The Florence Cathedral Museum
The Florence Cathedral Museum, or Grande Museo Del Duomo, as it’s official known, used to be one of the most overlooked and least-frequented attractions in Florence. Even in the height of the high season, when lines into the Florence Cathedral, Bell Tower, and Dome climb stretched close to three hours, you could expect to breeze in and have your run of the place. That changed in 2015 when the Florence Cathedral administration finished refurbishing the museum and doubling its size. What they unveiled was a staggering collection of art associated with the Cathedral – from paintings and sculptures to a reconstruction of the church’s original facade. This unique collection, as well as a detailed history of the construction of the Cathedral, make the museum an incredible place to learn about the artistic and architectural innovations that shaped the Italian Renaissance.
Visiting the Grande Museo Del Duomo: What to See
The Original Facade
Of the many stories that surround the Florence Cathedral, one of the strangest is that the original façade was completely different from the one we see today. When its designer Arnolfo di Cambio died before its completion, it hung around, half-finished, for some 300 years before being torn down, replaced, and completely forgotten. The only evidence of its existence was a single drawing by an artist named Bernardo Pocetti, filed away deep in the archives of the Florence Cathedral.
This was not just any old façade, either. It featured works by Donatello and Nanni di Banco, among others – all of which had similarly disappeared into the vast storage rooms of the Cathedral. In the early 2000’s Florence Cathedral Museum curators researched the old façade and eventually discovered Pocetti’s drawing. Using it as their guide, they completely reconstructed a full-scale facsimile the old façade and have now put it on display in the Florence Cathedral Museum. Like many parts of the Cathedral, its artistic grandeur combines with the improbable story of how it was made to make an unmissable Florence attraction.
These days Lorenzo Ghiberti is most often remembered as the guy who beat Filippo Brunelleschi to make a set of bronze doors. As the story goes, losing so enflamed the thin-skinned Brunelleschi that he was driven to win the commission to create the giant Florence Cathedral Dome. History isn’t quite so neat. Ghiberti was among the most popular and respected artists of his time and he also worked on the Dome, albeit in a lesser capacity than Brunelleschi. And those bronze doors? Singular masterworks of nearly unbelievable subtlety and detail. He actually cast two sets of doors. The more accomplished, which depict biblical scenes, were originally part of the Baptistery but have been moved inside the Museum in order to protect them from wear and tear. They now face the reconstructed Duomo façade where you can admire the work that Michelangelo himself called the “Gates of Paradise”.
The Penitent Magdalen (Maddalena Penitente)
Donatello’s wood sculpture was unprecedented in its time for depicting a hyper-realistic, almost macabre image of a very emaciated Mary Magdalen. It isn’t the most revered of the famous sculptures in Florence, but it’s one that, long after you have left, will stick in your mind’s eye. If you have ever wondered what thirty years of penitence in the desert will do to your skin, Donatello’s work is the perfect study.
Michelangelo’s “Other” Pieta
Visitors to St. Peter’s Cathedral know you can’t miss Michelangelo’s depiction of loss and motherly sorrow in the Pietá, but not all of the artist’s works were resounding successes. As an old man Michelangelo returned to the scene of the Jesus’ crucifixion to begin work on another Pietá intended for his own grave. Things apparently did not go well – he eventually took a hammer to the piece and left it mutilated and unfinished. Despite, or perhaps because of its shortcomings, this sculpture offers an intimate insight into the mind of a master.
The Gallery of Brunelleschi’s Dome
If you see the Florence Cathedral without knowing the story of how the Dome was built you are missing half the beauty. The Gallery in the Duomo Museum dedicated to the Dome is a great spot for those who have never heard the story and seasoned scholars alike. It features models, drawings, and even some of the tools used to build the Cathedral. Better yet, it takes you inside the building process, from start to finish, and helps you understand why the Florence Duomo is still considered an architectural marvel. This gallery will especially appeal to children and help them understand the immense amount of time and labor that went into the building.
If you walk through the entire museum the final room is a panoramic terrace that gives you a spectacular view of Brunelleschi’s dome. It might not be as high as the Dome or the Bell Tower, but you also won’t have to wait hours to visit it.
Tips for seeing the Grande Museo Del Duomo
The Duomo Museum is open 7 days a week but closes on the first Tuesday of each month. Normal opening times are from 9:00am to 7:00pm Tuesday through Sunday and 9:00am to 9:00pm on Mondays. However, these are subject to change throughout the year so you should always check the helpful calendar on the Museum website before planning your visit.
There is a single ticket that allows you to enter the six properties associated with the Florence Cathedral (the Cathedral, Dome, bell tower, Museum, Baptistery, and crypt.) The ticket costs €15.00 and entitles one person one entry into each of the six parts sites (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.
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 covering 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 Florence Duomo Museum, 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 not a coat check where you can leave it so plan accordingly.
The Best Time to Visit the Grande Museo Del Duomo
This is the only one of the six attractions in the Florence Cathedral complex that you can reliably visit without expecting a long line to get in. Given the large refurbishment and renewed interest in the museum, this might change slightly. But for the time being, expect only minimal waiting, even during the high season. We recommend seeing the Florence Cathedral and the Museo Del Duomo in one afternoon, then returning the next morning for either the dome climb, bell tower climb or baptistery visit.
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