The cathedral square is filled with tourists and caricature artists during the day, strolling crowds in the early evening, and knots of students strumming guitars on the Duomo's steps at night. Though it's always crowded, the piazza's vivacity and the glittering facades of the cathedral and the baptistery doors keep it an eternal Florentine sight. The square's closure to traffic in 2009 has made it a more welcoming space than ever for strolling.
At the corner of the busy pedestrian main drag, Via Calzaiuoli, sits the pretty little Loggia del Bigallo (1351-58). Inside is a small museum of 14th-century works, which is unfortunately often closed. Call tel. 055-233-9406 if you're interested in trying to make an appointment to get in to see the 1342 Madonna della Misericordia by the school of Bernardo Daddi, which features the earliest known cityscape view of Florence.
Note that just south of the Duomo, hidden in the tangle of medieval streets toward Piazza della Signoria, is a 14th-century Florentine house restored and converted into the Casa di Dante (tel. 055-219-416), a small museum chronicling the life and times of the great poet. But, this isn't likely the poet's actual house and the exhibits leave much to be desired. The entrance is in Via Santa Margherita, and it's open Tuesday to Friday from Nov through Mar from 10am to 5pm and 10am to 6pm Saturdays and Sundays. In the summer months it's all weekend hours. Admission is 4€.
A Man & His Dome
Filippo Brunelleschi, a diminutive man whose ego was as big as his talent, managed in his arrogant, quixotic, suspicious, and brilliant way to invent Renaissance architecture. Having been beaten by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the contest to cast the Baptistery doors, Brunelleschi resolved he'd rather be the top architect than the second-best sculptor and took off for Rome to study the buildings of the ancients. On returning to Florence, he combined subdued gray pietra serena stone with smooth white plaster to create airy arches, vaults, and arcades of classically perfect proportions in his own variant on the ancient Roman orders of architecture. He designed San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, and the elegant Ospedale degli Innocenti, but his greatest achievement was erecting the dome over Florence's cathedral.
The Duomo, then the world's largest church, had already been built, but nobody had been able to figure out how to cover the daunting space over its center without spending a fortune and without filling the church with the necessary scaffolding -- plus no one was sure whether they could create a dome that would hold up under its own weight. Brunelleschi insisted he knew how, and once granted the commission, revealed his ingenious plan -- which may have been inspired by close study of Rome's Pantheon.
He built the dome in two shells, the inner one thicker than the outer, both shells thinning as they neared the top, thus leaving the center hollow and removing a good deal of the weight. He also planned to construct the dome of giant vaults with ribs crossing over them, with each of the stones making up the actual fabric of the dome being dovetailed. In this way, the walls of the dome would support themselves as they were erected. In the process of building, Brunelleschi found himself as much an engineer as architect, constantly designing winches, cranes, and hoists to carry the materials faster and more efficiently up to the level of the workmen.
His finished work speaks for itself, 45m (148 ft.) wide at the base and 90m (295 ft.) high from drum to lantern. For his achievement, Brunelleschi was accorded a singular honor: He's the only person ever buried in Florence's cathedral.
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