Any visitor to Florence is sure to marvel at the impressive cathedral complex, but did you know that there’s a magnificent museum just behind the cathedral that recounts the centuries of history of this important religious complex? The Museum of the Opera del Duomo boasts an incredible patrimony detailing 750 years of history of Florence’s cathedral. To learn about the church and its religious importance, we’ve put together a list of the top 5 things to see inside the museum.
The museum welcomes you with the monumental Salone del Paradiso, or Hall of Paradise. The area between the baptistery and cathedral has been reconstructed inside the museum. The towering façade opposite the entrance to the room is a recreation of the cathedral’s original façade, which was torn down in 1587. The sculptures that once decorated the front of the church were placed in their “original” locations on this reconstructed façade.
The main highlight in this room is Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. 21-year-old Lorenzo Ghiberti was commissioned to make the baptistery’s north door, and when he finished them, he was granted permission to work on a second set of doors. The east door, which Michelangelo nicknamed the Gates of Paradise, broke with tradition by moving away from the somewhat depth-less depictions found in late-medieval art, instead choosing to employ the principles of perspective. His 10 bronze panels are on display in all their glory behind a glass wall, allowing visitors to view the masterpiece up close.
The Renaissance master’s personal faith is reflected in the Pietà, an unfinished masterpiece. Begun around the year 1546, Michelangelo abandoned the work after 9 years because, as tradition goes, he was angered by all the flaws in the marble. Even from a distance, you can see traces of Michelangelo’s tool marks, which he never got around to smoothing out. Christ is even missing a leg!
Christ is truly at the centre of the group, larger than life and leaving us engrossed for the lifelessness of his limbs and the way his mother embraces him to his left. Interestingly, the man standing behind Christ is identified as Nicodemus, but Michelangelo used this as an opportunity to sculpt a self-portrait of himself in his old age.
Traditional imagery of Mary Magdalene depicts her as a beautiful young woman. Donatello, for this mid-15th-century sculpture, chose an entirely different approach. Made of wood, Mary Magdalene is emaciated, hunched and wrapped in her own, body-length hair. Her lean muscles and unclean appearance attest to her years of seclusion and penitence, which Donatello expertly sculpted to evoke a feeling of piety and atonement.
This octagonal chapel is a treat for anyone interested in the custom of relics and reliquaries. Florence’s cathedral and baptistery are home to more than 600 relics of all kinds – including the beloved first bishop of Florence, Saint Zenobius – a selection of which are on display in this room that was designed to recreate a chapel setting. Indeed, choir music plays continuously in the room, infusing the atmosphere with a religious spirit. The reliquaries on display are masterpieces of silver and goldworking, and you might find it hard not to lose track of time in here!
You might be surprised to learn that the façade you see today on the cathedral was actually only built in the 1870s. As mentioned above, the original façade was taken down in the late 1500s, and calls were renewed to revamp the façade in the 1800s. When Florence was declared the capital of the newly-unified Italy in 1865, redesigning the façade was the perfect way to celebrate this new chapter in the city’s history.
On the second floor, you’ll come across a “museum within the museum,” detailing the history of the façade and showcasing all the projects proposed for today’s version, which was designed by Emilio De Fabris.