The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as il Duomo, serves as the city's symbol and it is the most recognizable building in Florence, Italy. The cathedral and its corresponding bell tower (campanile) and baptistery (battistero) are among the top ten Attractions in Florence and the Duomo is also considered to be one of the top cathedrals to see in Italy.
History of the Duomo Complex
The Cathedral: Santa Maria del Fiore is dedicated to the Virgin of the Flowers. Built on the 4th-century remains of the original cathedral, Santa Reparata, it was initially designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296. Its main feature is the massive dome engineered according to the plans of Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi was awarded the commission for constructing the dome after winning a design competition, which pitted him against other prominent Florentine artists and architects, including Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The first stone of the eye-catching façade was laid on September 8, 1296, made of polychrome panels of green, white, and red marble. But this design is not the original—construction of an entirely new facade by Emilio De Fabris in the Florentine style popular in the 14th century, which was completed in the late 19th century.
The Dome: Construction on the dome, one of the most ambitious architectural and engineering feats of its time, had been stalled for some time because it was determined that building a cupola of that size would be impossible without the use of flying buttresses. Brunelleschi, however, had a deep knowledge and understanding of the key concepts of physics and geometry and therefore was able to solve this dilemma. His brilliance ultimately won him the challenge.
Brunelleschi's controversial and innovative plans provided for inner and outer shells that were held together with a ring and rib system, as well as employed a herringbone pattern to keep the bricks of the dome from falling to the ground. These construction techniques are commonplace today but were quite revolutionary during the time it was erected.
Work on the dome began in 1420 and finished in 1436. The lantern crown of the dome wasn't added until after Brunelleschi's death in 1446. A gilt copper sphere and cross containing holy relics were designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and added in 1466. Between 1572 and 1579, a fresco of The Last Judgment was painted on the inner shell of the dome—started by Giorgio Vasari and finished by Federico Zuccari.
What to See and Do around the Duomo
An imposing sight in the heart of the historic center of Florence, the richly decorative Duomo with a distinctive terracotta tile dome is Florence’s most famous symbol, and to date, Europe's fourth-largest church.
Climb the Dome: With a diameter of 45 meters (147.6 feet), Filippo Brunelleschi’s massive dome was completed in 1463. The largest of its time built without scaffolding, its outer shell is supported by a thick inner shell that acts as its platform. The best way to appreciate the genius of Brunelleschi's work—and the only way to see it up close—is to climb the dome. There are 463 steps, mostly in the narrow corridors used by workers when the dome was constructed—so it's not an activity for the claustrophobic or those who might get worn out on the stairs.
Tickets to climb the dome must be reserved in advance. You can select the time and date of your visit up to 30 days in advance.
Once you reach the base of the dome, you can walk along an interior walkway for a close-up view of "The Last Judgement." From there, you can continue all the way up the lantern, and step outside for incredible views of Florence from on high.
The Crypt of Santa Reparata: A 20th-century archaeological dig under the cathedral revealed the remains of the earlier cathedral, Santa Reparata; proof of the existence of early Christianity in the city. The discovery also provides extensive information about the art, history, and topography of the town. Visible still are 8th-century mosaics on the first floor decorated in a polychrome geometric pattern. The walls show fragments of frescoes, but the most important finding was the tomb of Brunelleschi, dating to 1446. Access to the crypt is included in the Duomo ticket (see above).
Saint John's Baptistery. The Battistero San Giovanni (Saint John's Baptistery) is part of the Duomo complex and stands in front of the cathedral. Construction of the present Baptistery began in 1059, making it one of the oldest buildings in Florence. The interior of the octagon-shaped Baptistery is richly decorated with mosaics from the 1200s. But the baptistery is best-known for its exterior bronze doors, which feature exquisitely carved depictions of scenes from the Bible, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and executed by Ghiberti and his apprentices. Artist Michelangelo dubbed the bronze doors the "Gates of Paradise" and the name has remained ever since. The original doors are now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and the ones in place on the Baptistery are bronze casts of the originals.
Climb the Campanile: Next to the Baptistery, the tall, square Campanile, or bell tower, is known affectionately as Giotto's Bell Tower. Designed by Giotto in 1334, the bell tower was not completed until 1359, more than two decades after the artist's death.
There are 414 steps to the top of the campanile up a narrow flight of stairs that winds around the inside of the tower. Once you reach the top, a panoramic terrace offers up-close views of Brunelleschi's dome, and views of Florence and the surrounding countryside that are rivaled only by those from the dome itself. Access to the bell tower is included with the cumulative ticket, though advance reservations are not possible. If you haven't reserved to climb the dome, the bell tower is a good substitute.
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo: This museum of art, architecture, and sculpture contains nearly 1,000 works of art from the Duomo and Baptistery, as well as fascinating exhibits about the design and construction of the buildings of the Duomo Complex. The giants of the Italian Renaissance are represented here, with works from Michelangelo, Donatello, della Robbia and Ghiberti, including the original baptistery doors. An outdoor terrace at the museum offers spectacular views of the dome. Admission to the museum is included in the cumulative ticket.
Visitor Information for the Duomo Complex
Santa Maria del Fiore sits on Piazza Duomo, which is located in the historic center of Florence.
Operating hours for the cathedral vary day to day, and also by the season. Visit the Duomo website prior to your arrival to view current operating hours and other information. Keep in mind that the Duomo is a place of worship and proper attire is required, meaning no shorts or skirts above the knee, no bare shoulder, and no hats once inside.
While entrance to the cathedral itself is free, a combined ticket (18 euros) is required to visit the dome, the crypt, the baptistery, and the campanile—it can be purchased from the Duomo website.