Scattered around lush green lawn lie some of the world’s finest architectural achievements. There’s the famed campanile, of course. But there is also the Duomo or cathedral itself to which the leaning tower is ‘merely’ a bell tower.
Begun in 1063, over a hundred years prior to the tower, the cathedral is the very prototype of late Romanesque architecture in this area of the world. With a floor plan in the standard shape of a cross, it is 100m (328 feet) long by 35m (115 feet) wide. Though not enormously tall by contemporary standards its 34m (112 feet) height would have been extremely impressive to citizens of its day.
Approach from the usual entrance and you’ll see magnificent bronze doors, decorated with religious scenes that would have been fully familiar to its visitors. Carved in the 12th century by Bonanno, they’re known as the Porta di San Ranieri.
There are Moorish influences around the building as well, owing to the Muslim traders the Italians did business with frequently. The cathedral was the first structure to incorporate horizontal stripes of marble of the sort commonly seen in Moorish architecture.
Some of the rounded arches provide a setting for outstanding mullioned windows. The carvings are so delicate it’s difficult to believe they could have been accomplished at the time. Marble inlaid with Moorish lozenges at the top, they’re truly works of art in themselves. ‘Lozenges’, in this style of architecture, resemble the shape of the cough drop, hence the name.
Regrettably, a fire in 1595 AD destroyed much of the original art work in the interior. But the building itself bears few traces of that tragic event. Among the outstanding surviving components are the 14th century pulpit with Corinthian columns resting on lion statuary. It’s festooned with carved panels depicting scenes from the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
Above the apse lies a copy of a bronze griffin (a winged lion), believed to have been imported from Egypt in the 11th century. The original was moved to the nearby Museo del Duomo. The transept door sports Romanesque panels depicting the life of Christ that are a marvel to this day.
Another survivor of the fire is the tomb of Emperor Henry VII completed in 1315. Atop it are a pair of Ghirlandaio angels that visitors should be sure not to miss.
According to his student, it was within this church that Galileo watched a pendulum swaying back and forth one day. This was one of the keys to his formation of the law of the pendulum, which states that the period, the time of swing, is the same regardless of the angle it starts at. It forms the basis of many clock designs.
Looking up at the frescoed dome it’s easy to imagine the famous scientist becoming distracted away from the sermon and toward the stupendous building.
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