CHAPTER I. The Duomo I: Its Construction
The City of the Miracle - The Marble Companions - Twilight and Immensity - Arnolfo di Cambio - Dante's seat - Ruskin's "Shepherd" - Giotto the various - Giotto's fun - The indomitable Brunelleschi - Makers of Florence - The present facade.
All visitors to Florence make first for the Duomo. Let us do the same.
The real name of the Duomo is the Cathedral of S. Maria del Fiore, or St. Mary of the Flowers, the flower being the Florentine lily. Florence herself is called the City of Flowers, and that, in the spring and summer, is a happy enough description. But in the winter it fails. A name appropriate to all the seasons would be the City of the Miracle, the miracle being the Renaissance. For though all over Italy traces of the miracle are apparent, Florence was its very home and still can point to the greatest number of its achievements. Giotto (at the beginning of this quickening movement) may at Assisi have been more inspired as a painter; but here is his campanile and here are his S. Maria Novella and S. Croce frescoes. Fra Angelico and Donatello (in the midst of it) were never more inspired than here, where they worked and died. Michelangelo (at the end of it) may be more surprising in the Vatican; but here are his wonderful Medici tombs. How it came about that between the years 1300 and 1500 Italian soil - and chiefly Tuscan soil - threw up such masters, not only with the will and spirit to do what they did but with the power too, no one will ever be able to explain. But there it is. In the history of the world two centuries were suddenly given mysteriously to the activities of Italian men of humane genius and as suddenly the Divine gift was withdrawn. And to see the very flower of these two centuries it is to Florence we must go.
It is best to enter the Piazza del Duomo from the Via de' Martelli, the Via de' Cerretani, the Via Calzaioli, or the Via Pecori, because then one comes instantly upon the campanile too. The upper windows - so very lovely - may have been visible at the end of the streets, with Brunelleschi's warm dome high in the sky beside them, but that was not to diminish the effect of the first sight of the whole. Duomo and campanile make as fair a couple as ever builders brought together: the immense comfortable church so solidly set upon the earth, and at its side this delicate, slender marble creature, all gaiety and lightness, which as surely springs from roots within the earth. For one cannot be long in Florence, looking at this tower every day and many times a day, both from near and far, without being perfectly certain that it grows - and from a bulb, I think - and was never really built at all, whatever the records may aver.
The interior of the Duomo is so unexpected that one has the feeling of having entered, by some extraordinary chance, the wrong building. Outside it was so garish with its coloured marbles, under the southern sky; outside, too, one's ears were filled with all the shattering noises in which Florence is an adept; and then, one step, and behold nothing but vast and silent gloom. This surprise is the more emphatic if one happens already to have been in the Baptistery. For the Baptistery is also coloured marble without, yet within it is coloured marble and mosaic too: there is no disparity; whereas in the Duomo the walls have a Northern grey and the columns are brown. Austerity and immensity join forces.
When all is said the chief merit of the Duomo is this immensity. Such works of art as it has are not very noticeable, or at any rate do not insist upon being seen; but in its vastness it overpowers. Great as are some of the churches of Florence, I suppose three or four of them could be packed within this one. And mere size with a dim light and a savour of incense is enough: it carries religion. No need for masses and chants or any ceremony whatever: the world is shut out, one is on terms with the infinite. A forest exercises the same spell; among mountains one feels it; but in such a cathedral as the Duomo one feels it perhaps most of all, for it is the work of man, yet touched with mystery and wonder, and the knowledge that man is the author of such a marvel adds to its greatness.
The interior is so dim and strange as to be for a time sheer terra incognita, and to see a bat flitting from side to side, as I have often done even in the morning, is to receive no shock. In such a twilight land there must naturally be bats, one thinks. The darkness is due not to lack of windows but to time. The windows are there, but they have become opaque. None of the coloured ones in the aisle allows more than a filtration of light through it; there are only the plain, circular ones high up and those rich, coloured, circular ones under the dome to do the work. In a little while, however, one's eyes not only become accustomed to the twilight but are very grateful for it; and beginning to look inquiringly about, as they ever do in this city of beauty, they observe, just inside, an instant reminder of the antiseptic qualities of Italy. For by the first great pillar stands a receptacle for holy water, with a pretty and charming angelic figure upon it, which from its air of newness you would think was a recent gift to the cathedral by a grateful Florentine. It is six hundred years old and perhaps was designed by Giotto himself.
The emptiness of the Duomo is another of its charms. Nothing is allowed to impair the vista as you stand by the western entrance: the floor has no chairs; the great columns rise from it in the gloom as if they, too, were rooted. The walls, too, are bare, save for a few tablets.