes into play. He would design and create the breathtaking Giotto’s Campanile before dying from the Black Death, only three years after taking charge of the work.
With minor variations from the initial project, the work continued under the direction of Francesco Talenti and, after Brunelleschi‘s final interventions, was completed in 1436. The consecration occurred on March 25 of the same year, on Florence’s New Year’s Day. From this moment on, the ancient Santa Reparata Church officially became the Florence Cathedral, as well as a place of worship, social aggregation, and the backdrop of the most important and crucial events that marked Florence’s history.
Florence: What to see inside and outside the Cathedral
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo in Florence, two aspects leave us speechless: the grandeur of the Cathedral and its exterior coherence with the San Giovanni Baptistery. Both are covered in Carrara white marble, Prato green marble, and Maremma red marble, featuring terracotta tiles. Yet, the two buildings were constructed at different times, so how is this similarity possible? The mystery is soon revealed: the initial facade in stone did not harmonize well with the other surrounding buildings clad in polychrome marbles.
Following several restoration attempts and modifications, the facade was demolished in 1587 and never definitively reinstated. Finally, in 1871, a reconstruction project of the Florence Cathedral facade was signed by Emilio De Fabris, taking inspiration from the colors and materials of the neighboring Baptistery.
The transepts are oriented towards the cardinal points, with the northern one initially supposed to house Michelangelo’s David. However, it was later destined for Piazza dei Priori and is now visible in the Accademia Gallery.
However, compared to the San Giovanni Baptistery, the richness in craftsmanship and details is unmistakably 19th-century. In any case, the central theme of Christianity as the engine of the world has been preserved. Additionally, there are episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary on the bronze doors. Note the third statue from the left in the buttress niches, depicting Pope Eugenius IV, who consecrated the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in 1436.
Many details initially designed by Arnolfo remained untouched, but over time, changes were made to the external appearance of the Florence Cathedral. Among the main reasons were the artistic trends of the time and the desire to make it closer in style to the Baptistery.
As for the interior, it is divided into three naves and is relatively simple compared to the exterior. The sensation is that of being at the center of a vast emptiness, tiny in the presence of the divine, in awe. The characteristics of the internal structure, for height and “lightness,” are not attributed to any previous architectural precedent, making the Florence Cathedral almost unique. During the Counter-Reformation in the late 1600s, many decorations (including some by Donatello) were removed. The polychrome marble floors offset the linear and severe appearance of the interior.
The central tribune, or San Zanobi‘s, is particularly important, where his relics are preserved. Be careful where you step if you walk towards the Santa Croce tribune (on the left): on the floor is the so-called solar gnomon, dating back to 1450. The best time to see it is during the summer solstice (June 21), when the sunlight perfectly covers it.
What to see in Florence inside its Cathedral that has not been mentioned? Here’s a brief list:
- The 4415th-century stained glass windows made the Cathedral the richest in Italy in this aspect. Donatello designed some.
- The four 14th-century bifores.
- The mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin, by Gaddo Gaddi.
- The polychrome terracotta lunettes by Luca della Robbia depict the Resurrection (1440) and the Ascension (around 1450), both in the sacristy.
- Dante with the Divine Comedy, by Domenico di Michelino (where Brunelleschi’s Dome is under construction on the right).
- The tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi was discovered only in the 1930s during construction works.
- Equestrian Monument of John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto), by Paolo Uccello (1436).
- Equestrian Monument of Niccolò da Tolentino, by Andrea del Castagno (1456).
Remember that the Florence Cathedral was a place of worship and an important social hub. Due to this function, over time, it became enriched with busts of various prominent.
Figures from Florence. Starting with the bust of architect Arnolfo di Cambio, by Aristodemo Costoli, as well as those of Giotto and Brunelleschi.
Finally, remember to visit the undergrounds of the Florence Cathedral. Here, not only were the city’s bishops buried for centuries, but you can also explore the archaeological part. Today, it is possible to see the remains of the Paleochristian church on which the Cathedral stands. To descend underground, look for the staircase in the left aisle, after Brunelleschi’s tomb.
The challenge of Brunelleschi’s Dome.
If the construction works of the Florence Cathedral with Francesco Talenti proceeded relatively smoothly, the same cannot be said for the dome, the last element to be completed. A heated debate opened on how to build it (a matter probably deliberately overlooked until then, as no concrete solution had been found).
Finally, a public competition was decided for designing the dome and the tools and machinery needed for its construction. There were no winners. However, a certain Filippo Brunelleschi presented an appealing project, and in the absence of other options, it was decided to try putting it into practice. The works progressed slowly, adjusting as the dome was raised.
Brunelleschi‘s idea was something never tried before. An independent dome was attempted for the first time, eliminating the wooden support structure (cantina) previously used to build domes and arches. To construct it, the thickness of the inner dome had to be thicker than the outer one. The arrangement of the bricks in a herringbone pattern was studied to minimize the risk of the mortar slipping.
