The Cathedral Museum in Florence

Although it may not be one of Florence’s most famous museums in the guidebooks, it is definitely one of the most important. The Museo del Opera de Santa Maria del Fiore holds many of Florence’s absolute masterworks. Among them, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s gates of paradise, Michelangelo’s pieta, and the spectacular silver alter from the baptistery, which took a century to complete. The cathedral museum in Florence contains all of the original works made to adorn the Cathedral complex. Including the cathedral itself, the bell tower and the baptistery. Director of the Museo Monsignor Timothy Verdon told us about some of the Museums most famous works.

Duomo complex, cathedral, bell tower and baptistery (Credit: Flickr / Creative Commons: conxa.roda)

“The Cathedral museum in Florence attracts people for many reasons but I think that the principal attractions are perhaps in the first place the Michelangelo pieta because that name draws people even if they are unfamiliar with Florence art and its church art. It is one of the masters last works, it’s a deeply personal work it is the only work in which he includes his self-portrait. He shows himself as one of the men who took Christ’s body from the Cross. It was carved as Michelangelo prepared for death in his 70’s when he finished it and that really touches people it moves them and it is a superb work of art.”

Michelangelo’s Pieta (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

“Today we would have to add to that the gates of paradise have been brought back after 27 years of restoration, not to the baptistery because the air that we breathe is so damaging that the bronze cannot be exposed to it again. They have been brought to the museum, they are indeed in a very grand case, they were just installed on the eighth of September and we’ve seen the number of visitor at the museum double at period. These works were completed in 1452, and are among the most important masterpieces of the history of western art. In their restored form they communicate magnificently all that they were meant to the bible stories the stories from the old testament, but also the absolute Florentine primacy in the new arts that had been invented in the early 15th century. Ghiberti here shows that he has mastered the skill of linear perspective; he shows that he can use architectural style almost better than Brunelleschi. He shows that he can stage manage the large crowds of actors and make them all respond in a stirring way too. The storyline that they are acting out, in the manner that his contemporary Leon Battista Alberti describes in his book on painting, is ‘able to tell a story in a moving way‘. So the gates of Paradise really have created an enormous interest in just the few weeks that we have had them in the museum.”

Restored Gates of Paradise at the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

“In addition the silver alter from the baptistery, created in the late 14th century and ending in the late 15th century, also recently restored and installed on the upper floor of the museum. It draws people, I think in part, because of the riches that are displayed, 250 kilograms of pure silver in the alter and in the cross.”

“And then the standard works for which the museum has always been known, the statues by Donatello and by other masters, the wood models very large in scale maybe 2 and a half feet tall.  This museum draws people who are well informed, and now with the gates of paradise I think it draws even larger crowds. The challenge for us is to help people understand and fully enjoy what they see.”

Sala dell’Antica Facciata (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons: Sailko)

We asked Verdon what artworks visitors often overlook, or tend not to get the most attention.

“As in any museum there are many, most visitors have difficulty with the earlier sculpture. We have 40 pieces from the original facade of the Cathedral that begun in 1296, they were never finished and were dismantled in 1586/87. Among these, the most famous are by the sculptor-architect who designed and began work on the cathedral, Arnolfo di Cambio. These, in their own time frame and in their own category, are absolute masterpieces among the finest pieces of Italian medieval sculpture. People come to Florence looking for the renaissance and they tend not to advert to the beauty of these works nor understand how absolutely functional they were in developing in what later is called the Renaissance. Again one of the tasks that we face is to help people read the entire collection in organic terms and understanding how the more famous pieces really do grow out of this early Florentine tradition. Even among the Renaissance works people come and usually look at only about 2 Donatello statues for the bell tower, whereas others of them, especially the Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac by Donatello tend to be overlooked. It is a superb work and worthy of a place in all art manuals but it has not for reasons that escape me.”

Donatello’s Abraham and Issac (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons: Jastrow)

Upstairs in the 2nd floor visitors can see the original machines that Berlesky used to build the Cathedrals massive Dome. There is a lot going on in this museum, and a lot you don’t want to miss. Check out Florence’s most forgotten museum when you have a free day.

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