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The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

The first recorded mention of the "operai di Santa Reparata" – officers elected to administer the funds earmarked by the city fathers in the Comune for the huge building project that was Florence's new cathedral – occurs in February 1296.

In those early days, half of the men tasked with overseeing the embryonic Opera del Duomo were chosen by the city fathers and the other half by the bishop, reflecting the secular and ecclesiastical cooperation that was such a feature of the project's early years. Yet by the early 14th century the Comune had already gained the upper hand not only in the funding but also in the running of the construction site, which it began to delegate to the city's Arti Maggiori, its most important guilds, on an alternating basis, thus emulating a long-established practice adopted by the Arte di Calimala, the Guild of Merchants, Finishers and Dyers of Foreign Cloth, for the baptistry. At length, in 1331, the Florentine Republic ruled that the Arte della Lana, the Guild of Wool Manufacturers and Merchants, should have exclusive control over the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.


The masters: architects and sculptors in the 14th and 15th centuries

The first plan for the new cathedral was prepared by a great architect and sculptor called Arnolfo di Cambio.

The plan with its trilobate apses in the shape of a flower was intended to pay tribute to the city of Fiorenza, the "City of Flowers". Arnolfo and his assistants also carved sculptures for the façade designed to conceal the old cathedral of Santa Reparata, which continued to function while work went ahead on the new building.

Removed in 1587 and now mostly on display in the Historical Museum, Arnolfo's sculptures are a fine example of the way he responded to the innovations of the Gothic style and sought to define a new sculptural idiom echoing the Classical style of the ancients through sheer strength and sober elegance.

Work on the project halted for a several years on Arnolfo's death, but finally, in 1334, the city fathers appointed Giotto, who was then at the peak of his fame, to manage the construction site. Giotto designed the bell tower and oversaw the construction of its first level with the assistance of Andrea Pisano. When Giotto died in 1337, Andrea was tasked with continuing his work. Despite certain changes made both by Andrea and by the third master of the works, Francesco Talenti, who completed its construction, the bell tower is perceived as a harmonious unit, its wall surfaces pierced with two- and three-light windows becoming ever lighter as they rise towards the heavens. The base of the tower was decorated with a cycle of panels made by Andrea Pisano and his assistants, including Maso di Banco and Alberto Arnoldi, on the basis of an encyclopaedic programme depicting the creation of mankind and his journey towards redemption through Genesis, the Mechanical and Liberal Arts, the Virtues, the Planets and the Sacraments under the protection of the Prophets and the Sybils.

FrancescoTalenti also continued work on the cathedral, implementing the final plan prepared by the "masters and painters", a plan which enlarged on the original design, giving the building a breadth inspired by Classical architecture unknown to any other Gothic building on either side of the Alps. It was left to Filippo Brunelleschi, who was chosen as the general manager in charge of the dome in 1421, to devise a way to cover the vast space provided for in the plan, with the pure geometry of a great dome who basic structure was complete by 1436. Brunelleschi also designed the lantern crowning the dome and the decidedly classicising "exedrae", or semicircular tribunes, adorning its exterior, but these parts were only completed after his death in 1446.

Sculptural decoration in the 15th centuries

In the 13th and 14th centuries the cathedral's façade, its four side doors and the bell tower formed a fully-fledged open-air museum of Florentine sculpture, a challenge for artists to constantly create new, individual works.

Donatello's artistic development is closely linked to his work for the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, which kept him busy from the very start of his career.

With a small "Prophet" for the Porta della Mandorla, followed by a marble David designed for one of the dome's buttresses (now in the Bargello Museum) and finally with his St. John the Evangelist for the façade, Donatello established the mainstays of his own style and laid the groundwork for Renaissance sculpture in general.

His figures of five Prophets and Abraham for the bell tower, which he began to carve in the 1420s and '30s, and the Choir Loft which he completed in 1439 illustrate his highly personal take on Classical art, charged with an interior strength that breathes life into his figures' faces, drapery, gestures and hair, combining formal stringency with freedom of expression.

An example of the creative power that still ran in his veins towards the end of his life is the statue of St. Mary Magdalen, carved very late in his career, in 1453. This dramatic figure, driven by pure spiritual energy, has lost all trace of classicising idealisation. Designed for the baptistry, it is now in the Historical Museum.

In those same years, other great Florentine sculptors also won important commissions. Above the doors of the sacristies inside the cathedral, the boundless energy of Donatello's choir loft was matched by the measured harmony of the coeval choir loft sculpted by Luca della Robbia. Both these choir lofts are now in the Historical Museum. Luca also made two glazed terracotta lunettes for the sacristy doors in the 1440s and cast the reliefs for the north sacristy's bronze doors in the 1470s. Earlier on in his career he had completed the cycle of panels begun by Andrea Pisano for the bell tower.

The baptistry of San Giovanni and the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, which together form the religious centre of Florence, were also the primary setting for the career of Lorenzo Ghiberti, who not only won a famous competition for one of the baptistry doors (currently the north door) in 1401 but was also commissioned to produce the east doors, which Michelangelo was later to call the "Doors of Paradise", completing them in 1452. The bronze panels on the doors, now replaced by copies and displayed in the Historical Museum, testify to the master's extremely elegant mode of expression combining a skilled interpretation of Renaissance innovations in the depiction of space with an unshakeable belief in the validity of the rhythms and cadences of the Gothic style. The same approach can be seen in Ghiberti's reliefs for the bronze casket, or urn, designed to contain the relics of St. Zenobius, which he completed in 1442.

