Art as an Expression of Religion and Power: The Cathedral Complex of Florence, Italy

Last week, I traveled throughout Tuscany, a region in central Italy known for its spectacular landscapes and historic, numerous works of art. One of my destinations was Florence, a vibrant city in northern Tuscany whose economy thrives on tourism, in part due to the immense amount of Renaissance art and architecture that it is home to. Florence is any art historian’s dream, and it is almost impossible to see every church, cathedral, palace, and museum without returning a few times.

Arguably the most grandiose and magnificent of these attractions is the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers (in Italian, “Il Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore,” or more simply, “Il Duomo”). I’ve had the privilege of visiting this astounding cathedral a few times on past travels to Italy, but revisiting makes the experience even more special. The Duomo is open year-round; to visit, you can buy a 15€ complete ticket that grants you access not only to the cathedral, but also to the entire complex, which includes the the famous dome, the baptistery, the crypt, the bell tower, and the museum, which houses every work of art associated with the cathedral complex. If you find yourself in Florence, it is an experience not to be missed.

Side View of the Duomo. Image per Kathryn Cooperman.

The construction of the Duomo, done in the Italian Gothic style under the tutelage of architects Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-1301/10) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1337-1446), spanned from 1296 to 1436, and the famous ceremony to sanctify it was held in the year of its completion. Numerous marble sculptures, too many to count, adorn the facades of each building and take the shapes of saints and prophets. The cathedral complex itself is truly a feast for the eye: not one square foot is untouched by sumptuous multicolored marble, Gothic-style accoutrements, or anthropomorphic statues. It is at once intense to contemplate and overwhelmingly beautiful to behold. 

Front View of the Duomo. Image per Kathryn Cooperman.

An important justification for the complex’s marble sculptures is reflected in the New Testament of the Bible, in which the term “living stones” represents devout Christians who are connected to Christ by virtue of a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5).[1] The Florentines seemed to almost live vicariously through the statues: they saw these numerous figures as an affirmation of their faith and as a symbol of their immense civic pride.[2] The construction of the cathedral also secured Florence’s rise as a European economic superpower. By virtue of its impressive cathedral, Florence was now worthy of comparison and competition with many powerful, eminent cities in northern Europe.[3]

Just to the side of the duomo stands the impressive 28-story tall, Italian Gothic-style bell tower (in Italian, “Campanile”), which invites viewers to ascend its 414 steps and behold an impressive panoramic view of the city of Florence. In 1334, prominent Italian artist Giotto di Bondone (1266 – 1337) began to embellish the lower half of the Campanile. The artistic history of the Campanile is particularly special because multiple artists left their mark on it over the course of 25 years. Upon Giotto’s death, the work was handed off to renowned sculptor Andrea Pisano (1290 – 1348) and subsequently to Luca della Robbia (1400 – 1482), who continued and revised Giotto’s work. The sculptures that the three artists chiseled depict the Redemption of Mankind, a concept which encompasses the Creation of Man, man’s Activities, and the ideas that govern him: the Planets, the Virtues, the Liberal Arts, and the Sacraments.

View of the Campanile. Image per Paolo Buscicchi.

In 1359, sculptor and architect Francesco Talenti (1300 – 1369) completed the Campanile by installing Gothic-style windows at the top level, as well as installing the Campanile’s rooftop. Esteemed sculptors Nanni di Banco (1384 – 1421) and Donatello (1386 – 1466) later embellished the second level of the facade with multiple sculptures and scenes of biblical figures, including the Sacrifice of Isaac. Original sculptures have since been removed from the facades for conservation purposes, and can now be seen in the museum of the cathedral complex.[4] Bells are still rung to signal holy days and to mark different hours of the day, their sound a constant reminder of Florence’s religious and economic power on the European continent.

Cooperman_View of Florence
Aerial View of Florence. Image per Kathryn Cooperman.

[1] “Galleria delle Sculture: Ground Floor,” Il Grande Museo del Duomo: Florence,

[2] “Galleria delle Sculture: Ground Floor.”

[3] “Galleria delle Sculture: Ground Floor.”

[4] Information and history of the Campanile can be found at “Giotto’s Bell Tower,” Il Grande Museo del Duomo: Florence,


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