Previous stop: Accademia and Michelangelo’s David
June 5th 2009:
Its 3:00 PM. I finally get to unsheathe my camera. Accademia does not allow photography, So I haven’t clicked a single picture in the last 7 hours. We catch a bus that takes us to Piazza Signoria.
In a few minutes, we are standing in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore capped by the grandest of all domes. For two days, the dome has played hide and seek with me. In the morning, we saw it from Pizzalle Michelangelo, dominating the Florentine skyline as it has for the past 600 years. Two days ago, I ogled at it from the rooftop cafeteria of Uffizi. There barely seems to a spot Florence that can cannot see the dome.
We cross the street and step on to the ancient cobbled courtyard. We pass by the omnipresent painter with his watercolors. Small shops selling poorly done copies of David. A professional with a Polaroid ignores my D60 and crisply articulates his value proposition, “I can have all three of you in the picture”. I smile and point to my tripod.
Then I look up and inadvertently find that spot. The dome is no longer visible. The shadow beneath the lamp.
We walk along the green, pink and white walls of the Basilica. Giotto’s Campanile comes into view. I check out the elaborate optical trick the amazing workers of renaissance have planted. Seen from the bottom, towers diminish into an imaginary point. This one does not. Every floor looks the same size. That is because the lowest level is the smallest. Each successive level is larger to the compensate for the perspective. I sigh.
“Lets go, Pap”, Rhea tugs at me. I stay rooted. I feel the debate erupting in me once again. Do I climb the bell tower and see the dome at close quarters or to do I climb THE dome and see it from the inside? I have already made up my mind. Hence this bring brought up again irritates me. “Both?”, I meekly ask myself. I remember a line in Rick Steves’ book. “Giotto’s tower: Has views equaling Duomo’s. 50 fewer steps and smaller line”. I have listened to Rick so far, so I stick with my original decision. We head towards the entrance to the Duomo.
Like in San Pietro, we take the elevator to the base of the drum. The hallway takes us inside the drum. The basilica is laid out in front of us.
I remember my notes. The construction of the cathedral started in 1296 CE. The black plague of 1348, the war with Milan, and the collapsing Florentine economy ensured the progress was slowed. Until 1418, the massive church was in use with this huge 42 meter wide hole in the roof. The technology and the technician to build such a gigantic dome was non-existent. Hundred’s of citizens stood beneath it, look up and wonder. Then shrug the two-shoulders-to-the-ears Italian shrug, hands open heavenwards at chest level and walk away muttering, “Somebody will figure it out”. I realize, only in Italy is this possible.
We duck into a door and start the upward ascent along the drum.
The stairs are steep. Too steep. The passages tight. Almost non-negotiable corners some. “These are worker tunnels”, I remind myself. The tourist was the last thing on Brunelleschi’s mind.
Brunelleschi has too many things on his mind. He had defeated Ghilberti to win the contract to build the dome. He knew he could build it. He just didn’t exactly know how.
In those days he spent in Rome, he had studied the dome of the Pantheon. But then all he could do was inspect from a distance and deduce. For the plans were long lost, as was the formula for the concrete.
Plus he had a different plan in mind.
“The dome would rest on a drum, not the roof. No scaffolding from the ground. No centering. No wooden supporting frame.”
As if “transcribing a circle on a cone face within the innermost double-shelled wall” was a problem not big enough to solve, Brunelleschi’s had to time and again prove he knew what he was doing. Showing enough to keep the inquisitors at bay a few months at a time and just enough for others not to figure out how to build it on their own.
One fine day in 1422, Ghiberti – constructing the doors of the Baptistery less than 300 yards away, declared Brunelleschi’s plans were unfounded. Having had enough, Brunelleschi feigned illness and withdrew from the project. Ghiberti suddenly found himself to be the head honcho. Needing to face hour by hour operational decisions (so closely was Brunelleschi holding his cards), he withdrew from the project. Partly because his Porte del Paradiso needed him, majorly because he simply did not know how. Then Brunelleschi declared himself fit and completed the dome.
We smell the Florentine air before we see the sun light. We are catapulted on to a catwalk like none other. Then We are floating above the “8 white marble ribs arching towards the heaven”. The view is exhilarating. Florence is a terra cotta toy town laid out before us.
While the mind comprehends the bigger picture, the eye searches the details.
There’s Palazza Vecchio with Piazza de la Signoria at its feet. The very place the renaissance started. That’s Uffizi. And isn’t that the little cafeteria we were sitting yesterday? That’s Ponte Veccio, majestically straddling the Arno. Beyond the lazy curve of the Arno, Palazzo Pitti - the Palace the Medici family bought from Luca Pitti - their arch competitors in banking - and yet let the name remain. The lush green of the Boboli garden. Yonder, Piazzale Michelangelo with the greenish copy of the David.
We circled the dome several times, hands clenching the historic parapet, looking for familiar spots.
Places where we have been and where we will be. Time to go.
I duck back into the door with Brunelleschi and emerge with Vasari. I guess the race to the finish obliterated the journey.
I cannot believe that I missed noticing the beautifully done frescoes in the cupola earlier in the day. Vasari’s treatment of the Last Judgment is – uh – Vasarisque. The rim of the cupola is so intricately done that it is impossible to decipher where the concrete stops and pigment starts. This is neither the first nor the last time I find myself standing under a Roman building, looking upwards, unable to close my jaws.
We circle around the church. We whip around to the front. We stand in front of the colossal facade and admire the collage of styles and artists. The facade of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is modern, completed as recently as 1887. The neo-gothic facade holds my attention shorter than it would had it been someplace else. Not because I concur with the popular belief that the facade has been unnecessarily over decorated (I don’t). Neither because my muscles are on fire, having climbed Brunelleschi’s breathtaking (no pun intended) dome (they are).
Behind me, less than 20 yards are the South doors of the Baptistery. The doors that made Vasari invent the word “competition” …
[Next: Ghiberti’s Gates to paradise]