Grande Museo del Duomo
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Piazza del Duomo 9 · interesting places nearby
Grande Museo del Duomo information
Surprisingly overlooked by the crowds yet one of the city's most impressive, this museum – currently being massively reorganised and enlarged to embrace another 2000 sq m in a former theatre-turned-garage next door – safeguards sacred and liturgical treasures that once adorned the duomo, baptistry and campanile. Make a beeline for the glass-topped courtyard with its awe-inspiring showpiece encased in glass – Ghiberti's original 15th-century masterpiece, the Porta del Paradiso (Gate of Paradise), designed for the eastern entrance to the Baptistry.
After 27 years secreted away in restoration workshops, the gloriously golden, 16m-tall gilded brass doors that took almost three decades to restore were unveiled with much pomp and ceremony in 2012.
In a small room just off the stair landing is the museum's best-known piece, Michelangelo's La Pietà, a work he sculpted when he was almost 80 and intended for his own tomb. Vasari recorded in his Lives of the Artists that, dissatisfied with both the quality of the marble and of his own work, Michelangelo broke up the unfinished sculpture, destroying the arm and left leg of the figure of Christ. A student of Michelangelo's later restored the arm and completed the figure.
Continue upstairs, where a pair of exquisitely carved cantorie (singing galleries) or organ lofts - one by Donatello, the other by Luca della Robbia - face each other. Originally in the cathedral's sacristy, their scenes of musicians and children at play add a refreshingly frivolous touch amid so much sombre piety. Don't miss the same sculptor's wooden representation of a gaunt, desperately desolate Mary Magdalene in the same room, a work completed late in his career.
End on a giddy high with a masterpiece of medieval and Renaissance metalwork: the Altar of St John, crafted by three generations of Florentine silversmiths between 1367 and 1480, was created for the Baptistry. More than 250kg of silver was used to make the altar panels, sculpted to illustrate the life of John the Baptist in the most extraordinary detail. The accompanying cross, also hung originally in the Baptistry, is the work of Antonio del Pollaiolo.
Expansion and restoration work at the musem will continue until the end of 2015; once complete, the museum will double in space and stash away hundreds more treasures (including, for example, Ghiberti's northern Baptistry doors, removed from the Baptistry in 2013 to be restored like their eastern counterparts).