The Roman era
When the Romans conquered the land of the Etruscans, they founded a military township in a place where Italic peoples from the Appenines between Tuscany and Emilia had settled centuries earlier. That township gradually grew into a city.
Its favourable geographical location turned ancient Florentia, founded in 59 BC, into a economic power of some consequence by the 2nd century AD.
The Florence cathedral area, in the sense of a sacred space rather than a square, was first instituted in the northeast corner of Roman Florentia's ancient castrum.
When a Christian community settled in this Roman outpost, the event marked the start of a process which was to lead over the centuries to the formation of this place of worship within the square of Florence's very first city walls.
But by the time that occurred, the city's conversion to Christianity must already have been far advanced because the first Christian churches were normally built on the outskirts of urban areas.
The first churches
The first Christians to live on the banks of the Arno came from the east, as indeed did the two leading figures in the early history of the Church in Florence: Minas, "King of the Armenians", who was martyred in Florence during the persecutions of the Emperor Decius in 250 AD, and Zenobius, the great 5th century Bishop born to a Greek-Syriac family.
At this time, Roman Florentia's sacred space had not yet been properly defined; in fact the first Florentine church for which we have archaeological and epigraphic evidence is Santa Felicita, which is located outside the walls to the south of the city.
The earliest concrete reference to a stable Christian community in the city, in the 4th century, tells us of the presence of Bishop Felix in "Florentia Tuscorum" in 313 for the Roman synod, although there must have been Christians in Florence before then if Minas was buried in 250 AD on the hill later named after him to the southeast of the Roman city. The second Florentine church in chronological order was founded outside the walls too, close to an important thoroughfare leading into the city. San Lorenzo was built north of the walls close to the junction of the old Via Faetina and the Via Cassia in the late 4th century and consecrated in 393 by Ambrose, bishop of Milan (which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire at the time).
The Christian community formally entered the empire's cities, thus also Florence, after the Emperor Theodosius finally ordered that all pagan temples be closed in 391 AD. Santa Reparata, the third of Florence's early Christian basilicas, was more or less the same size as the coeval basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the design being a legacy of the late Roman Empire.
This three-aisled church, which was now built inside the Roman city walls rather than outside and which was larger than Santa Felicita and possibly even than San Lorenzo, finally allows us to talk about a sacred space inside a Christian city.
Dedicated toSantaReparata, a 3rd century Palestinian martyr on whose feast day tradition tells us a great victory was won over the barbarians in 405 AD, the new church also played a role in the city's civic life.
Bishop Zenobius had established the episcopal seat in San Lorenzo in the 5th century but it was transferred to Santa Reparata in the the 12th century.
A series of other buildings of considerable importance for Florence's Christian population soon began to rise alongside Santa Reparata, sanctioning the area's role as the religious centre of the city. Numerous archaeological digs have shown that these buildings were erected on the remains of earlier Roman houses.
The city's religious centre was already beginning to take shape at this time. The focal point of the future Piazza del Duomo was the baptistry of San Giovanni. The construction of a baptistry in front of Santa Reparata was probably undertaken as part of a single project at the same time as the church itself was built, even though San Giovanni is first mentioned in the records only in 897.
If we accept this hypothesis, then the dimensions of the new Christian complex in the northeast corner of the city would have been similar to those of the old pagan complex dominated by the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in the forum at the heart of the urban grid (on the northwestern side of today's Piazza della Repubblica). This was extremely important because it marked the cultural renewal being forged by the new Christian faith. But we have no definite information regarding the origin of Santa Reparata or the baptistry. Archaeological finds relating to this new centre of faith have spawned various different interpretations, athough few scholars now accept the old tradition which suggested that the baptistry was originally built as a temple of Mars in the Classical era.
What we can safely say is that the relationship between the baptistry and the cathedral so much in evidence today goes back many centuries.
Whether we accept traditional dating, with Santa Reparata being built in the early 5th century and the baptistry even earlier, or whether we opt for a different set of dates, the thread linking the baptistry to the cathedral may be assumed to be very ancient indeed.
The baptistry's present structure maintains the octagonal plan typical of early Christian baptistries, the shape having a specific, symbolic meaning which the Church fathers associated with Baptism. It recalled the octava dies, the eighth day outside the cycle of the week and thus outside the limited time of our lives on earth, the day of the risen Christ and of eternity. In fact, this symbolism was even easier to interpret up to the 14th century because the baptistry was surrounded by a graveyard. People would cross a place of death to enter the place where man "was born anew" in Baptism.
By this time Florence's most important Christian complex had been defined in its broad outlines as a fully-fledged sacred space.
The Byzantine and Caroligian eras
This moment of "rebirth" was followed by a period of decline during which Santa Reparata and the Baptistry not only failed to develop further (indeed Santa Reparata was even partly dismantled) but were actually left outside the new city walls, which the Byzantine garrison had built further south than the Roman walls in order to defend Florence against barbarian raids.
