The Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore)

Front of Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore)
Front of Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore)

If a cathedral in an Italian city is generally known as simply “The Duomo” (in English, but with the appropriate language version substituted for “The” in other languages; e.g., Il Duomo in Italian) you’d be pretty safe in betting that the cathedral is one of the following:

  1. The biggest in the city
  2. The grandest in the city
  3. The most famous in the city
  4. The oldest in the city
  5. Some of the above
  6. All of the above

The reason for this is that duomo is an Italian word for cathedral. It makes sense to call only one cathedral in a city “The Cathedral.” Otherwise, depending on how many cathedrals there are, there’s a pretty good chance that your friends will end up at the wrong place if you tell them, “meet me at The Cathedral.” Then again, this would be an advantage if they are, rather than friends, acquaintances whom you don’t particularly like. So there are pluses and minuses, but as a general rule, there’s typically only one (if any) cathedral known as “The Duomo” in any given Italian city or town. (Then again, there are cathedrals in other Italian cities that are known as The Duomo, so it’s possible your friends will end up in the wrong city.)

The formal name of the cathedral in Florence that’s commonly known as The Duomo is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore.

In answer to the implied question above, I don’t know the answer to the implied question above. I’m guessing that The Duomo in Florence is either e) some of the above or f) all of the above. It’s certainly the most famous in the city. And I think it’s the biggest. Grandest? Possibly, but that’s a subjective term. Oldest? I don’t know. I could probably find out, but there are a number of cathedrals—large and small—in Florence and I’m far too lazy to research them all.

Cupola from inside
Cupola from inside

The cathedral itself consists primarily of a large hall, the showstopper of which is its cupola. The cupola is intricately painted with myriad religious figures. In the dead centre (which is to say the very centre, not a commentary on the religious figures, although they, too, are dead) of the cupola is a hole. I assume the hole is, at least these days, glass-covered because, it’s not as if Florence has a temperate, dry climate year round. Weather protection is advisable.

Immediately below the cupola is a ring that contains a series of circular stained glass windows. Ring doesn’t quite describe it properly, but the right words are not coming to mind, so look for the picture of the cupola on this page. A portion of that “ring” with circular stained glass windows is visible in the photo.

On a sunny day light, at an hour when when the sun is high in the sky, sunlight streams in through the hole. I wasn’t there at night, but I assume sunlight does not stream through the hole then. If it did, I might start believing in a god. Let me know if you ever experience that at The Duomo. If so, and if your claim can be reliably verified, I might my religion accordingly.

In addition to the beautiful cupola, visitors may find themselves enchanted by the paintings and statues affixed to the walls. Then again, they might not find themselves enchanted by them. Enchantment is such a personal, inexplicable, unpredictable feeling, isn’t it? Or maybe not. I’m not much on feelings.

Interior of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral
Interior of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral

When I was in the cathedral, despite signs asking visitors to be quiet to respect the religious nature of the structure, the large crowd occasionally got loud. When it did, a stentorian recording was played over loudspeakers. The recording said simply, “Shh. Silence. Silence, please.” in both Italian and English. As the saying goes, you learn something new every day. What I learned that day is that “shh” is the same in both English and Italian.

The funny thing was that the recording was louder than the crowd it was shushing. I suppose it had to be so the recording could be heard over the crowd, but, still.

Modestly Free

If you plan to go to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, dress modestly. That applies to men and women, boys and girls, but it’s more likely to affect women and girls. In practice, that means that, whether you are a man or a woman, don’t wear short shorts. If you’re a woman, don’t wear a short skirt or dress. This being a traditional Catholic church, while I think you should be free to wear whatever you want, I suspect that if you’re a man and you wear a dress or skirt they probably won’t let you in no matter how long that dress or skirt might be unless you can successfully argue that it’s a kilt or that it’s a priest’s robe and you’re a priest. Change comes slowly to traditional religions.

For women, even if you think you’re wearing a skirt or dress that is long enough to be called “modest” you might still be stopped at the door. When I visited, a woman who was dressed in a manner that I considered to be conservative was turned away. The problem was that her shoulders were bare. (This can be easily rectified by buying a scarf or shawl from a nearby vendor and draping it over your shoulders.)

