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Origins of the Magnificent Florentine Cathedral Santa Maria di Fiore

Origins of the Magnificent Florentine Cathedral Santa Maria di Fiore

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The city of Florence, known as Firenze in Italian, has long been recognized for its wealth and beauty. The heart of the city is its cathedral. This building is famous not only for its appearance, but also for the competition to construct its roof and the genius architect who created it with outstanding style.

The first church on the site was a Gothic building dated back to the 7th century AD. It was known as the church of Santa Reparata. Some remains of the old church are still visible inside the crypt of the famous cathedral. Archaeologists also unearthed the ruins of Roman houses underneath the current construction.

Today, the city of Florence is like a big museum with its incredibly beautiful churches, galleries, outstanding exhibitions, and unsolved historical stories. The cherry on the top of this magnificent cake is Santa Maria di Fiore – a beautiful church dedicated to St Mary.

A Competition for the Roof

Many architects worked on the cathedral because it took two centuries for it to be completed.  Construction started at the end of 13th century when the head of the project was Arnolfo di Cambio. However, the one who Is most famous for creating the building’s fabulous appearance is Filipo Brunelleschi, who finished the cathedral in the 15th century.

Fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto, painted in the 1360s, before the commencement of the dome.

Fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto, painted in the 1360s, before the commencement of the dome. (Public Domain)

Brunelleschi’s involvement came about when the Florentine nobility had a problem in 1418. They were looking for the perfect dome design to bring Florence closer to heaven. The nobles offered 200 gold florins to the person who could create a masterpiece. The results had to be attractive, but at the same time not as expensive as the 13th century plans. In the end, they decided to hire Brunelleschi, who promised to finish the church to the best of his abilities. He chose to create a roof with two unique sections.

The dome of the cathedral.

The dome of the cathedral. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Tom Muller from National Geographic:

''He refused to explain how he’d achieve this, fearing that a competitor would steal his ideas. Brunelleschi’s stubbornness led to a shouting match with the overseers, who twice had him restrained and forcibly ejected from the assembly, denouncing him as “a buffoon and a babbler''. Nonetheless, Brunelleschi’s mysterious design piqued their imagination—perhaps because they already knew this buffoon and babbler to be a genius. As a boy, during his goldsmith’s apprenticeship, he had mastered drawing and painting, wood carving, sculpture in silver and bronze, stone setting, niello, and enamel work. Later he studied optics and tinkered endlessly with wheels, gears, weights, and motion, building a number of ingenious clocks, including what may have been one of the first alarm clocks in history. Applying his theoretical and mechanical knowledge to observation of the natural world, he single-handedly worked out the rules of linear perspective.''

Brunelleschi was inspired by the Roman Empire’s finest buildings. He wanted to create a church as beautiful as the Pantheon and as alluring as the most famous temples. The dome’s construction began in 1420 and was officially completed in 1436. It was consecrated on March 25, 1436 by Pope Eugene IV.

View of the cathedral.

View of the cathedral. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Decorations and Dante

The whole church is like a wonderful museum. For centuries, rich and influential Florentines and Tuscans wanted to invest their money to leave something noteworthy in the cathedral. They gave money to decorate it both inside and out.

There are many pieces of art inside the church, including famous paintings like the one by Domenico di Michelino from 1465 titled ''Dante Before the City of Florence''. It is interesting to note that the painting shows the city in a way which Dante couldn't have seen through his own eyes. This painting linked Dante’s story to the cathedral.

Domenico di Michelino’s painting.

Domenico di Michelino’s painting. (Public Domain)

Another famous person whose life is connected to the cathedral is Giorgio Vasari. He created the well-known painting The Last Judgment. This fresco is full of symbolism and was made with Federico Zuccari’s help. It measures 3,600 meters² (38 750 ft²) and took 11 years to paint.

Vasari's fresco.

Vasari's fresco. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Thus, the cathedral’s interior contains famous and gorgeous pieces of art. On the left side, visitors can see two detached frescoes showing "Condottiero Giovanni Acuto" and "Niccolò da Tolentino" by Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno.

Michelangelo’s famous work known as Pieta was once located inside the church as well. Created in 1553, it is recognized as one of the most realistic depictions of Mary and Jesus. However, nowadays it is found at the Museo dell´ Opera del Duomo.

An Architect’s Eternal Fame

It is impossible to count all the cathedral’s treasures. More recently, the church became famous once again due to the novel and movie ''Inferno'' by Dan Brown. In Brown’s work, Florence’s precious places acted as the backdrop for a mystery solved by the fictional character Robert Langdon.

The city of Florence is still one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. And the cathedral Santa Maria di Fiore, which is also known as Il Doumo di Firenze, continues to be one of city’s main attractions.

Top image: Santa Maria di Fiore. Photo Source: (CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Natalia Klimczak


Santa Maria di Fiore, available at:

Santa Maria di Fiore, available at:

Cathedral of Florence, available at:

Brunelleschi Dome, available at:



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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