by Roderick Conway Morris

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Antonio Quattrone/Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
The reconstruction of Arnolfo di Cambio's facade at the Opera del Duomo museum.

Duomo Unveils Treasure House in Florence, Italy

By Roderick Conway Morris
Florence 29 October 2015


A spectacular new sculpture museum was opening here on Thursday, the most important since the Bargello became the city's showcase of Renaissance marbles in the 19th century.

The project has been carried out by the Opera del Duomo, the 'office of works' founded at the end of the 13th century to oversee the building and maintenance of the cathedral. A primary legacy of the Opera's long history is its unparalleled collection of medieval and Renaissance Florentine sculpture, consisting of about 750 statues and reliefs, including pieces by all the greats — among them, Arnolfo di Cambio, Andrea Pisano, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea del Verrocchio, Luca della Robbia and Michelangelo. Due to space constraints, however, the Opera has never been able fully to display its riches.

The Opera still occupies the site at the east end of the Piazza del Duomo, where in 1432, four years before the completion of the great dome that he designed for the cathedral, Filippo Brunelleschi was entrusted with the construction of its headquarters. These comprised administrative offices, store rooms and a stone-yard for sculptors and masons — where Michelangelo was to carve his 'David.' In 1891 a two-room Opera museum opened, which gradually expanded during the 20th century, but its premises remained modest in comparison with the city's other major museums.

That situation will be dramatically transformed by the opening of the new museum on Thursday. The €50 million project, almost entirely financed by the Opera itself with some contributions from private donors, has involved taking over neighboring buildings, including an 18th-century playhouse, to create nearly 6,000 square meters of exhibition space. The centerpiece is a vast top-lit hall containing an actual-size reconstruction of the original medieval facade of the Duomo, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century. The facade's demolition in 1587 led to the first of several influxes of statuary into the Opera's increasingly overwhelmed storage spaces.

Monsignor Timothy Verdon, the art historian who has been the museum's director since 2011, is the mastermind behind the bold conception of the 25 gallery spaces, realized in collaboration with the Florentine architects Adolfo Natalini, Piero Guicciardini and Marco Magni.

The ambitious design was made possible by the purchase in 1998 of the former Teatro Degli Intrepidi, which since 1914 had been a cavernous warehouse and then a parking garage.

'What was for a century and half a theater has now become a theater of masterpieces,' Monsignor Verdon said on a walk through the new museum this month, while teams of workers and members of staff put the finishing touches to the displays. 'One of the marvelous things is that we can now show the statues on the same site that they were actually carved.'

In an itinerary replete with surprises, visitors pass through an arched door from the piazza into a covered courtyard where they encounter, on the wall above them, a huge marble Baroque altarpiece of the apotheosis of St. John dating from the 1730s. This comes from the Baptistery opposite the Duomo's main doors. Dismantled and moved to a warehouse in 1912, it is now on display again for the first time since.

At the end of the corridor, an ante-chamber containing sculptural and architectural elements salvaged from the cathedral's exterior leads to the lofty hall housing the pièce de résistance: a full-sized reconstruction, about 36 meters wide and 20 meters high, of the medieval facade with its sculptural adornments, based on a detailed 16th-century drawing.

At ground level are two Roman sarcophagi that for centuries stood in the piazza, and a six-meter-high gray sandstone column bearing a 14th-century cross.

Opposite the facade stand Ghiberti's great gilded bronze 'Doors of Paradise,' removed from the Baptistery in 1990 and replaced with copies. They are flanked by his original 'North Doors,' and will be joined in a couple of years by the third set, the 14th-century originals of Andrea Pisano's 'South Doors.'

Above those magnificent portals are the groups of bronzes and marbles that stood above them, by Giovan Francesco Rustici, Vincenzo Danti and Jacopo Sansovino.

'What we wanted to do here,' Monsignor Verdon said, 'is to re-create the rediscovery of the antique at the end of the Middle Ages and the dialogue between the ancient, the medieval, the Renaissance and the High Renaissance.'

From here visitors ascend to two loggia-like galleries, from which the facade can be observed head-on from different heights. At the lower level is the Gallery of Giotto's Bell Tower, lined with 16 life-size sculptures — five by Donatello — and 54 carved panels that once adorned the Campanile. Behind this is the Gallery of Brunelleschi's Dome, which relates, through his original models and other remnants, the design and building of this gigantic cupola. On the upper floor are displayed the 16th- and 17th-century plans for a new facade, which was finally built, to yet another — neo-Gothic — design in the late 19th century. And above is a new rooftop terrace with a breathtaking view over the cathedral and piazza.

The itinerary continues into the radically remodeled interiors of the old museum, which include a monumental arched hall containing Luca della Robbia's and Donatello's stupendous Choir Lofts. Next door, an octagonal room has been built to showcase 24 of Baccio Bandinelli's powerful reliefs that embellished the 16th-century choir enclosure of the cathedral's main altar.

'Having overseen the building and decorations of all the cathedral's monumental structures over so many centuries,' Monsignor Verdon said, 'the Opera del Duomo decided that it really was time to put the same kind of commitment into creating a world-class museum.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023