In a city full of world-renowned architectural monuments, the Florence cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, with its glorious dome, is still the most immediately recognizable element of the city. Looking to the size of the Duomo, one cannot help but think it’s even too big for the scale of the narrowed-street medieval city. Thus, it would be interesting to take a look at the conditions that led to its construction.

The interior view of the dome, with a huge fresco by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccaro.

The story begins in the late middle ages, in the year 1294, when the residents of the economically and politically developing Florence decided that their current cathedral ‘was of a very indifferent form, and was too small for such a city. Trying to dominate in the constant rivalry between the northern Italian city states, their new cathedral was designed to represent the grandeur of Florence. Its construction began quickly, but it wasn’t until the early fifteen century that the temple - still not including the dome – was completed, after the contribution of many architects. The design of the dome was assigned to architect Filippo Brunelleschi in the year 1416 after a structural design competition.

It is worth discussing the construction technique of the dome, as it is believed to be an engineering miracle of the era. With a diameter of forty-four meters and a height of 113 meters it still is the biggest dome made out of masonry. To accomplish this feat, Brunelleschi proposed the use of two domes instead of one, with the smaller inner dome sustaining the larger outside dome. This way he made possible the complete absence of columns in the interior, creating a huge, covered space that was later painted by famous Italian Renaissance painters. The architect, after proposing the innovative construction method, had to confront and deal with the skepticism of his contemporaries, who refused to believe that such a project was possible to be carried out.

The great Duomo, that strongly defines the skyline of Florence, drops its shadow to the medieval city.

But what is the role of such monumental architecture in the contemporary city? The cathedral certainly attracts many tourists every year, which is probably the basic source of income for the city center, but what does it mean for the local population? Is it a religious symbol? Is it the reminder of the glorious past, when their city was the culture pioneer of the world? Or is it just a tourist attraction, a building they are used to walking by every day, without paying much attention to? Out of the many different answers, I would define it as the central core, the heart of the city.

Nobody would disagree that the big brick cupola, built in a period of a great cultural bloom, hides a hint of arrogance. An effort to build the greatest, biggest and most exquisite monument, one that would define the city for the years to come. And yet, this effort is undoubtedly successful. The dome, the central point of the city, an element of orientation in its chaotic medieval urban geography, is what every city needs: its eternal symbol.

What is the largest monument or symbol of your city? What is your attitude towards this city-defining work?

 Credits: Images by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources.