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The Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s Dome, and Ghiberti’s Doors

Florence, Italy

Florence kicked off the Renaissance in the early 1400s. Its Duomo had been built without a dome — only a hole in the roof — waiting to be gloriously capped by Brunelleschi. The Baptistery features another tour de force: Ghiberti’s doors, with their realistic 3-D relief.

Complete Video Script

While the main structure of the Florence Cathedral are medieval, its remarkable dome and much of the art decorating its façade, baptistry and bell tower define this first century of the Renaissance.

The Duomo — that’s Italian for cathedral — is huge — the largest anywhere when finished in the 15th century and still in the top 20. The church’s claim to fame is its dome — the first of the Renaissance and the first great dome built in Europe in over a thousand years. The church was built in Gothic times but rather than being capped by another spire, it was left with a gaping hole waiting for technology to catch up with the city's vision. In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi won the job and built the dome that kicked off the architectural Renaissance.

Brunelleschi's dome — which inspired those that follow from the Vatican to the US Capitol — showed how art and science could be combined to make beauty. And today, it rewards those who climb to the top with a grand Florence view.

While the Duomo's architecture and statues are impressive, the baptistery, across from the Cathedral, is centuries older. The Baptistery is separate because in medieval times you couldn’t enter the church until you were baptized. Its interior glitters with Byzantine-style mosaics created in the 13th century, long before the Renaissance. These vivid scenes, bringing countless Bible stories to life, inspired the medieval faithful.

Jesus sits at the center of it all, overlooking creation on Judgment Day. He gives the ultimate thumbs up…and thumbs down. On his right, Angel Gabriel blows his trumpet bringing good news to the saved… and on the thumbs down side…well, you don’t want to go there.

Some say the Renaissance began in 1401 over the excitement caused by a city-wide competition to design and build new doors for the Baptistery. Lorenzo Ghiberti won the commsion and spent decades on this project.

These bronze panels, Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise,” were revolutionary in their realism. By utilizing the mathamatical laws of perspective, Ghiberti helped give the art world a whole new dimension — depth. He pulled out all the stops to create maximum three-dimensionality: The tiles have lines which converge to a vanishing point. This bench is fore-shortened to exentuate its depth. Elements are added to establish a foreground distinct from the middle and the back ground. The effect? As viewers we become part of the scene.

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While the panels, like most of the art you see outside, are copies, the originals of the cathedral's greatest treasures are stored safely out of the elements in the adjacent cathedral museum.

After nearly 150 years of construction, Bruneleschi's dome was up and the Cathedral was nearly complete. Then they began decorating the interior with the finest art of the day.

The cathedral's statues and reliefs showed a realism and emotion unprecedented in European art. The work of Donatello was a ground-breaking example.

This balcony for the choir, captures the exuberance of the age. Dancing and swirling in a real space, oblivious to the columns, Donatello’s happy angels celebrate the freedom and motion of this new age.

Some say Donatello invented the Renaissance style that Michelangelo would perfect half a century later. He was an eccentric, innovative, work-a-holic master who lit up his statues with an inner spirituality or soul.

Donatello's Mary Magdalene — carved out of wood — is provocative… shockingly realistic. The prostitute, rescued from the streets by Jesus, folds her hands in prayer. Her once-beautiful body has been scarred by the fires of her fasting and remorse. While her physical body is neglected and her eyes are hollow, her spirit stands strong.

The museum’s most famous piece — sculpted a generation later — is this Pieta by Michelangelo. The broken body of the crucified Christ is tended by three mourners — his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus. Michelangelo sculpted Jesus taller than life — notice the zig-zag of his body. This accentuates its weight making the theological point of the statue clear — Jesus is dead.

Nicodemus is a self-portrait of the 80 year old Michelangelo. After spending a lifetime bringing statues to life, Michelangelo reflects tenderly upon his savior — looking down thoughtfully at what could be one of his final creations.