A certain paralysis took hold of the city during the Byzantine occupation from 552 to 568, but it was during the two centuries of Longobard domination that the city experienced its darkest hour. It only began to burgeon with life again in the Carolingian era, thanks to a merger with Fiesole in 854 and to a decree issued by German Emperor Lothair in 825 choosing Florence as the seat of one of the eight schools for training young men for a career in the Church.
San Giovanni was also very closely associated with the bishop's palace, with which it stood cheek-by-jowl until 1894. This palace, which some sources also refer to as the House of San Giovanni, was an old building, the core of which may have dated back to the 8th century, and was a setting for some the major events in Florentine public life.
All of this helps us to understand the unity of this space, its dignity forged by an invisible yet very vibrant thread binding Santa Reparata, the baptistry and the bishop's palace.
Rebirth between the 11th and 13th centuries
While the bishop began to acquire growing importance in the city's life, Florence pegged its fate ever more closely to the officials representing the Holy Roman Empire in Tuscany, figures such as Hugh of Tuscany who elected the city as his residence of choice, and Countess Matilda who ruled over the marquisate in the last quarter of the 11th century and ordered the construction of a new set of city walls following the outline of the old Roman walls.
One of the most significant events of the 11th century for Florence as a whole, and for the cathedral area in particular, was the election to the papacy in 1058 of Gérard de Bourgogne, bishop of Florence, who took the name of Nicholas II.
The new pope spent more time in Florence than in Rome and consolidated the city's prestige, breathing new life into its oldest ecclesiastical buildings, including the baptistry of San Giovanni.
Nicholas II began a process of expansion and embellishment of the religious centre which lasted from the 11th to the 13th century. His programme may even have included a total rebuilding of the late Roman christening area, replacing it with the huge edifice we see today, and the enlargement of Santa Reparata. The Pisan columns on the baptistry façadeto either side of its east door date back to this period.
The 11th to 13th century revival took place in a changing political and economic context in which the Church played a leading role in developing the city's identity.
With the destruction of Fiesole in 1125, Florence consolidated its power as a Guelph city.
This period saw the creation of the first structure in the "admirable" system of hospices and hospitals for which Florence was to become famous: the Hospital of San Giovanni Evangelista was built in the extremely narrow space between the baptistry and Santa Reparata, though no trace of it remains today.
The core of buildings that developed around cathedrals in medieval cities inevitably became a centre of gravity for urban development, the streets tending to fan out from the religious hub. But in Florence it was not until the end of the 13th century, with Santa Maria del Fiore, that we find a cathedral which could be totally "circumnavigated".
The foundation of the new cathedral
When the new cathedral was begun, the entire eastern part of the area now occupied by the apse of Santa Maria del Fiore was a tangle of medieval streets and alleys. The church of San Michele Visdomini stood where the choir and the high altar stand today.
One of the wealthier families living in the area were the Bischeri (portrayed in a painting on display in the Museo dell'Opera), who were unceremoniously thrown out of their homes and all their property expropriated after they had foolishly turned down numerous attractive offers, whence the Florentine term "bischero" meaning "idiot".
In any event, it is important to perceive the huge change of scale if we wish to understand how the entire area was being developed at this time.
The canons' houses were built around a central cloister on the south side of the old cathedral of Santa Reparata. Archaeological investigation in the early 20th century revealed that this cloister was destroyed after 1330 to make way for the elegant bell tower.
By this time, the old cathedral facing the baptistry was becoming increasingly unworthy of the image which Florence was building for itself in the world.
By comparison with the new monumental baptistry and with the cathedrals of other Tuscan and Italian cities such as Siena, Pisa and Orvieto, the old cathedral of Florence was a very modest affair and the Florentines could not help but feel embarrassed by it.
The new cathedral project was the result.
Together with the project for a new town hall (now Palazzo Vecchio) on which work had begun a few years earlier, the new cathedral was intended to be the architectural embodiment of the power and stability of the Florentine Republc in Guelph hands.
By the mid-14th century, a harmonious relationship had developed among the various component parts comprising the city's sacred space, a space crowned in this period by the Loggia del Bigallo which echoed the rhythm of the Baptistry in the elegance of its structure and broadened out the setting, opening up the embryonic Piazza Duomo to the Corso degli Adimari (now Via Calzaiuoli), the thoroughfare linking the religious centre to the political and civic centre of Piazza dei Priori (now Piazza della Signoria).
The cathedral architects
After Giotto died in 1336, work on the cathedral continued under Andrea Pisano and then under Francesco Talenti, who completed the task in 1359.
Talenti also turned his hand to the cathedral design after it had lain dormant for decades. He did not confine himself to simply implementing Arnolfo's plan, however; he proposed an even more ambitious design which greatly increased the proportions of the church.