The angle of the bricks was also crucial to prevent them from collapsing with the addition of slow-setting mortar. Today, thanks to some findings, Brunelleschi attempted a similar project using the church of San Jacopo Soprarno as a model. We know that the project underwent slight modifications based on how the structure responded to the increasing weight and height. It was an ambitious and spectacular project we are fortunate and privileged to admire while visiting Florence.
Giotto’s Campanile, the ancient bell tower
A brief mention is also due to Giotto’s Campanile (or Giotto’s Bell Tower). The construction of the bell tower of the Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, began in 1298 with the excavation of its foundations. Initially directed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who was already working on reconstructing the entire Cathedral), the works were passed on to Giotto di Bondone in 1334.
Giotto worked on it until his death, which occurred in 1337 due to the Black Death. He was succeeded by Taddeo Gaddi, who, according to scholars, intervened to strengthen the structure, and the construction was later completed by Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti. White, green, and red marbles were also chosen for the bell tower.
The structure is 85 meters high, and by climbing the 413 steps, you can reach up to 82 meters. To delve into it and discover the best way to visit it, take advantage of our guide to Giotto’s Campanile (Giotto’s bell tower).
Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence
Among the many museums in Florence to be noticed, we must mention the Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence. You will find 28 rooms spread over approximately 6,000 m² and three levels here. The exhibition focuses not only on the artists who worked on the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore basilica but also included everything related to its construction, from excavations for the foundations to the architectural expedients used. More than 750 works of art have been created over 720 years, including the world’s largest collection of monumental Florentine sculptures.
Before becoming a museum, the Opera del Duomo in Florence (founded in 1296) was responsible for managing the administration of the construction works of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. Only in 1400 did it move to its current location and remained active to guarantee the maintenance of the complex formed by the Cathedral and the surrounding structures (Baptistery and Campanile). Starting in 1891, it took on the form of a museum to allow everyone to learn about and admire the artworks and history of the Cathedral.
Not to be missed inside the Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence:
- Some important works by Donatello, including the Cantorie of the Cathedral, the Creation of Eve, the Beardless Prophet, the Thoughtful Prophet, the Little Prophet, Cantoria, St. John the Evangelist, Penitent Magdalene, and Zuccone.
- The original panels of the Gate of Paradise from the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti.
- The Treasure of San Giovanni Cross by Antonio del Pollaiolo.
- The marble sculpture of the Pieta from the Duomo by Michelangelo Buonarroti.
- The models designed by Brunelleschi for the construction of the dome, including those for the various necessary machines.
- The projects for the facade date back to the 16th century.
- Fragments of sculptures by Tino di Camaino.
- The silver altar of St. John, destined for the Baptistery.
- Several sculptures by Arnolfo di Cambio.
- The Prophet Habakkuk by Luca della Robbia.
- Bas-reliefs, sculptures, and other Roman artifacts found in the foundations.
- The relic of a finger of St. John the Baptist.
Curiosities about the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral.
In 1296, the Cathedral was dedicated to the Madonna “del fiore,” the patron saint of Fiorenza (Florence). However, it took a decree from the Signoria in 1412 to impose the new name on the Florentines.
Francesco Talenti risked a fine from the Opera del Duomo authorities as he was not present enough on the construction site. He was eventually dismissed from the works after completing the first three bays.
Several artists and architects participated in the public competition to construct the bell tower. However, only Filippo Brunelleschi and his great rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, stood out. To eliminate his opponent, Brunelleschi devised a stratagem: he only showed up on the site for a few days. This was enough time for everyone to realize that Ghiberti could not carry on the project, and soon Brunelleschi was called back to supervise the work.
The main bronze door and the left side door are the work of Augusto Passaglia, while the right one is by Giuseppe Cassioli. The latter faced a series of endless misfortunes during the works, so much so that he took his own life (the right door), suffocating with a snake wrapped around his throat.
Since its consecration on March 25, 1436, the Florence Cathedral has been the scene of events that marked the city’s history, from the most solemn celebrations to the sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, to popular assemblies and public readings of the Divine Comedy. It was the venue for the Council of Florence (1438-1439), where the Latin and Byzantine churches were reunified.
Above all, here began the Pazzi Conspiracy. During the Mass inside the Florence Cathedral on April 26, 1478, two assassins murdered Giuliano de’ Medici and attempted to kill his brother, Lorenzo. However, the Florentines supported the Medici and helped Lorenzo, who would become Il Magnifico, to escape. But they didn’t forget the instigators of the brutal murder, and for days, the population revolted and obtained the hanging of many members of the Pazzi family.
The extreme complexity and innovation in constructing Brunelleschi‘s dome led to it being considered the first great work of Renaissance architecture.
Once upon a time, near the current location of the Opera del Duomo Museum, stood the workshop of architect and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. Inside were ovens where he created the bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni.