Another celebrated master working on the site was Nanni di Banco, who carved reliefs for the Porta della Mandorla (on the north side of the cathedral) in the 1390s and a St. Luke for the façade in 1421. The cathedral construction site also offered major opportunities to a host of less well-known but highly skilled sculptors such as Niccolò Lamberti, Ciuffagni, Nanni di Bartolo and Andrea di Lazzaro Cavalcanti, known as Il Buggiano, who carved two extremely beautiful basins for the sacristies, having probably designed them with his adoptive father Filippo Brunelleschi.

Decorating the interior in the 14th and 15th centuries

From the 14th century, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore commissioned Florence's leading painters to produce designs for the new cathedral's forty-four stained-glass windows, which were to become one of the most important such cycles in Italy.

In chronological order, the first windows were for the nave and were designed by Agnolo Gaddi, while the last, circular windows for the drum of the dome were made in the 1430s and '40s to designs supplied by Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Uccello and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti had already produced cartoons for the three windows in the façadeand for all of the windows in the tribune, along with a decorative scheme for the fifteen apsidal chapels.

In the 1430s and '40s the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore also started work on the decor and furnishings for the north sacristy, known as the "Sacristy of Masses". Between 1436 and 1468 the entire space was lined with wooden panels and cupboards inlaid with motifs reflecting plant life and architecture, with figures of saints and stories from the Gospel. The overall scheme is not only an outstanding example of the technique of marquetry but also the very first instance of the new principles of perspective being applied in that branch of art. The carpentry is by Agnolo di Lazzaro, whose assistants included Masaccio's brother Scheggia, and Antonio Manetti, who was later replaced by Giuliano da Maiano and Giovanni da Gaiole. The designs were supplied by such painters as Maso Finiguerra and Alessio Baldovinetti, and possibly also by Antonio del Pollaiolo.

While the two major projects involving the production of stained-glass windows and wooden inlay for the Sacristy of the Masses were still in hand, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore also commissioned a number of important frescoes. Eager to revive an old plan formulated by the chancellors of the Republic to commemorate those who had contributed to the city's glory in the cathedral, the Opera commissioned Paolo Uccello, and subsequently Andrea del Castagno, to produce huge monochrome frescoes portraying two of the mercenary captains who had led the Florentine forces to victory in battle. Paolo Uccello completed his equestrian monument to Sir John Hawkwood, known in Italian as Giovanni Acuto, in 1436, developing a new iconographical genre which Andrea del Castagno was to emulate in its companion piece, an equestrian monument to Niccolò da Tolentino painted in1456.

The "minor arts"

However, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore turned not so much to painting as to what we now tend to call the "minor arts" to embellish the cathedral and provide a fitting setting for the Florentine people to worship in.

The cathedral treasure and the ancient accounts now in the Archive testify to the quantity and quality of the commissions given to goldsmiths and enamellers to make or restore the reliquaries displayed to the faithful on 25 March ever year. Items made in different centuries all display the same elegance and sophistication, from Andrea Arditi's Bust of St. Zenobius dated 1331 to Antonio Salvi's Reliquary of St. Jerome dated 1487, and from Francesco Vanni's late 14th century Reliquary of St. Reparata to Paolo di Giovanni Sogliani's early 16th century "Reliquary of the Libretto". Naturally the Opera also provided all the items needed for the celebration of the liturgy such as chalices, thuribles and aspersoria or holy water sprinklers, as well as crucifixes, tabernacle doors and pax-bredes, commissioning them from such artists as Maso Finiguerra and Antonio del Pollaiolo.

The Opera also commissioned the church's splendidly illuminated and bound codices, including four choir books from the second half of the 15th century (now in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Edili 148-151), richly decorated by Filippo di Matteo Torelli, Zanobi Strozzi and Francesco di Antonio del Chierico with illuminations that are not only aesthetically appealing but also offer us a fascinating glimps of social life in Florence at the time.

The last great commissions

The Opera commissioned its last great works of sculpture in the early 16th century. Michelangelo was tasked with carving a statue of King David for one of the dome's buttresses in 1501. Completed in 1503, it was judged to be of such importance, not only in aesthetic terms but also from a conceptual standpoint, that it was placed outside the Palazzo dei Priori (now Palazzo Vecchio) in Piazza della Signoria as a symbol of the Florentine Republic.

Immediately afterwards, Michelangelo was commissioned to produce a full series of Twelve Apostles for the niches in the pilasters under the dome, although in the event he only ever worked on the figure of St. Matthew.

This sculpture, with its sense of unbridled strength, was never finished and is now in the Accademia Museum.

After Michelangelo departed for Rome, the commission for the figures of the Apostles was given to Jacopo Sansovino, Andrea Ferrucci, Baccio Bandinelli and Benedetto da Rovezzano in the second decade of the 16th century.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pietà, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo also houses a Pietà which Michelangelo carved for his own tomb in Rome, albeit without ever completing it. It was eventually bought by Florentine sculptor Francesco Bandini in 1561 and placed in the cathedral in 1722, where it remained until 1981.

As the 16th century wore on, the Opera del Duomo, like all Florentine institutions, gradually began to lose its independence and to fall under the direct control of the grand dukes, playing a more marginal role in decisions regarding the last great decorative schemes for the cathedral. It continued, however, to be responsible for overseeing the execution of those schemes, including the new arrangement for the choir and high altar designed by BaccioBandinelli(1547–72) and the decoration of the interior of the dome begun by GiorgioVasari and completed by Federico Zuccari in full compliance with the precepts of the Counter-Reformation in1579.

Grand Duke Francesco I flew in the face of tradition, betraying the spirit that had always guided the Opera's decisions, when he ordered the destruction of Arnolfo di Cambio's old and venerable, if unfinished, façade in 1587. Models and designs for a newfaçadewere prepared by Florentine artists in the late 16th century and on into the 17th (these are now in the Museum), but the façadewas finally built, to a design by 19th century architect Emilio De Fabris, only in 1887.