September 08: A is for Alpha and Arnolfo

2016/09/08 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1296 the first stone was laid for the new church of Santa Maria dei Fiori in Florence.

Its designer was sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1310), who had earlier distinguished himself with striking designs of large-scale fittings for churches, including tombs and ciboriums (architettura di miniatura).  He was selected as the architect to rebuild the church of St. Reparata, a little church had stood in Florence for some eight centuries and no longer accommodated the city’s growing population nor that population’s understanding of what kind of modern architecture would appropriately reflect the city’s greatness.

The appointment of a sculptor to design a building was unprecedented neither in Florence nor in Arnolfo’s own career.  Two years earlier he had begun work on the basilica of Santa Croce, a traditionally planned Franciscan church with a long nave flanked by side aisles and a slew of altars lining the east side of the transept arm.  It was built of conventional materials, its roof framed with large timber trusses.  In 1299 he was assigned the prestigious task of designing the town hall of Florence, the Palazzo Vecchio.  Here too Arnolfo delivered designs for a fine and big public building that offered no real surprises in its form or structure.

The standard nature of these important commissions makes one wonder about his proposal for Santa Maria.  While its nave end revisits the conventions of Santa Croce, its west end blossoms into three large polygonal petals, unprecedented in their shape and structure: the large piers designated in the plan (especially chunky when compared with the thin walls and piers of the nave structure) indicate Arnolfo had vaults in mind.  Vaults themselves were not new in Florence–the building facing Arnolfo’s site, the great baptistery of San Giovanni, has a big glittery vault that was thought at the time to be ancient.  Clearly Arnolfo was under the influence of some creative spirit to suddenly churn out this unusual plan that was so compelling, after his death and when a new capomeistro was appointed (in 1349), the idea of the polygonal apses was maintained (although their size was increased).

That later architect, Francesco Talenti, finished the greater part of the church body. Upon his death the front remained undone (and would so until the nineteenth century), and of course everyone was waiting for someone to figure out how to build the great crossing dome.  Although Talenti supervised the lion’s share of the work on the church, Arnolfo rightly as the place of honor, alongside the great Brunelleschi, in the memorial to these significant architects who were the alpha and omega of the cathedral’s construction.

image: plans of successive churches on the cathedral site: old church of Sta. Reparata (red), Arnolfo’s plan for Santa Maria (orange), and Talenti’s enlargement (yellow)

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You are currently reading September 08: A is for Alpha and Arnolfo at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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