We concluded our tour of the Duomo Complex by visiting the inside of Santa Maria del Fiore, or Saint Mary of the Flowers, the largest medieval building in Europe. It’s an imposing figure, done in the Gothic style with a beautifully detailed façade of red, green, and white marble. The stained glass windows accentuate the top of the church and the top of the pointed arches, typical of Gothic architecture. We entered the great building through its imposing front doors, and once again were welcomed into the cool comfort of a church, surrounded by hushed voices and dim light. I continued my faith journey of lighting a candle in every church, praying for my brother and grandmother, focusing on my prayers despite the beautiful surroundings present.
The church was the largest we had been in, and for good reason too, seeing as it was the center of Florence. There was a modern painted dome underneath Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome, a piece of artwork that Dr. Wilkins claims the simplicity-loving Brunelleschi would have hated. Once I made it to the front where the altar stood, I turned to look toward the front of the cathedral, and gasped at the large clock positioned above the front entrance. A few hours earlier, while we were in the Museo Opera del Duomo gift shop, I bought my mother a silk scarf with a clock face on it, struck by its cool colors and symmetrical design. I was struck to see that this clock was the exact piece of art that scarf was modeled after. The clock was created by Paolo Uccello and is one of the few famous clocks that measures time in the Italic hour, or from sunset to sunset. It is a large, working timepiece, and I was so surprised and excited to see that I had purchased a worthwhile piece of art for my mother without even knowing its significance! We also got to see Brunelleschi’s tomb in the basement of the Santa Maria del Fiore complex, an appropriate resting place for the man who contributed so much to the great cathedral. As we were leaving the cathedral complex, one of the security guards came over the loudspeaker and said, in many different languages, that it was the top of the hour and we were to pray the Ave Maria. I joined in the prayer, in Latin no less, thankful for many years of choir and having to learn the proper pronunciation of the Hail Mary. The meaning of the prayer for me was especially important at this time: after we left the cathedral and had lunch, we’d be returning to climb the dome, and I would have to conquer two of my biggest fears.
Although lunch was delicious, I could barely eat as the butterflies circled around my stomach. Another thing you should know about me: I have a tremendous fear of heights and small spaces. Airplanes are a nightmare for me, because they combine the two, and you can forget climbing to the top of large buildings. When in New York, I cried at Top of the Rock over Central Park, even though it’s not that high, because I didn’t like the feeling of not having my feet firmly on the ground. Hell, even being on top of Mount Washington back home makes me feel uncomfortable, because its too far from the ground below. I was mentally preparing myself for, literally, the climb of my life, totaling in at somewhere around 420 steps to the top of the massive expanse of brick and stone to the tiny white lantern with the gold top, where this entire week I could see small figures of people like ants moving around on top.
When we were in the Museo Opera del Duomo, we saw the sketches and construction pieces used to create the dome, hidden within the walls of the cathedral for centuries until someone stumbled across them and had them set up for viewing. It was amazing to me that such a large, no MASSIVE, piece of structural brilliance was made with a few pulleys and carts. We talked in class about the spina pesce, or the herringbone pattern of the thin bricks Brunelleschi used to stop the dome from collapsing in on itself. We even saw this at work in a deep hole in the ground within the Museo, an example of Brunelleschi practicing his building of the Duomo before actually going to work.
Lunch dragged out for ages, but finally, the time to climb to the top of the dome came, and I bravely marched back into the cathedral and went bravely up the steps. We found ourselves in a dark, brick passageway, blindly following the circular staircases up, and up, and up, occasionally punctuated by a window that looked out into the city, telling us how high we had climbed. The stairway was tight, but not too claustrophobic, and I found myself relaxing a little.
Well, that changed quickly.
We suddenly entered a part of the interior walls that opened up to what seemed like a straight drop to the cathedral below – but instead, it was a small pathway, wide enough for a person to walk straight forward through, and separated from the open cathedral by a short stone wall and a tall expanse of fiberglass. My stomach immediately dropped. THIS was my worst fear. There was nothing to stop me if I fell, nothing to prevent me from looking down hundreds of feet to the church below. But I couldn’t stop. Half of my class was behind me, and I was determined to get to the dome on the top of the cathedral. I clutched the stone wall with one hand, the glass wall with the other, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other to make it to the top. I kept in mind the vision of getting to see Florence in all its glory from the top of the dome, and ignored the butterflies in my stomach and the growing stiffness in my limbs. And, before I knew it, I was back within the walls of the cathedral, continuing on my journey to the top. Not exactly a piece of cake, but conquered!
We finally made it to the top of the Duomo, and stepped out into the bright light above. We had a perfect day to get to see Florence, the sun shining and the air cool enough that we wouldn’t die of the sweltering heat. When I made my way to the edge of the Duomo, my breath immediately left my body in a rush. To say the views were breathtaking was a gross understatement. Miles and miles of red clay tile roofs spread before me, the thin streets and avenues snaking through further below. People as small as ants milled about, completely ignorant of the fact that I was on top of the world, looking down at them in awe. The Tuscan hills spread over the horizon beyond, their dark green trees and grass rippling in the wind, the few houses and farms looking blissful and idyllic. I suddenly understood why Brunelleschi created this magnificent piece of architecture – when someone is up here, they feel as if they are a magical being, flying through the air, conquering the world, admiring the place they had come from below with newfound respect. I couldn’t take enough pictures to capture the glory of the city below me, and I don’t think I have words to explain to anyone else what this little known wonder of the world feels like.
Before we climbed down, Carlee took a picture of me facing the city below, my arms outspread, my face turned to the sky. I relished in that moment, feeling as if I was truly on top of the world. Its moments like these where you feel truly in love with life, and I’ll never, ever forget that.