Also, near the Opera del Duomo Museum, you can find the spot where a block of marble left over from the works for the Cathedral was “recycled” by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The result was his famous David, now preserved in the Accademia Gallery.
With its 3600 m² of frescoed surface, the Florence Cathedral holds the record for the most extensive frescoed surface ever. The frescoes were created between 1572 and 1579 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari.
If you are looking for the answer to the crossword puzzle clue “borders the Florence Cathedral,” the answer is “Giotto’s Campanile“!
To the left of the facade is the so-called Porta di Balla or dei Cornacchini, dating back to the late 14th century. It is characterized by two lions holding twisted (or tortile) columns. Legend has it that a man named Anselmo, who lived right before the Cornacchini family‘s houses on today’s Via Ricasoli, dreamed one night of one of those lions about to devour him. Upon waking, almost as a challenge, he put his hand inside the stone lion’s mouth without noticing that there was a scorpion hidden inside. Anselmo was stung by the scorpion and died shortly after.
You can climb Brunelleschi’s Dome by ascending 436 steps. The reward is a panoramic view of Florence at a height of 91 meters.
During the post-flood renovation works in 1966, a discovery was made regarding the marble used in the floors. They had been recovered and reused from the ancient facade dating back to 1520.
On the counter facade, one of the last liturgical clocks is still in operation. These clocks mark the Italian “hora,” where each day is divided into 24 sections more or less corresponding to the hours, which change depending on the season. The one in the Florence Cathedral was frescoed by Paolo Uccello in 1443, and at the corners, you can find four evangelists.
Florence Cathedral: Opening hours, tickets, and helpful tips
The Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral is in Piazza del Duomo, a stone’s throw from Piazza della Signoria and the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. The closest bus stops are:
- Pucci Duomo (lines 14 and 23)
- Santa Maria Nuova (lines 14 and 23)
- Pecori Duomo (line C4)
The opening hours are different for visiting the various areas that make up the Florence Cathedral. Similarly, the prices may vary based on the area of interest. To purchase tickets for the Florence Cathedral, you must visit the official website of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.
- Monday to Saturday from 10:45 AM to 15:45 PM , closed on Sundays.
- Free entrance (right side of the facade).
Please wear appropriate, respectful clothing as this is a religious site. Short shorts, tank tops, sandals, hats, and sunglasses will not be allowed inside. Access to the Dome, the bell tower and the museum is not allowed with bulky bags and backpacks. The cloakroom is located at the ticket office of the Museum Opera del Duomo.
- Monday to Friday from 8:15 to 18:45.
- Saturday from 8:15 to 17:30.
- Sunday and public holidays from 12:45 to 17:30.
- Brunelleschi Pass: €30 from 15 years and older, reduced to €12 for kids 7-14 and free for under 6 years old.
- Monday to Sunday from 8:15 to 18:45.
- The bell tower is included in 2 passes, which range in cost from €20-30, depending on whether you want to visit 4 or all 5 monuments.
- Free for children up to 6 years old.
Terraces of the Cathedral:
- Closed on Sundays during the summer period.
- Full ticket: €25.
- Reduced (7-14 years): €10.
- Free for children up to 6 years old.
Baptistery of San Giovanni:
- Every day 08:30 am – 7:45pm.Hours are subject to change at any time, as this is a religious building and used for religious services.
- The Baptistery is included in all 3 passes, which cost from €15-30, depending on whether you want to visit 3, 4 or all 5 monuments.
- Free for children up to 6 years old.
Opera del Duomo Museum
- Every day except the first Tuesday of the month, from 08:30 to 19:00.
- The museum is included in all 3 passes, which vary in cost from €15-30, depending on whether you want to visit 3, 4 or all 5 monuments.
- Free for children up to 6 years old.
Tourists who have already visited Florence and its Duomo recommend booking a guided tour. This way, it will be easier to discover and identify everything the city’s most famous church offers.
The most economical solution is undoubtedly the combined ticket, including the Campanile, Baptistery, Dome, and Cathedral. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, entry methods, and prices may change, so it’s better to keep an eye on the official website of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore before departing.
Finally, book well in advance if you plan to visit the Florence Cathedral during the summer solstice to see the sun’s passage in the solar gnomon.
What do tourists say about the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore?
As we have seen, the Florence Cathedral is a structure of religious and social importance with unique architecture worldwide. Wandering through the alleys of Florence, it is impossible not to be awestruck when catching a glimpse of its colors. But what remains in the hearts of tourists who have visited the Santa Maria del Fiore Church and wanted to leave their feedback on TripAdvisor‘s dedicated page? Here is some feedback:
The general impression is that those who approach the Florence Cathedral are dazzled, both by the exterior’s splendor and the interior’s austerity.
Address and Map
Piazza del Duomo, 50122 Firenze FI