In 1296, Arnolfo’s project for the widening of Santa Reparata cathedral was already completed, and the first stone was already laid. At the same time, it was agreed to change the cathedral’s name to “S. Maria del Fiore”, a fusion between the Mother of God and the symbol of Florence. In the fourteenth century, Francesco Talenti expanded on the work done by Arnolfo. The apsidal part was built (1380-1420), with the tribunes reaching up to the drum of the dome. A correct evaluation of the meaning behind the dimensions of the new cathedral, planned and built by Arnolfo, is only possible by acknowledging the fact that although such masterpiece should be seen as a whole with the dense medieval framework of the “Matilda” area, made of the low buildings, towers and narrow bending roads, it also bears a connection with the new city walls. For the first time in Florence, a building was erected that was in perfect scale with the city, capable of bringing together all the elements that in previous frameworks simply appeared to be scattered around randomly. The new cathedral was meant to accommodate 30,000 people. A period lasting about a century, and a crew of hundreds of people were necessary for its construction.
And all this without considering the cupola itself, designed and built by Brunelleschi.
Its size (length: approx. 153m; width of the naves: approx. 38m; width of the transept: approx. 90m) makes it the fourth church in the world after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Saint Paul’s in London and the Duomo in Milan. The municipality of Florence, through the “Arti Maggiori”, financed its construction. Due to its size, many surrounding buildings had to be demolished. In the fourteenth century, many interventions were carried out on Anrnolfo’s original plans. These were aimed at enhancing this Baptistery and cathedral complex, and defining the surrounding empty spaces. But although they together show a complex history of contributions and interventions of varying nature, their basic architectural features still derived from Arnolfo’s original ideas. The decision to graft the longitudinal naves to a wide central body dominated by the cupola was a very brave one at the time. This decision was not a totally new concept, having been used in roman and gothic architecture in Tuscany (like in the Duomo of Siena previous years prior). It seems this idea came from Arnolfo himself, although it was later enhanced by Brunelleschi. The internal spaces, which were all perfectly in proportion and intentionally bright, can be seen as a meeting place for the community, almost like a square contained in the bigger framework of the empty outside space that surrounds the cathedral and the Baptistery.
In the church, the same as we see it today, all relations have been carefully defined by an accurate study of the proportion: the extent of this is immediately clear. There are 2 dominating shapes: square and octagon. “The nave, work of Francesco Talenti, which changed the proportions of Arnolfo’s original drawing by giving more breath to the bays and making them perfectly square in shape, reinforces the cubic sense of space already expressed by the extraordinary width of the arches and by the imposing gallery, which runs through the vaults and stops any impression of verticality” (L. Gori Montanelli).
While the total length of the church is approx 1/3 more than Santa Croce, the width of the longitudinal part (set by Arnolfo) is more or less the same, although the spaces between the pillars are wider. Although the frame itself is of a size still uncommon in thirteenth century churches, the result is that of a complex of equally precise and unified proportions. Because of the covering of the vaults, the unification of the space has been defined in a much different way than in the previous Santa Croce church.
Article by APT di Firenze