Another early morning, another chance to explore a famous landmark! The middle of the week marked our visit to the Duomo Complex: The baptistery, the campanile, the Museo Opera Del Duomo, and Santa Maria del Fiore, with its magnificent dome perched on top marking our final destination.
We began the morning at the Museo Opera Del Duomo, a brand-new museum complex that held the model of the original cathedral façade and the original statues housed on the front of the campanile, as well as many other works of art created specifically for the Duomo complex. It also housed the original Baptistery doors, which we studied in-depth as the competition between Brunelleschi and Alberti. Although Brunelleschi’s panel did not win a place in this battle, he overall won the war with his crowning jewel of the dome. The doors created by Alberti are done in bronze and are called the Gates of Paradise, accurately named as they were placed at the north of the Baptistery. They stood imposingly facing the recreation of the original façade, which depicted many statues that were intended to be put on the church, including a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, her glowing glass eyes looking down at those to enter the holy place. We also saw a late sculpture of Michelangelo’s Pieta, although this one is much different than the famous work many are familiar with. Titled The Deposition or The Florentine Pieta, it depicts Christ after His death on the cross, and the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene cradling His body, lifting him up with the help of a hooded figure believed to be Nicodemus. Michelangelo created this work when he was 72, and he worked on it for eight years, only to destroy it one night out of anger, breaking off limbs and realizing that his life was coming to a close and he would not complete it. There is a missing leg on the Christ figure, which seems to be slung over the Virgin Mary, giving it an unwanted sexual connotation, seeing as this pose is connected to that in art. It is also discussed that the hooded Nicodemus may be a self-portrait of Michelangelo, created because he was in such old age. It is also of note that Mary Magdalene is significantly smaller than the other three figures and not engaging in holding Christ as much. This can be attributed to a young apprentice who took over Michelangelo’s work after his death, who tried to fix the work and instead subtracted too much from the figure. I loved this statue because I am always interested in theories about art. I feel like it’s the closest we can get to these old masters without actually meeting them!
There were many works we discussed in class, including the cantorias, or choir lofts, done by Lucca Della Robbia and Donatello. In person, both choir lofts were huge and commanded attention, but I couldn’t help but stare at the one completed by Donatello. The movement of the putti dancing around it called to mind a more lifelike appearance than Della Robbia’s, and the glowing mosaic tiles sparkled in the light. I can only imagine it housed inside the cathedral itself, the light from the stained glass windows allowing it to shine down to the churchgoers below.
My favorite work to see in person, however, was one of my least favorites we learned about in class. When I saw Donatello’s Penitent Mary Magdalene, I thought that it was an insulting interpretation of one of the most interesting followers of Christ. I thought his sculpture looked absolutely terrible, but boy was I wrong. In person, the wooden statue commanded the attention of everyone in the room, a weak, frail woman just barely able to lift her hands into a prayerful position, her face conveying her sadness and devotion. As the story goes, Mary Magdalene was a beautiful, rich prostitute, in love with her earthly possessions and sinful ways, but when she met Christ she washed his feet with her hair and oil, and was committed to Him as a follower, denouncing her previous possessions and profession. After His death, she was so heartbroken that she exiled herself to the desert, repenting for her sins through starvation and prayer. Dr. Wilkins, in his explanation of taking students to see the statue previously, said one girl who was not religious or familiar with the story of Mary Magdalene immediately commented, upon seeing the work, “that she must have been very beautiful.” I could not agree with that statement more. Clothed with only her famous hair, this statue shows a woman of extreme beauty who has committed her life to a greater cause. She is starving, she is old, but she is not weak – she has the strength of God within her, and sees the greatness that can be had through faith to Him. The contrapposto and perfect execution of anatomy show Donatello’s talent as a sculptor, and secured his work as a favorite of mine in my heart forever.
After our trip to the museum, we headed over to the Baptistery to see the gold ceiling. I was very excited to view this piece of art in the Italo-Byzantine style, because we had seen so many pictures of it in class. The pictures could NEVER compare to the beauty of the ceiling in real life. It was created entirely of gold foil mosaic pieces, and as soon as one enters the building, they truly feel as if they are gazing at the heavens themselves. The gold seems to light itself from within, shining and making it impossible to tear your eyes away. The giant Christ figure in the center looks serenely at the viewer, but His appearance is deeper – His right hand, thumb pointed up, gestures to the eternal glory of heaven, and His left hand, thumb pointed down, condemns the sinners to hell, showing a devil and other scary creatures. Above this is a beautiful interpretation of the life and stories of John the Baptist, and still above that are retellings of stories from the Book of Genesis. The center of the Baptistery used to hold a baptismal font and every child born in Florence became a Florentine citizen when they were baptized there, Dante being amongst them. I could just imagine being a baby baptized in the center of the great, octagonal building, looking up in wonder at the beautiful ceiling and all its glory, reveling in the peace.