Background Info

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), nicknamed the Duomo after the enormous octagonal dome on its east end, is the cathedral of Florence, Italy, and, arguably, the birthplace of the Renaissance.

A cathedral is a bishop's church. There are many other Catholic churches in Florence, many of them associated with the Renaissance, including Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, and the Brancacci Chapel. However, the Duomo is the home church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Florence, which traces its roots to 394 CE.

Although construction was begun in 1296, the cathedral did not get the structure that gives it its name until 1436. The east end of the church was open to the elements or covered with flat, unstable roofing for more than a century.

The huge octagonal shape proved daunting to engineers and architects. Italian architects were familiar with circular domed shapes, such as the Pantheon in Rome. However, those domes were constructed with concrete. The recipe for concrete had been lost in the Dark Ages.

Medieval gothic cathedrals, such as Notre Dame de Paris in France, relied on flying buttresses to support their massive stone weight. Architects and engineers of the budding Renaissance were determined not to use flamboyant Gothic style or flying buttresses—they wanted to look back to the simple, clean lines of their Roman past.

The architect Filippo Brunelleschi came up with a solution. The Duomo is actually two domes. The inner dome is made of sandstone and marble. The outer dome is made of brick-and-mortar—each brick carefully designed, shaped, and fired to support the dome. The dome was constructed without any supports beneath it.

The Duomo was an immediate success, and Brunelleschi became the chief architect associated with the Renaissance.

In an ironic twist, the marble facade of the cathedral (not visible in this photograph) was only completed in the late 1800s, during a period when medieval, not Renaissance, art was popular. The birthplace of the Renaissance has a medieval face.

Fast Facts

The names of artists who contributed to the Duomo reads like a who's who of Renaissance artists:

  • Giotto designed the campanile (bell tower).
  • Donatello and Nanni di Banco assisted Brunelleschi in modeling the dome.
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti crafted the bronze doors of the baptistery.
  • Ghiberti's baptistery doors were later nicknamed the "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo.
  • The copper ball and cross at the top of the dome were engineered and designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and his assistant—Leonardo da Vinci.

For Further Exploration

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

architect

Noun

person who designs buildings or other large structures.

basilica

Noun

large and important medieval Christian church.

bishop

Noun

leader of a church's diocese.

brick

Noun

block of clay and sand, dried and used for construction.

cathedral

Noun

important regional church.

Catholic

Adjective

having to do with the Christian denomination with the Pope as its leader.

century

Noun

100 years.

concrete

Noun

hard building material made from mixing cement with rock and water.

Dark Ages

Noun

(476-1000) early part of the Middle Ages in Europe, when the study of science fell out of favor.

daunting

Adjective

intimidating, frightening, or discouraging.

diocese

Noun

division of many churches or organized religions, led by a bishop.

dome

Noun

shape that is half of a sphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: dome

elements

Plural Noun

weather or climate.

engineer

Noun

person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

enormous

Adjective

very large.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Noun

(1377-1446) Italian architect and engineer.

flying buttress

Noun

external arch supporting a wall, most often associated with medieval church architecture.

marble

Noun

type of metamorphic rock.

medieval

Adjective

having to do with the Middle Ages (500-1400) in Europe.

mortar

Noun

sticky substance, such as cement, used to bond bricks or stones.

narrow

Verb

to restrict the focus of something, or make it smaller.

Renaissance

Noun

period of great development in science, art, and economy in Western Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries.

sandstone

Noun

rock formed by grains of sand.

steep

Adjective

extreme incline or decline.

stone

Noun

piece of rock.

Credits

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Photographer

Patrick McCarthy

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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