This is a side entrance to the cathedral, all too often overlooked by the crowds of queuing visitors waiting to access the steps to climb Brunelleschi’s massive dome. But it provides quite a vantage point – take a minute to look up – the top of the golden orb that crowns the dome is out of sight, 115m above you. Just take a moment to think about the practical feat of engineering required to hoist materials; every stone and brick, every sculpture up above you was brought there without the aid of modern machinery. It is perhaps unsurprising that the famous scholar-architect Leon Battista Alberti commented, as echoed in Cosimo’s remarks, that the dome is “ample enough to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people”, while praising the architect that designed and executed it.
This quality of magnificence was underlined in the chant – Terribilis est locus istus (This is an awesome place) – that underpinned the motet cited by Cosimo, especially composed for the consecration ceremony by perhaps the most famous composer of the mid-fifteenth century, Guillaume Dufay. Entitled Nuper Rosarum Flores (The Rose Blossoms Recently) the motet was performed for the first time by the papal choir, in the presence of both Cosimo and Pope Eugenius IV on 25 March 1436. The title was a tribute to the name of the church – Saint Mary of the Flowers – and the ceremony took place on the feast day of the Annunciation. This was another way of paying tribute to the Virgin Mary, as the Florentine calendar year ran from that feast day, as Cosimo reminds us.
Closer to hand, the grand doorway that is the object of this stop – like most of the surfaces of the cathedral – has been lavished with decorative attention. Over the almost two centuries that it took to complete the cathedral the works office – the Opera – oversaw not just its construction, but also its decoration. As Cosimo says, Donatello was involved in sculpting some of the figures on this portal, though it is Nanni di Banco that was the primary sculptor for the work, which is known as the Porta della Mandorla, on account of the almond-shape within which the Virgin is shown in the upper low-relief, being brought by angels into heaven. The mosaic of the Annunciation, on the other hand, was actually completed after the death of Cosimo, to a design by David del Ghirlandaio.
The full story of the cathedral and its construction is brought together at the Grande Museo del Duomo.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Flowers and florins’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/9-flowers-and-florins/
Howard Saalman, Filippo Brunelleschi: The Cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore (London: A. Zwemmer, 1980)
Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome. The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence (London: Vintage, 2008)