Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Shadow of the Duomo

The back of the Duomo (cathedral) from our window at night.
When Ciro and Lisa, our friendly Airbnb hosts, first greeted us at our apartment in Florence, they opened the shutters to one of our windows and this was the view we saw:

We could almost reach out and touch the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, or St. Mary of the Flower. (That black "arrow" in the photo is actually the roof of the neighboring building.) 

The view brought tears to my eyes. Not only were we looking at the dome designed by Brunelleschi, but we could see the campanile, or bell tower, designed by Giotto. The work of these giants of the Renaissance is right outside our window! When I think of what the Renaissance meant to the history of the Western world, to look out on where it all began is inspiring.

But there is another reason I teared up, too:  In the early 1970s, Kevin had helped his father move some furniture for an elderly lady who was relocating. The lady had seemed quite taken with Kevin and insisted on giving him a beautiful little sketch of a cathedral "somewhere in Europe." She couldn't remember where. In the 1980s, when we planned our first trip to Europe, we were reading a brochure on Italy and discovered that the sketch was of
Santa Maria del Fiore. After seeing the Duomo with our own eyes on our first trip in 1982, and on subsequent trips, our little sketch of the cathedral has become even more valued. And now we are living right next to the source.

The first stone for the cathedral was laid in 1296 and it took 147 years to finish. The top sat open to the heavens for years before a competition to build the dome was announced in 1418. Several designs were submitted and models were constructed, including one by Brunelleschi, who said he could build the dome without using internal scaffolding. The panel charged with awarding the commission for the project asked Brunelleschi for more information about how he would construct the dome, since nothing like that had been done in Europe since the Roman Pantheon.

In those days there were no intellectual property laws, so Brunelleschi, who was known to be a bit cantankerous anyway, refused to provide more details.  There is a unconfirmed story that he took a raw egg to the committee and asked them to stand it on end. When they all failed, Brunelleschi smacked the egg down on the table, breaking the end and allowing it to stand. "But we could have done that," said the committee members. "Yes," said Brunelleschi, "and if I tell you how I will build the dome, anyone can do that too." He won the commission. (It's a story that's so good, it should be true.)

I should note, however, that Brunelleschi initially had to share his commission with Ghiberti, his rival who was awarded the contract to create the doors to the cathedral's baptistry. Brunelleschi felt he should have won that commission too, and the two never had any good will for each other. (The baptistry doors are the ones Michelangelo later said were "fit to be the doors to paradise.") We saw both artist's sample panels for the doors in the Uffizi and concluded that, although both were impressive, Ghiberti probably deserved the job.

Interior of the dome painted by Vasari.

There are other stories associated with the cathedral as well.

The front of The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

One story concerns a bull's head that projects from the north side of the cathedral. Supposedly, it represents a tribute to the animals who died or helped most in the building of the cathedral--the oxen. But legend has it that it really was put there by the master stonemason, who had been having an affair with the wife of a baker. When the baker found out, he took them to ecclesiastical court, and the two adulterers had to stop seeing each other. In retaliation, the stonemason affixed the bull's head to look down on the baker's establishment and remind him he had been cuckolded.
(See head on left side of photo, then check closeup below.) 

Honestly, considering how little consideration was given to animals at the time, the latter story almost sounds more believable!

Another connection to the Renaissance is our morning "alarm."
Every morning at 7 a.m., if we haven't risen earlier, we awake to the sound of the bells ringing in Giotto's bell tower. I like hearing the bells, knowing that for more than 500 years the people of Florence have been rising to bells ringing from that tower.

So here we are, living in the shadow created by these giants of the Renaissance. What's more is that we can always find our way home from anywhere in town just by looking for Brunelleschi's dome.

View of the Duomo from the library down the street. Yes, they serve wine there!
This is Italy!

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