The naves were complete by 1380.
The column of St. Zenobius, surmounted by a cross, was raised by the baptistry's north door in 1384.
Thus the cathedral and the city began to overlap and to become an integral part of a single whole, with the cathedral being commissioned and funded by the Comune and the "comunal" monuments being built, in part, by the OperadelDuomo.
In the perception of the man in the street, Santa Maria del Fiore had become the symbol of the city's growth and prosperity.
Brunelleschi's dome was, and still is, the visual symbol of the whole city. It dominates and ennobles its palaces and houses with its huge bulk, offering a concrete image of "Mother Church" opening its brick-red cloak to shower divine grace on all.
It defines Florence's most important Christian church as an irresistible force for unity, the absolute hub and kingpin of the city's topography.
It was built in the remarkably short space of only fourteen years, between 1420 and 1434.
Inside the cathedral
With the dome now complete, a tremendous drive got under way to "modernise" the inside of the cathedral.
The large frescoes of mercenary captains John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto) and Niccolò daTolentino by Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno on the north wall are the most outstanding examples of a series of monuments devoted to "illustrious personalities" including Giotto, Brunelleschi, Dante and Marsilio Ficino.
This celebration of the dignity of man is by no means at odds with the cathedral's religious function. It is not a display of "humanistic interference", in fact quite the opposite.
It is no mere coincidence that the first image produced for Santa Maria del Fiore, a mosaic above the main door, depicts a similar "elevation" of a human being, in this case Mary being crowned by her Son and associated with His kingly power.
The same subject matter, the coronation of the Virgin, was to be repeated in 1436 in the large round stained-glass window in the eastern part of the drum, facing the mosaic above the main door.
The Opera commissioned numerous other works of art in the course of the 15th century, including the choir lofts of Luca della Robbia and Donatello, the stained-glass windows for the drum, the Della Robbia reliefs and bronze doors for the sacristies, the enchanting marquetry work for the Sacristy of Masses and a clock by Paolo Uccello.
This process of renewal was to increase in intensity over the next three centuries, in an environment radically transformed by the rule of the Medici family.
The plans of Cosimo I
Grand Duke Cosimo I commissioned Baccio Bandinelli and Bartolommeo Ammannati to adorn the nave of the cathedral with an octagonal choir enclosure situated exactly beneath Brunelleschi's great dome.
When this was complete, work began without delay on the decoration of the huge dome itself, Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari covering its 3,600 square metres with frescoes between 1572 and 1579. The iconographical programme centres on the Last Judgment, just as it had three centuries earlier in the baptistry.
In the central segment, next to the figure of the Merciful Christ (who spurns the sword that an angel is offering him, "for God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved"), we see Mary and St. John the Baptist interceding for the people of Florence.
Above the figure of Christ at the top of this central segment we see Pontius Pilate's words "Ecce Homo", "Behold the Man" – words which will reveal their full meaning only when Christ returns in glory.
On the altar directly beneath this fresco there was once a huge statue of the dead Christ which Baccio Bandinelli carved in 1551 (it was moved to Santa Croce in 1843).
Thus the sense of the Christian's journey, the significance of the "sacred voyage" leading man from Baptism to share in Christ's defeat and then to take part in his victory, is encapsulated in this movement: from humiliation below to glory above, from the "victim" on the altar to the risen Christ in heaven.
And so "Behold the Man", the deepest meaning of his life, his true dignity, as revealed in Christ.
By the end of the 16th century the cathedral shone in all its splendour at the heart of an astonishingly beautiful square.
The Catholic Counter-Reformation found fertile terrain in Florence thanks both to the Florentine people's conservative religious and cultural inclinations and to the Medici family's close ties with the papacy and with Spain.
Many churches, including some of the city's most ancient places of worship, were "modernised" to reflect Baroque taste. The cathedral and the baptistry were no exception and even they were to lose a little of their austere beauty.
The square between the 17th and 20th centuries
Redevelopment in the 19th and early 20th centuries often failed to show respect for the way the cathedral square had gradually formed over the previous centuries.
The 19th century turned its back on the Baroque style of the setting, opting for "historical" authenticity which it felt was best embodied in a synthesis between earlier styles and Gothic. The cathedral façade, designed and built by Emilio De Fabris and his assistants between 1871 and 1884, is an outstanding example of this approach.
The newfaçade, finally erected after centuries of different designs, had an impact on the square's spatial feel.
Nor did the love of large open spaces which was such a feature of Florentine town planning in the 19th century spare the cathedral square.
The first alteration involved the erection of new houses for the canons to a design by Gaetano Baccani in the 1820s, greatly expanding the open space on the south side of the cathedral, while the final blow was the demolition of the archbishop's palace in 1895, when its façadewas re-erected to cover the surviving portion set back from the square, effectively increasing the distance between the palace and the baptistry.