For much of its history Florence had been one of the leading cities of Italy; indeed, when the Romans established themselves there the name they gave it Florentia, meaning riches was significant. After the Roman occupation it was captured successively by the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Lombards and the Franks. But in the thirteenth century the city gained its independence and its economic and cultural life began to revive. By the end of the century the leading members of the Florentine Commune, the city republic, were impclled to build a cathedral worthy of the new Florence. Work, begun confidently in 1300, continued only spasmodically against a background of war and civil strife which involved the two factions of the nobility, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the increasingly powerful guilds and the workers. As a result of the interruptions in the building of the cathedral, its architecture is neither Romanesque nor early Renaissance, and not so much Gothic as the negation of it.
When, in the second decade of the fifteenth century, the time came to erect the cathedral's giant cupola‑almost 140 feet in diameter‑nobody had worked out how it was to be done. The width at the base was too great to support centering‑the horizontal beam and the wooden structure built upon it, which facilitated the construction of arches and domes. Furthermore, the thrusts and weight of the dome had to be withstood without the reinforcements of flying buttresses. Filippo Brunelleschi, goldsmith, sculptor and architect, who had studied the Ancient Roman methods of construction, came to the rescue with a design for a pointed dome, whose side thrusts would be less than those of a hemisphere. The idea was at first scorned, but it was later accepted and the dome was completed in fourteen years. It was built in horizontal stages, which obviated the need for centering, and bricks, which were lighter than stone, were used for the upper part. Florence was fortunate that Brunelleschi continued working in the city, for he also designed the churches of Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo and the Pitti and Quaratesi palaces. His influence continued to be felt throughout Italian architecture for two centuries.
The cathedral of Florence has eleven occhi, or eye windows, ten of which contain stained glass designed by leading fifteenth‑century artists. The three on the west faηade were designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, beginning with the large one in the centre the Assumption of the Virgin which was completed in 1405. The Virgin is surrounded by music-making angels whose wings tall off into lobster‑like claws, giving an extraordinary feeling of movement. The background is a rich blue, which deepens towards the centre. Busts of apostles and prophets in a formal and elaborate border encircle the scene. The smaller windows at each side, made ten years later, depict the enthronement of St Lawrence and St Stephen.
When the building of the cupola was completed, Ghiberti began to design the stained glass for its eye windows. But his first design, for the window of the Coronation of the Virgin, was rejected, and Donatello was entrusted with it instead. He achieved neither the boldness nor the delicacy of Ghiberti's three west windows. The two painters Uccello and Del Castagno, commissioned to complete the eye windows of the cupola, were infinitely more successful, although neither had ever worked in the medium before. Uccello designed three windows, one of which has disappeared. The other two the Resurrection of Christ and a very beautiful Nativity show a remarkable ability to introduce touches of realism into biblical subjects. Uccello also admirably managed to translate into stained glass the pure colouring of his paintings. Andrea del Castagno produced one boldly designed eye window which depicts Christ brought down from the Cross.
The three remaining eye windows in the cupola are the mature work of Ghiberti. The Ascension and the Prayer in the Garden were finished in 1444 and the Presentation in the Temple in 1445. The Gethsemane scene is a magnificently balanced composition showing the kneeling Christ and a group of sleeping disciples against a background of trees and the buildings of Jerusalem.
Besides his six eye windows, Ghiberti certainly designed eleven and probably seventeen windows in the apse and chapels. Prophets and saints depicted in these windows are on a majestic scale and depend for their impact on their boldness of design and brilliance of colouring. The riot of colour has been contrived by dressing the figures in the most extravagant clothing an Italian conception of oriental apparel. Even the architechtural details are full of colour and the borders are equally rich.
As well as the cathedral, Florence has several churches with beautiful glass of the fifteenth century. Among the subjects of the richly coloured windows of the Church of Orsanmichele arc twelve episodes representing the miracles Of the Virgin Mary, a rare theme for that period. One story is of a Pope who, feeling lustful after being kissed on the hand by a woman he had once loved, cut off his hand; but while he was sleeping the Virgin put it back.
In two other churches, two famous painters of Florentine frescoes Domenico Ghirlandajo and Pietro Perugino showed themselves equally brilliant in glass‑painting. The Pentecost eye window of Santo Spirito, Brunelleschi's most beautiful church, was executed by Perugino in deep but most vivid colours. Equally full of colour, but lighter and brighter, are Ghirlandiajo's three windows in the apse of Santa Maria Novella, where he had already painted the frescoes. Some are figure windows of saints, but the liveliest depicts the Circumcision.
Florence at the
beginning of the fifteenth century was in the grip of an oligarchy of the
major guilds; at the end of the century the city had, to its advantage,
been taken over by the Medici family, whose members were bankers,
merchants and generous patrons of the arts. It is not surprising that with
Medici money and the genius of such Florentines as Botticelli, Leonardo da
Vinci, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, Michelangelo and Machiavelli the
city was in the vanguard of the Italian Renaissance and that it became the
centre of fifteenth‑century Italian art, rich in masterpieces of
fresco‑painting, sculpture and stained glass.