5 important sculptures in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence

OPD-fiOn the street behind Brunelleschi's cuppola is one of Florence's lesser-known museums - the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. It contains sculpture removed over time from both the interior and exterior of the Duomo, more recently for conservation reasons but much longer ago to accommodate changing styles or needs. For example, for his wedding in 1688, Cosimo III thought the organ covers by Donatello and his contemporary Luca della Robbia were not fitting enough for the pompous style he envisioned, so they were dismantled and put into storage! Out of the Duomo, into the museum. This is not a large museum and it's often quite empty but it's got a number of very high quality works inside, including an important Michelangelo. With this list in hand you won't miss the top five!

1) Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise

You've probably seen the copy of these gilt bronze doors in place on the Baptistry (the doors that face the Duomo, also known as the East doors), but the original panels are inside this museum. Lorenzo Ghiberti is responsible for two of the three sets of doors on Florence's Baptistry; the second set (1425-50) is composed of 10 bronze panels in low relief that depict Old Testiment heroes. During the great flood of 1966, muddy water rushed into piazza Duomo and the pressure was so great that some of these panels popped right out of their frame. Slowly restored, copies were installed in their place in 1990 and the hermetically sealed originals displayed in individual glass cases in the museum's covered courtyard. The display lacks the frame and context of the doors (there has been some talk of eventually setting them up as doors but I was unable to find updated information about this), but it allows you to get a really close look at the panels and also their backsides!
L. Ghiberti: Story of Jacob and Esau, Bronze panel from Baptistry doors (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo)
L. Ghiberti: Story of Jacob and Esau, Bronze panel from Baptistry doors (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo)
In the panel that tells the story of Jacob and Esau, for example, we can get a really close look at this masterpiece of metalwork that incorporates 14 figures (and 2 animals) into a relatively small space (each panel is 31 x 31 inches or 78 x 78 centimeters). Some of the other panels have up to 100 figures in them! Given the artist's mastery of  perspective and composition in this panel, it may be one of the later ones he did. Look at Ghiberti's brilliant way of compressing narrative into space. Jacob and Esau were the twin sons born to Isaac (remember the Sacrifice?) and Rebecca late in their life. The boys fought in the womb (see the reclining pregnant Rebecca in the midground?) and, according to the prophesy that you see taking place in the upper right corner, their whole life. Esau was born first, a strong and hairy hunter prefered by his father, while Jacob clung to his mother, favoured by her. Now, in my simplified version of this amusing story, in the center of the panel you see that Esau was hungry after a day outside and asked his brother for a bowl of stew, which Jacob agreed to give him in exchange for the first twin's birthright. Well that's an expensive bowl of stew! Anyway, the deal was made. Skip forward a few years, the old and blind father Isaac is on his deathbed and asks Esau to hunt an appropriate animal for a blessing ceremony in which Esau would be given his birthright and rule over his brothers. In the panel we actually see Isaac standing - it would be impractical to fit another bed into this vision, right? As Rebecca prefered Jacob, while the older twin was out, she quickly whipped up some goat just the way her husband liked it and sent in Jacob in the place of the rightful older twin. In order to fool the old man, she placed a rough goatskin upon Jacob's soft body. In the bottom right of Ghiberti's panel you see the blind Isaac feeling a very hairy back. Taken as Esau, he gains the right of the firstborn. Look at how many parts of a story over time are packed into this panel! Look at the perspective set up by light scoring of tiles in the foreground and the architecture in the background that provides a stage for these stories. Take in how some of the figures are actually little statuettes appended to the panel! Each panel displayed in the museum allows you to read the story in this way and appreciate the composition, plastic details, and superb technique. Don't forget to look at the back of the bronzes: what appears to be seamless from the front is full of patched holes and lumps on the back!

2) Donatello and Luca della Robbia's Cantorie

Donatello, Cantoria. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Donatello, Cantoria. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
A whole room upstairs is dedicated to this pair of sculpted organ covers, popularly called the "Cantorie" or singing galleries. They are examples of sculptural-architectural works by Donatello and Luca della Robbia from the 1430s and they're set up facing each other in a room on the first floor of the museum. While intended as a pair, the commission of the first work went to Luca della Robbia (better known for his blue and white glazed ceramics), and Donatello got the matching contract a few years later. Which one do you like better? What do you think they express? I've written a long comparison of the Donatello and Della Robbia Cantorie elsewhere should you wish to read more!

3) Michelangelo's Florence Pietà

Michelangelo: The Florence Pieta
Michelangelo: The Florence Pieta
The Pietà that Michelangelo himself mutilated and left unfinished at his death is undeniably one of the cornerstones of this museum. It sits on a landing between the ground and first floors. If the Mary Magdalen on the left looks small and awkward that's because it was done by one Tiberio Calcagni who had the good sense not to touch the rest of the piece. It would be impossible to get into a full discussion of this work here (it'd take me much more than a blog post, let alone one in which I am trying to give you a taste of five important works!). Let's simply start with what it is: it's generally refered to as a Pietà (after the Deposition, when Christ is placed on his mother's lap and she mourns his death) but it is in fact more than this, as it includes other elements and figures of the deposition, namely the male figure at the top (identified as either Joseph of Arimethea or Nicodemus) who is considered to be a self-portrait of the artist. Michelangelo worked on this sculpture in the 1440s and Vasari tells us that it was for the artist's own tomb, which might be one explanation for why it was so hard to finish it (okay, now my tomb's ready, I can die). In a fit of rage, Michelangelo attacked it and broke off Christ's leg, which some believe would have been in too sexualized a position to be appropriate. (This is the subject of a famous 1968 article by the art historian Leo Steinberg and is mentioned or debated in every publication related to the work.) At the museum, you can get right in there and - while carefully resisting your desire to touch it - get a very close look at the marks left by Michelangelo's different-sized chisels. The base area and parts that are just roughed out have been first hacked out with a simple, large pointed chisel. While Christ's chest is highly polished, other areas, like Mary's face, are still at a mid stage in which you can see the marks of the comb chisel that generate a cross-hatching effect.

4) Andrea Pisano's reliefs for the Belltower

These are the originals of reliefs sculpted for the exterior of Giotto's Campanile (belltower); they're inside for conservation reasons. Aside from representations of virtues and sins, the real fun part is the first ever representation of the mechanical arts - like textile-making - alongside the liberal ones (like architecture). Test your skill by trying to identify the subject of each little sculpture! pisano-textilepisano-architetture

5) Donatello's Mary Magdalen

Donatello Mary Magdalen
Donatello Mary Magdalen
We don't have a whole lot of wooden sculptures left from the early modern age, and this one truly works with the medium. A late work by the great artist Donatello, whose other pieces in this museum demonstrate his wide stylistic range, Mary Magdalen is shown as a penitent hermit, all traces of worldly beauty gone. The browned wood gives her the appearance of a mummy but this wasn't entirely intentional - it was originally covered with gesso and some elements, like her hair, were gilded (highlighted with gold leaf). Made in the mid 1450s, the elder Donatello was surely thinking about ageing and death; this state of mind must have been a factor in the creation of this and other works like the pulpits in San Lorenzo.