The dome of Florence Cathedral (photo by me)
One of the great thrills of life is the discovery of things that are new and wonderful to you. This is especially true if it happens when you’re least expecting it.
I spent several months of 1979 traveling through Europe after completing my studies at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and before enrolling in the Bachelor of Architecture program at the University of Oregon. It was the quintessential backpacking/youth hostel/Eurail pass adventure many young people undertake. My travel partner was Tom Morris, a classmate of mine at BCIT and now an architect with his own practice in Seattle.
At the age of twenty, I hardly knew anything about the great works of historic architecture. Indeed, I largely viewed the prospect of a European Grand Tour as an opportunity to track down some of Modernism’s seminal projects rather than the architectural legacies of classical antiquity or the Renaissance. Consequently, my familiarity with many of the greatest buildings of European history pre-dating the 20th century was meager at best. The works of Corb and Mies (and even Rossi and Piano & Rogers) figured prominently on my itinerary; those by Wren, Bramante, Palladio, and their like did not.
Despite my limited appreciation for them, I was at least aware of St. Paul’s Cathedral, The Basilica of St. Peter’s, Chartres Cathedral, and many of the other most famous works of ecclesiastical architecture in Europe. Tom and I visited all of these and much, much more. Seeing and learning about these historic buildings firsthand would prove to be a life-changing and eye-opening experience for me.
My eyes were never opened more wide than when I first glimpsed the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, better known to tourists as Il Duomo di Firenze—the main church of Florence, Italy. Before visiting Florence, I had no idea this huge and magnificent cathedral existed.
Tom and I arrived in Florence by train at the Santa Maria Novella station, and trekked by foot to the nearby Locanda Giovanna hotel, where we dropped off our belongings after checking in. Somehow, we managed to do all of this without catching sight of the Duomo or even being aware of how central it is to the identity of Florence. Stepping out of Locanda Giovanna, we made our way through the winding streets, first down Via Faenza, and then turning onto Via del Canto dei Nelli. We strolled through the open market at the Piazza San Lorenzo before finally making our way onto Via dei Martelli.(1)
Suddenly, there it was: the brilliantly polychromatic marble façade, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. The great cathedral to which it was attached loomed over the much smaller buildings surrounding the Piazza del Duomo. It was a startling apparition.
The Duomo—actually part of a complex that includes the octagonal Baptistery of St. John and Giotto’s campanile (bell tower) in addition to the cathedral—was unlike any of the other great churches we’d already visited. Despite their equally immense size, the gothic cathedrals (Notre Dame, Chartres, Canterbury, Milan) seemed delicate in comparison to Florence’s massive cathedral. And the Duomo struck Tom and me as very much different from the iconic examples of the later Renaissance and Baroque churches on our itinerary. Its architecture was an amalgam of styles, with traces of Romanesque, Gothic, and proto-Renaissance features. Perhaps only the Italo-Byzantine architecture of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice would impress us as more exotic.
The Duomo warmly glowed under the Tuscan sun. The rich patterning of its marble cladding belied the otherwise simple, clean lines of the immensely tall facades. We climbed all the way to the top of Giotto’s campanile for a panoramic view of the surrounding city. We admired the audacity of Brunelleschi’s dome. Thanks to stumbling upon the great church, our first day in Firenze was a very good one.
How could we not have known about such a spectacular building? Perhaps we did; I really can’t remember. Regardless, I know our encounter with the Duomo in real life was amazing. No amount of knowledge beforehand could have prepared us adequately for the first time we actually saw the church. I was very much surprised, and most pleasantly so. It was a breathtaking experience.
Unlike Charles Dickens’ character David Copperfield, I hope I never know enough of the world that I lose the capacity to be surprised by anything.(2) Life is rich and its capacity for beauty infinite. A nice surprise is life’s serendipitous way of reminding us of this fact. Our world is full of fantastic architecture, past and present, the vast majority of which I am sure I have yet to discover. I fully expect to one day turn a corner and find myself absolutely astounded by another building new to me, just as I was many years ago on that sunny, late November day in Florence.
There’s no other way to describe it: Being surprised by great architecture you didn’t know about before is AWESOME.
Next Architecture is Awesome: #3 Wabi-sabi
(1) This is a mental reconstruction of the path we took; I’m not sure we actually followed this route.
(2) A deflated young David Copperfield, having lost his mother, speaks of being ejected at the age of ten from the wonders of childhood to the world of work and a life of servitude.