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The Florence Duomo

There are bigger domes in the world, and there may be prettier domes. But no dome has changed the world quite like the Florence Cathedral Dome, aka, the Florence Duomo. This titanic dome on top of the Florence Cathedral is a monument to the Italian Renaissance. It synthesizes all the new (and rediscovered) scientific and artistic theories championed by the greatest minds of the era into one incredible structure that lords over all of Florence. It is one of the handful of single structures that have definitively changed the history of architecture as we know it and seeing it is one of the highlights of any trip to Florence.

The lantern of the Florence Duomo offers spectacular views.
The lantern of the Florence Duomo offers spectacular views.
The polychrome marble facade of the Florence Cathedral.
The polychrome marble facade of the Florence Cathedral.
A view of the Florence Duomo from the ground.
A view of the Florence Duomo from the ground.
The lantern of the Florence Duomo offers spectacular views.
The polychrome marble facade of the Florence Cathedral.
A view of the Florence Duomo from the ground.

Visiting the Florence Duomo: What to See

The Story of the Duomo

In Italy there are many impressive domes, especially on churches. What sets the Florence Duomo apart is the fascinating story of how it was built, essentially by a single, solitary genius who is remembered as the father of Renaissance architecture.

Construction on The Florence Cathedral began in 1296 and was mostly completed in just over 100 years; the problem was the Dome. The project’s overseers knew what they wanted – the largest dome in the world – the problem was building it. This was particularly vexing because the rest of the church was already built and they either had to make good on their ambition or endure a church that was open to the elements 365 days a year. And so they did what all Renaissance Italians did in times of doubt: they held a competition.

Thus enters the diminutive hero of our story, Filippo Brunelleschi, a man described by the historian Giorgio Vasari as “small and insignificant in appearance,” but one of those people “with spirits so full of greatness and hearts of such boundless courage that they have no peace until they undertake difficult and almost impossible tasks and bring them to completion”. Vasari isn’t exactly known for his understatement.

The problem posed by the Florence Duomo was figuring out how to construct something so large that would not collapse in on itself from the force of its own weight. Brunelleschi had already lost the competition to design the Florence Cathedral’s Baptistery doors. In his disappointment, he and his friend Donatello had gone to Rome to study the ruins of antiquity. This trip – the first systematic architectural study of ancient Rome ever carried out – helped Brunelleschi understand certain ancient design elements and discover the rules of linear perspective which allowed him to draw objects in realistic 3D. It also gave him a chance to study the gravity-defying grace of the Pantheon

When Brunelleschi heard about the new competition he presented a design that seemed to answer everyone’s problems. The only issue was that he wouldn’t tell anyone how it worked because he was afraid someone would steal his ideas. The gist was that he would create two domes, one inside the other like a Russian doll. The walls would be encased in tension rings, like the rings on a barrel, and the bricks (he used almost 4 million of them) would be arranged in herringbone patterns to ensure greater structural strength.

He built special scaffolds to keep his workmen from falling, invented an entirely new lifting mechanism to pull building materials off the ground, and even created the recipe for a stew to feed his workers that is still popular in the trattorie of Florence today. And he did it all while feuding bitterly with his co-superintendent, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had beaten him in the Florence Baptistery door conference.

On March 25, 1436 Pope Eugenius IV consecrated the Florence Cathedral, which now possessed the largest dome ever known. Today you can go all the way to its top to look out over the city but don’t forget that the real marvel is the building you’re standing on.

Tips for Seeing the Florence Duomo

Opening Times

The Florence Cathedral Dome is open 7 days a week but can be closed without warning due to what the cathedral administration calls “extraordinary events”. These include large storms, excessive crowds, and/or any large disturbances around the Florence Cathedral, like demonstrations. None of these things are particularly common but you should not plan a visit without checking on the website first. They have an easy-to-use calendar telling you the exact hours of operation of the Florence Cathedral Dome on the day you want to visit

The most common potential issue you will encounter is restricting the hours of operation due to huge crowds of people. This is not uncommon in the high season.

Tickets

Tickets to climb to the top of the Florence Duomo cost €15.00 and entitle one person one entry into each of the six parts of the Cathedral complex, including the Museum, Baptistery, bell tower, and of course, the Cathedral (but you can’t go to one part multiple times on the same ticket). They can be used up to six days after their purchase. However, once you have entered one part of the complex with your ticket you only have 24 hours to see the other 5 parts. Children from 6 to 11 years old only pay €3.00 per ticket and children under 6 are allowed free entrance.

Rules

Since the Cathedral complex is an active place of worship appropriate clothing must be worn at all times. This means that both men and women need to wear clothes that cover their shoulders and shorts or skirts that reach past their knees. Anyone not dressed appropriately will be refused admittance.

Open food and drinks are not permitted in the Dome, no pets are allowed, and cellular phones must be turned off or set to silent.

Photos are allowed but only without flash. No tripods or selfie sticks.

Like the rest of the museums in Florence you aren’t allowed to enter with a large suitcase. Unlike many of the museums there is no coat check where you can leave it so plan accordingly.

The Best Time to See the Florence Duomo

In the high season (roughly May through September) the line to get into the Florence Duomo looks like something out of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. It can and does last at least two hours all day, seven days a week. The dome itself has 463 steps and zero elevators. Even the people in charge of the Florence Cathedral warn: “The climb is not recommended for people suffering from heart problems, vertigo, or claustrophobia”

None of this means you shouldn’t go, you just need to be prepared to wait and to climb a pretty serious staircase that is very narrow and packed with people. In fact, the first 150 were too much for the capomaestro (head builder) Giovanni d’Ambrogio who was fired in 1418 for not being able to ascend them to inspect building on the roof. And there are 313 more after that. Our advice is to break up your visit to the Florence Cathedral into two days – an afternoon and the following morning. You can see the Cathedral and museum one afternoon then return first thing the following morning to get in line to climb the Florence Duomo. You will still have to wait for at least an hour but waiting in a Tuscan morning is much nicer than waiting in a Tuscan afternoon.

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