This year, Italy’s greatest Renaissance city is celebrating the 600th anniversary of its most famous architectural competition – for the design of the dome of Florence’s cathedral. Today, the cathedral is the defining eye-catcher of the city. With its great, eight-ribbed dome and the neighbouring bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall, it soars above the city’s red-tiled roofs, dominating views from all directions. In 1418, however, there was a yawning void in the middle of the cathedral – and no one had the faintest idea how to bridge a gap that would require the biggest brick dome in history to date.
Enter Filippo Brunelleschi, a 41-year-old Florentine local, still bruised by losing an earlier competition in 1401 to design the east doors of the cathedral baptistery. That competition was won by his rival Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti’s bronze panels for the doors, called “the Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo, depicted Biblical scenes that were so thrillingly realistic and skilled in the use of perspective that they were considered the first works of the Florentine Renaissance.
In 1418, Brunelleschi was up against Ghiberti once again. According to Giorgio Vasari, the artist, painter and 16th century art historian, Brunelleschi himself came up with the competition that would be judged by the wardens of Florence Cathedral: Whoever could make an egg stand on end on a flat piece of marble should be entrusted with building the dome.
All the other entrants failed. Then Brunelleschi stepped forward and simply smashed the egg down on the table, standing it on its crushed end.
Whatever the truth of that famous story, Brunelleschi did win the competition and did manage to build the impossible dome; a pair of domes, in fact, an outer dome concealing the inner one. He pulled off the feat by building a pointed dome, stronger than a semi-circular one; by using light brick; and by wrapping five brick, stone and iron chains around the dome to stop it bursting.
Today, the Florence Duomo is still the biggest brick dome in the world. And it was only in the 20th century, with the development of lightweight steel and synthetic materials, that bigger domes could be built.
No wonder then that this great colossus still dominates views of the city, whether you’re on the southern slopes of Florence, in the Boboli and Bardini Gardens; or high up in the hillside town of Fiesole to the north. Down in the winding, medieval streets of the city, too, you suddenly catch your breath as you turn a corner and there, looming above you, is the finest dome in Christendom.
The Duomo still dominates the skyline of Florence, which has remained blissfully free of modern development. The result is clear, unobstructed views of the city from all angles, from the bridges, the hills and the riverside palaces. Here is our guide to the best Florence views.
San Miniato al Monte
Oscar Wilde so loved this church that he wrote a poem about it, “San Miniato”. It opens with the lines, “See, I have climbed the mountain side/ Up to this holy house of God.” Wilde was right: it is a mountainous climb to the church straight from the banks of the Arno. Still, there are stairs all the way up to the church, perched on the southern hills of Florence. And there are wonderful views inside and out.
The church itself is a green-and-white-striped wonder of the 11th century Tuscan Romanesque, with mosaic pictures of St Minias alongside Christ. The view from the terrace takes in a great, sweeping, nose-to-tail view of the Duomo, Giotto’s cathedral bell tower and the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.
The view from the Boboli Gardens, tucked behind the Medici seat of Palazzo Pitti, are well-known. Less celebrated, but gifted with an even better view, is the neighbouring Bardini Garden, wrapped within the medieval city walls. The garden is also nearly always largely empty. Walk to the charming loggia café for the best view. You look across the Arno at a rare, sidelong vista of Santa Croce, Florence’s Valhalla, the burial place of Michelangelo and Machiavelli. You’re close enough to make out the domed, 15th century roof of the Pazzi Chapel, the perfect little Renaissance gem designed by, you guessed it, Brunelleschi.
Fiesole, the sixth century BC town, sits on the crest of the hills above Florence. There is a heart-lifting view over the Roman theatre north over the Tuscan campagna. And then, to the south, the town looks down over the full sweep of Florence, five miles away. Just below Fiesole is the area’s smartest hotel, a favourite of Prince Charles, the Villa San Michele, designed by Michelangelo.
The lobby is the grandest in the world, created out of the original 16th century chapel, in classic, grey stone.
They’ve just opened a new room at the hotel, where I stayed: a tiny chapel high on the hill with its own terrace. The swimming pool, too, is built into the hillside with unique views of Florence and the Duomo.
The Dome itself
There are 463 spiralling, often crammed steps to the top of the dome, but they are worth the climb.
You see both skins of Brunelleschi’s double dome and his lantern; stained glass windows by Uccello, Ghiberti and Donatello; Vasari’s frescoes. And you get a changing series of spectacular views from the windows and lantern, as you climb. While entrance to the Duomo is free, all other parts, including the Cupola (dome) and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo are included in a €15 (£13) “Il Grande Museo del Duomo” combined ticket, valid for 48 hours from first entry (operaduomo.firenze.it).