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Reconstruction of the medieval façade of the Duomo. All images courtesy Museo del Opera del Duomo Firenze. All photographs ©Antonio Quattrone

Italy’s most famous museums are uncomfortably overcrowded, and many are in a worrying state of disrepair. Of course many of us will still funnel ourselves through dingy airless galleries to see so many masterpieces; but we art enthusiasts return again and again to Italy perhaps not so much for the museums as for the pleasure of breathing in that special atmosphere — the atmosphere in which such artistic masterpieces were once created. In Italy, art can still be found in its natural habitat. You may step into a silent church and, in some side chapel, see a cycle of frescoes now 500 or 600 years old which somehow still reflects the scenes you just saw in the streets outside. Or you may stroll through the rooms of a palace of a once-powerful family and wonder at how the power of art, alone, survives — how the artworks which were meant to glorify their patrons are, and always were, simply glorious themselves. Aside from the sheer quantity of masterpieces, the principal appeal of Italy becomes that its art has not all been locked away in museums to fossilise.

That in Italy art still lives out in the open must be part of the reason — in addition to a resentful resignation to mass tourism — why the museums are often left to moulder. Italians themselves like to say that their whole country is really an open-air museum, as if to say, why bother with institutional museums? Well, now they have the best possible answer to that question in the completely renovated Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, in Florence. Housing the most precious statuary from the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and Giotto’s Bell Tower, it has always featured on the tourist trail — and between here and the Museo del Bargello just a few hundred metres away you have the majority of the important sculptures of the early Italian Renaissance — but if you have not visited it since its reopening late last year then you must go again. It has expanded into the building next door — an old theatre — and there is twice the gallery space, so there is much more work on display. Yet best of all is how the work has been displayed.

As soon as you enter you are awe-struck: in the first gallery you are confronted with a full-scale reconstruction, in resin gleaming white with marble dust, of the medieval façade of the Cathedral — it had only ever been completed to the height of its doorways and it was demolished, with post-Renaissance arrogance, to be replaced by something grander and more “advanced” (as it happened, no replacement was built for 300 years). This new reconstruction is based on a careful drawing made in 1587, just before the demolition, which may have been intended as a record for posterity. Thankfully the statues that decorated the façade, made by Arnolfo di Cambio and his studio c.1300-1310, were saved; and here, now, they have been put back in the niches they once would have occupied. However in the highest niches the statues have been replaced by casts, and the originals have been brought down to floor level for our better inspection — a simple, sensible and very satisfactory curatorial decision.

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