Duomo

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

Florence's duomo , the city's most iconic landmark, is among Italy's 'Big Three' (with Pisa's Leaning Tower and Rome's Colosseum). Its red-tiled dome, graceful campanile (bell tower) and breathtaking pink, white and green marble facade have the wow factor in spades. Begun in 1296 by Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio, the cathedral took almost 150 years to complete.

Its neo-Gothic facade was designed in the 19th century by architect Emilio de Fabris to replace the uncompleted original, torn down in the 16th century. The oldest and most clearly Gothic part of the cathedral is its south flank, pierced by Porta dei Canonici (Canons' Door), a mid-14th-century High Gothic creation (you enter here to climb up inside the dome).

When Michelangelo went to work on St Peter's in Rome, he reportedly said: 'I go to build a greater dome, but not a fairer one.' One of the finest masterpieces of the Renaissance, Florence's famous cathedral dome is indeed a feat of engineering and one that cannot be fully appreciated without climbing its 463 interior stone steps.

The dome was built between 1420 and 1436 to a design by Filippo Brunelleschi. Taking his inspiration from Rome's Pantheon, Brunelleschi arrived at an innovative engineering solution of a distinctive octagonal shape of inner and outer concentric domes resting on the drum of the cathedral rather than the roof itself, allowing artisans to build from the ground up without needing a wooden support frame. Over four million bricks were used in the construction, all of them laid in consecutive rings in horizontal courses using a vertical herringbone pattern. The final product is 91m high and 45.5m wide.

The climb up the spiral staircase is relatively steep, and should not be attempted if you are claustrophobic. Make sure to pause when you reach the balustrade at the base of the dome, which gives an aerial view of the octagonal coro (choir) of the cathedral below and the seven round stained-glass windows (by Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Uccello and Lorenzo Ghiberti) that pierce the octagonal drum.

Look up and you'll see flamboyant late-16th-century frescoes by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, depicting the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgement).

As you climb, snapshots of Florence can be spied through small windows. The final leg – a straight, somewhat hazardous flight up the curve of the inner dome – rewards with an unforgettable 360-degree panorama of one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

After the visual wham-bam of the facade and dome, the sparse decoration of the cathedral's vast interior, 155m long and 90m wide, comes as a surprise – most of its artistic treasures have been removed over centuries according to the vagaries of ecclesiastical fashion, and many are now on show in the Grande Museo del Duomo. The interior is also unexpectedly secular in places (a reflection of the sizeable chunk of the cathedral not paid for by the church): down the left aisle two immense frescoes of equestrian statues portray two condottieri (mercenaries) – on the left Niccolò da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno (1456) and on the right Sir John Hawkwood by Uccello (1436) – who fought in the service of Florence in the 14th century.

Between the left (north) arm of the transept and the apse is the Sagrestia delle Messe (Mass Sacristy), its panelling a marvel of inlaid wood carved by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano. The fine bronze doors were executed by Luca della Robbia – his only known work in the material. Above the doorway is his glazed terracotta Resurrezione (Resurrection).

A stairway near the main entrance of the cathedral leads down to the crypt, where excavations between 1965 and 1974 unearthed parts of the 5th-century Chiesa di Santa Reparata that originally stood on the site.

The steep 414-step climb up the 85m-high campanile, designed by Giotto, offers the reward of a view nearly as impressive as that from the dome. The first tier of bas-reliefs around the base of the campanile are copies of those carved by Pisano, but possibly designed by Giotto, depicting the Creation of Man and the attività umane (arts and industries). Those on the second tier depict the planets, the cardinal virtues, the arts and the seven sacraments. The sculptures of the Prophets and Sibyls in the niches of the upper storeys are copies of works by Donatello and others; see the originals in the Grande Museo del Duomo.