Descriptive piece on Firenze's basilica. Love opinions from those who've visited.
| Despite promises of blue skies and cold sunshine, the rain falls freely on Firenze this Winter’s day, and has been doing so for the past week. As crowds cluster together past the various markets and stalls, the air is thick with the usual calls of “Giacche per tutti! Vero cuoio!” bouncing off and under the colourful, spinning carpet of umbrellas. Tourists flock eagerly down Via Martelli, cameras hung around their necks, soggy maps clutched in gloved hands or safely stuffed in the rucksacks of the more confident ones. The wave of languages rides down the streets and crashes gently in the Piazza del Duomo. Here the puddles that line the streets are larger, pooling out like shallow mirrors until the foot of some unfortunate yet oblivious tourist splashes through and unsettles reflections of umbrellas and a dull sky.
The tourists remain oblivious with good reason, for in the centre of the Piazza rises a magnificent cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Standing 107 metres tall and stretching out over almost 6000 square metres of soil, the Basilica – or Duomo as it is known – is the fourth largest cathedral in Europe, built to fit 30,000 people. Hundreds of faces look up at the stately neo-gothic façade, white marble intricately decorated with green and red marble. Framed against a grey sky, the Duomo looks even more tempting than usual, offering protection against the onslaught of rain. Despite the three huge, bronze doors that decorate the façade, the winding queue of umbrellas leads around the cathedral to a small, open door hidden in a corner. The tourists shuffle forwards until, in groups of twelve, they are allowed to shake themselves off and step inside.
The first impression is one of space; the dimensions are enormous, cavernous, and the decorations sparse. Immense arches stretch out and away, framing the centre passage and leading tourists to the several niches along the walls that contain paintings and sculptures. Light flows in from the 44 stained glass windows, delicate masterpieces created by the greatest Florentine artists of that time, such as Donatello and Paolo Uccello. The light reflects off the wet footprints that cover the cathedral floor. It is a circular mix of marbles; greys, whites, reds, greens, browns, and blacks that curl around each other leaving hypnotic patterns on the floor. The tourists tread unseeing on the inlaid gold letters that line the white marble circles as they gaze up at the 45 metre-wide dome, but they will soon appreciate the beauty of the floor once they climb up to the dome and get a chance to look down. The queue for the dome itself is small, reserved for the more adventurous tourists, and moves quickly for reasons that become obvious upon entering the passage that leads to the stairs. In moments, tourists find themselves moving from the echoing interior of the cathedral into a small, dark passage, only a few feet wide, which leads them up the 463 steps required to reach the inside of the dome.
After a few dozen steps even the least claustrophobic tourists find themselves increasing their pace. The hovering urge to bound up the steps two-by-two is both stimulated and impeded by the leaning walls and the line of tourists moving solidly ahead. The climb is relatively short, but the dark, curving passage seems to stretch it out for a good while longer. The small, orange lights placed uniformly on the ceiling cast steady, tourist-shaped shadows on the walls, making the passage seem fuller than it is. With their eyes fixed on the floor or the person in front, groups call out to each other, sharing jokes and reassurances about stamina and the glimpse of natural light ahead, until, with happy sighs, they spill out onto the balcony that lines the dome.
Some would expect that the first instinct would be to peer over the railings to see the sizeable drop to the floor, but they were not counting on the distraction that is the dome itself. The great size of it, though not a surprise, still extracts gasps from most standing at its base. However, the wide eyes of the tourists can, almost always, be blamed on the painting that covers the 3,600 square metres of the dome. Painted by Giorgio Vasari and Federigo Zucchero, this massive representation of The Last Judgement is striking in many ways, evoking an awkward mix of feelings from the mass of attentive, inclined heads, ranging from joy to awe to simple, unadulterated revulsion. At the very top, right in the centre of the dome, the Elders of the Apocalypse sit on a painted platform, their feet hanging down delightfully as they peer at the chaotic scene unravelling below. Moving down the dome, choirs of angels float along merrily, leading the tourists’ eyes further down to where Christ, Mary, and the Saints sit grandly, apparently oblivious of what is occuring beneath them. Their bright halos stretch out around them, making them stand out from the crowded mess of adoring angels and Saints. This, however, is not enough to distract the tourists, whose eyes travel quickly past the Virtues, Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and Beatitudes to the greatest and most shocking section of this example of The Last Judgement – Capital Sins and Hell.
The infernal landscape surrounds the tourists, the fresco starting only a few inches above their heads. Scenes of pain, death, and demons stretch out around the widest part of the dome, the figures so close as to appear enormous. Excessively muscular men try to escape from sneering demons; young, naked women with horrific expressions are dragged through a flaming, rocky portal to Hell by crowds of the Undead; sinners twist in agony, impaled by fiery spears; Lucifer stands tall with his three faces, a gruesome parody of the Holy Trinity, eternally devouring Brutus, Judas, and Cassius, blood pouring from his massive jaws. The closeness of the fresco seems to drag the tourists into the horrific scenes. They brush off the uneasy feeling that the Undead are reaching out for them, and that the curious Elders, safely swinging their feet metres above, are waiting to watch the tourists themselves descend to Hell, and instead reach for their cameras. The crowd wanders slowly around the balcony, camera shutters clicking furiously, collecting memories to shock those back home. Eventually, they tear themselves away from the horribly captivating painting and step towards the edge to peer down at the floor. From above, the stretching curls of marble spiral across the floor in misleading patterns, playing about with perspectives and making the floor rise and fall in unexpected places. The colours are bright and the design enchanting, causing appreciative murmurs to rise from the bowed heads of the tourists.
In time, when their cameras refuse to click any more and their eyes are hungry for Michelangelo or Cellini, they file out in small groups down the winding steps and brace themselves – umbrellas at the ready, maps close at hand – to face the rain and explore Firenze until the night falls and the restaurants call.