The neo-Gothic facade of Florence Cathedral.
A brief history of the last great artistic undertaking for Santa Maria del Fiore
At the end of the 16th century the Grand Duke Francesco I dei Medici had decided to dismantle the decoration of the facade of the Cathedral, which Arnolfo di Cambio had begun at the end of the 13th century and which was carried on until the 15th century, remaining unfinished. The sovereign's intention was to equip the largest Florentine temple with a new facade stylistically updated to the modern taste, but after the destruction of the ancient one they never created a a new front. The debate around this important work lasted until the end of the 17th century, when the Grand Duke Cosimo III, on the occasion of his son's wedding, finally decided to confer appropriate decor to this monument and to the space in front of it and commissioned a large mural painting depicting an architectural front. This decoration survived for a century and a half and it is still visible, albeit dull and very degraded, in the first photographs of the early 19th century.
After almost two hundred years from the last attempt at completion, at the beginning of the 1820s, when Florence was by now ruled by the Lorraine dynasty, the question of the decoration of the facade of the Duomo aroused again widespread interest encouraged by Giovanni degli Alessandri, President of the Academy of Fine Arts and Director of the Uffizi. The architect Giovanni Battista Silvestri presented for first a neo-Gothic style project, which however remained only on paper. The proposal formulated in 1831 by the architect Gaetano Baccani, responsible for the modernization of the factory in a purist way, was also rejected.
A further step forward was taken in 1842 when was created the Association for the Façade of the Cathedral, which was also concerned with finding the necessary funding for the construction of the enterprise.
The realization of the neo-Gothic facade of the Basilica of Santa Croce, based on a design by Matas, contributed to stimulating the debate around the initiative. Matas himself produced his own proposal for an architectural solution for the Cathedral, which had the effect of spreading the question beyond the regional borders: in these years the Swiss architect Johann Georg Müller designed six facade hypotheses in neo-Gothic style, inspired by both the Frech and German churches and the Cathedral of Orvieto.
All the designs proposed in this first phase differed from each other in many elements, but they were all united by the same medieval architecture inspiration. These stylistic features evoked the time of the foundation of the Cathedral, or the time of Arnolfo, when Florence was in the splendor of the communal age.
Therefore, the debate suffered an interruption due to the turbulence of the Risorgimento riots and did not resume until 1859, when the Association was reborn with the name of "Promoter Deputation". The following year the new king, Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy, laid the fondation stone with a ceremony, which however was absolutely symbolic: the façade’s question was still far from over. In 1861, with the birth of the Kingdom of Italy, was launched a new competition, in which many Italian and foreign architects participated, who proposed solutions inspired by different medieval and non-medieval architectures. This new group of projects was examined by a special commission of experts, but once again no winner was elected.
A new competition was then held in 1864, for which were examined more than forty projects, inspired some by the Gothic facades of French cathedrals, others by Italian basilicas and still others with an absolutely eclectic taste. Among the fifteen projects that stood out for merit, won that of the Florentine architect Emilio De Fabris, who imagined a neo-Gothic facade, inspired by those of the Cathedrals of Siena and Orvieto, that is, crowned by three cusps. However, a heated discussion arose around this solution. In fact, behind this architectonical detail there were hidden political-ideological reasons, strongly felt in those years: the cuspidate type in the Italian Risorgimento was felt as less "Italic" than the basilical, that is flat, with balcony. The judging commission requested an opinion to the most important neo-Gothic architect of that time, the French Viollet-Le-Duc, but his authoritative advise was not enough to quell the controversy.
Then, they decided to launch a new competition, to which ten participants of the previous one were invited and twenty-nine new competitors were admitted. All the forty-five drawings sent to the Commission were inspired by medieval architecture, but divided into two groups: cuspidate or basilical. De Fabris won again, and in 1870 he was finally appointed Architect responsible for the construction of the new facade. Nonetheless, the controversy around the crown did not subside and De Fabris gradually had to work out new variations to the project, where he imagined both solutions. To definitively end to the question, were put in place both the types – a cusp on the right side and a balcony on the left side of the facade - and a citizen referendum was announced, which once and for all established the preference for second option.
But the façade was not just an architectural matter and for the iconographic program of its sculptural and mosaic decoration the tenacious De Fabris addressed the philosopher Augusto Conti. He devised a grandiose celebration of Mary and the Savior that was, together, a glorification of the history of Florence, through a complex theological program that showed the intertwining of the Christian faith and the Florentine genius. Dozens of high profile artists were involved to create more than seventy figures in marble and mosaic. On the facade the Romanesque and Gothic tradition of decorating in red, white and green marbles acquired a patriotic significance, no longer related to the Christian theological virtues, but to the colors of the Italian flag. The names and the coat of arms of the important Florentine families and not only that participated in the financing of the enterprise were sculpted into the lower frames, so as to remain visible to posterity.
The construction was finally started in 1876 but De Fabris died in 1883 and unfortunely could not see the conclusion. It was up to his heir, Luigi Del Moro, who took over from the master in the direction of the construction site, to complete the work, and the facade was officially inaugurated on May 12, 1887, exactly 3 centuries after the dismantling of Arnolfo's medieval facade.
In the following sixteen years were created three large bronze doors, which replaced the previous wooden ones and in 1903 the facade was finally completed.
Of this difficult journey over a century, the archives of the Opera del Duomo in Florence preserve the extraordinary collection of architectural drawings sent to the various commissions over the decades, and a part of them is exhibited in the section of the Museum dedicated to this nineteenth-century undertaking. In the left aisle of the Cathedral you can admire the funeral monument of Emilio de Fabris: it complete the Renaissance series of sepulchral monuments to the great architects of Santa Maria del Fiore, right in front of those of Giotto and Brunelleschi.