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  • Writer's pictureJoe Nickols, MA

A Brief History of the Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence

What is the Opera del Duomo Museum?

The Opera del Duomo Museum is a museum founded in 1891 that’s home to innumerable treasures of Florence’s greatest architectural icon: the Duomo.

Opera del Duomo Museum History

The Opera del Duomo (or ‘Cathedral Works’) was a board of directors created by the Florentine state in 1296 to oversee the building and financing of the monumental Duomo. The construction of the church was completed with the addition of Filippo Brunelleschi’s ground-breaking dome in 1436, and since then the Opera has been responsible for its maintenance, as well as preserving, conserving and archiving the treasures associated with the cathedral. Pollution has meant that many of the external sculptures that once decorated the striking structure are now housed within this museum.

Opera del Duomo Museum

A lavishly decorated cathedral demonstrated that a city had been blessed by God with wealth and prosperity. The extent of Florence’s divine blessings can be seen in the museum’s ground-floor rooms, which house a recreation of the Duomo’s first, unfinished façade as well as the intricate bronze doors to the Baptistery (the small octagonal structure to the west of the main cathedral building). The successive Baptistery doors demonstrate the transformations in preferred style that occurred throughout the Renaissance. The three sets, constructed at different times, were each originally commissioned to be the East doors to the building. This was the most prestigious position as it faced the cathedral. Each set was more accomplished than the one that came before, and the earlier doors were moved to other entrances.

The earliest are by Andrea Pisano and were installed in 1336. These depict the life of Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist. The four-lobed panels are associated more closely with the Gothic style, whilst the modelling of the sculptures suggest a proto-Renaissance use of realism. In 1401, the guild of cloth importers – the premier guild in Florence – announced a competition to design new doors. The competition was won jointly by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. This infuriated Brunelleschi, who left for Rome to study architecture. It took Ghiberti 21 years to complete his design depicting episodes from the New Testament. He maintained the four-lobed format, but with a heightened sense of sculptural realism. These doors made Ghiberti a celebrity and in 1424 he was commissioned to make a second set. It took him another 27 years to produce them. These final doors consist of ten square panels showing scenes from the Old Testament. The square shape breaks away from the Gothic style of the other portals, instead embracing the Renaissance principle of balanced geometry. Ghiberti used a range of techniques, from incision to full sculpture, to accentuate space and engage the viewer. The perspective of each scene is phenomenal and contrasts markedly with Pisano’s work from a century earlier. Michelangelo commented that these gates were fit to be the ‘Gates of Paradise’.

Elsewhere in the museum is one of Michelangelo’s final sculptures: The Deposition. This was intended to be placed on the master artist’s own tomb. It depicts Nicodemus removing Christ from the cross to be placed in the arms of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. Michelangelo began the work at the age of 72 and laboured for eight years before attempting to destroy it in a blaze of frustration. The face of Nicodemus is thought to be a self-portrait.

The adjacent room houses a rare wooden sculpture by Donatello of Mary Magdalene, known as the Penitent Magdalene. According to tradition, she went into the wilderness and lived in a cave for 30 years after the death of Christ. In the sculpture, Mary is a feeble, old woman with only her long hair covering her nakedness. She’s sustained solely by her faith in Christ. The sculpture is hailed as a masterpiece of emotional realism. Originally it would have been painted and gilded, though in its current unadorned state the simplicity of the bare wood heightens the starkness of Mary’s later life.

Head upstairs and you’ll find stone carvings that were formerly attached to the bell tower, alongside the Galleria Della Cupola that displays the tools designed by Brunelleschi to help him construct the cathedral’s magnificent dome.

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