There is no charge to go into the cathedral itself, but there are fees associated with the other buildings and sights connected with The Duomo. This includes the baptistery, the museum, the large number of stairs to the top of the bell tower, from which there is a great view, and the even larger number of stairs to the top of the cupola, from which there is an even wider view, but …

Scaling the Heights

If you’re planning to go to the top of the cupola, be advised that getting to your destination involves climbing a lot of stairs—463 according to the literature—and there’s no elevator for the weak-of-limb. In addition to the weak-of-limb, it’s probably not a good choice for the particularly weak-of-heart either unless you’ve got a death wish and are eager to have that wish fulfilled.

If you do decide to make the climb and you don’t know what to expect, you may be in for a surprise. My journey started by walking up what seemed to be a hell of a lot of stairs. (Are you allowed to say “hell” in a post about a cathedral?) This took me to an inner walkway on the outer wall of the cathedral, just below where the convex dish of the cupola starts to curve in. My thinking at this point was, “with all of that climbing, this must be the pinnacle of the journey.”

View from top of the cupola of The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore)
View from top of the cupola of The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore)

If I had been right in that thought I would have been disappointed with my cupola climb because, at that level, I got to look down on the cathedral through a horribly smudged and scratched plexiglass barrier. While the cathedral is grand, that wasn’t a particularly impressive way to view it. I got this distorted view of the cathedral from a variety of angles because the publicly accessible portion of the walkway traversed part-way around the cathedral.

At the end of the walkway I came to another set of stairs heading still upward. That is, they headed upward from the starting point of the inner walkway. Of course, if you were at the top of the stairs they’d be heading downward. You probably could have figured that out on your own, but stating it explicitly provided me with a segue into mentioning that there was only one set of stairs to go from this level to the top and back down again. Consequently, people going down had to squeeze past people going up.

When I say “squeeze past,” I’m not kidding. At some points, the stairs were not nearly wide enough for two people side-by-side. As a result, I spent considerable time standing at one of the wider landings, waiting for people going in the other direction to pass by. Because of this, people tended to bunch up into groups going in each direction. The group that had the most aggressive person at the point position tended to decide whether the up group or the down group was the one to go, leaving the other group to wait.

When I finally got to the top, I was treated to some amazing views of Florence. And, because of the height, I was able to see as much beyond into the landscape around Florence as my 62-year-old eyes would allow. That’s probably not as far as younger eyes could see, but, nevertheless, my 62-year-old eyes appreciated the fact that my 62-year-old legs and heart were adequate to get me there.

If you don’t think you can make it to the top of the cupola, you can go to the top of the bell tower instead to get a view. I did both climbs. I don’t know how many steps there are up the bell tower, except that it’s not nearly as many as there are on the climb up to the top of the cupola.

Because it’s not up as high up, I couldn’t see as far from the top of the bell tower as from the top of the cupola, but, in my opinion, the view was better because I got a closer look at the surrounding buildings. You be the judge. There is one photo on this page that was taken from the top of the cupola. There is another photo taken from atop the cupola, along with a few from atop the bell tower in the slideshow below.

Top to Bottom

View of Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) from street
View of Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) from street

One ticketed area inside the cathedral was underground. The findings of an archaeological dig under the cathedral were displayed there. The exhibits included lots of old stone and mosaic floors, frescoes and other artifacts.

The church’s baptistry, which is separate building in the square in front of the cathedral, is another ticketed venue. When I was there, the exterior of the baptistry was shrouded in nicely decorated construction hoarding as restoration was underway. However, the interior was open for paying customers (or Firenze card-holders who got the appropriate ticket, more on that below). It’s still well worth going inside to take a look at the large, exquisite, round stained glass windows.

The fees to all of these parts of the Duomo complex are included with the Firenze card if you buy one (I did), which will also get you into a number of other attractions around Florence (Firenze is the Italian name for Florence). However, for some reason that is beyond me, when I was there, I couldn’t just show my Firenze card for scanning at the entrance as is the case with most other attractions covered by the card. Instead, I had to go to an office behind a storefront off to the side of the square in front of The Duomo. That office didn’t look like it had anything to do with the Duomo and, due to scant signage, it took me a while to locate it. Once I found the office, someone inside scanned my Firenze card and gave me a ticket that got me into the various otherwise non-free parts of the Duomo.

In case 1) you go to Florence, 2) you get a Firenze card (an excellent investment if you plan to visit a lot of tourist attractions in Florence), 3) you want to visit the otherwise non-free parts of the Duomo, and 4) they’re still using the cockamamy ticketing system and the same office, here’s how to find the office: With your back to the cathedral, it’s one of the buildings on the right side of the square. It’s building 7, which is mixed in with a restaurant and store. If you know to look in that direction you’ll probably see the ticket office sign. If you don’t know to look there, it’s far from obvious.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.