Fiesole’s Duomo is hardly the most elegant building in Italy. It is simple and robust, made of large blocks of tuff. The Duomo was built in the shape of a classical Roman basilica, with the apse facing southeast. Its official name is the Cattedrale di San Romolo, after the first century martyr Saint Romulus. Romulus was, according to tradition, the first bishop of Fiesole and martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitianus (81-96). Saint Romulus is now also the patron saint of Fiesole. However, as with many early Christian martyrs, his historicity can be doubted.
The cathedral was built in 1028 under the direction of the then bishop of Fiesole, Jacopo il Bavaro (Jacob the Bavarian), whose episcopate lasted from 1027 until 1039. The original cathedral was further down the hill, but Jacopo decided to move it to within the relative safety of the city walls. This decision may have been influenced by military defeats suffered by Fiesole against Florence. The Duomo was enlarged in the following centuries, and the slender campanile was added in 1213. Although Fiesole was finally defeated and subjugated by Florence in 1125, the cathedral was spared and it remained an important place of worship. Its present-day appearance, especially that of the facade, can be attributed to renovations at the end of the nineteenth century.
The interior of the church is extremely sober. Plain grey columns with Roman capitals divide the basilica into a nave and two aisles. The floor is not decorated at all: al we see are cheap tiles. When I last visited the cathedral in June 2016, it was unusually dark inside. All the lights were turned off and only the natural light entering the building through the narrow windows provided some illumination. I did not mind much. It was very hot outside and nice and cool in here, so I sat down in one of the pews and allowed my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
The Duomo is fortunately not completely devoid of decoration. There is a fresco of San Sebastiano by Pietro Perugino to the right of the altar. Although Perugino (ca. 1446-1523) was a famous artist, this fresco is rather small and hardly a masterpiece. In fact, I must admit I completely missed it and only saw it on one of the photos I took. Of course I can easily blame the darkness inside the building or the fact that the approach to the altar was roped off, but the fact that I missed it also shows that the fresco is inconspicuous and unspectacular. The aforementioned altar itself has a marble front and dates to 1273. The conch of the apse is decorated with frescoes by a local artist named Nicodemo Ferrucci (1575-1650). His Storie di San Romolo – episodes from the life of Saint Romulus – are of mediocre quality.
The most interesting piece of art in the Duomo is a Late-Gothic triptych by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), an artist whose work we have also seen in the Convento di San Francesco in Fiesole and in Rignano sull’Arno. The triptych – which can be dated to 1440-1450 – shows a Madonna and Child with two kneeling angels. The men on the left and right have been identified as Saints Alexander, Peter, Donatus and Romulus. This may be the earliest known depiction of Saint Romulus. Peter of course needs no further introduction; he is holding the Keys of Heaven. Saint Alexander, on the other hand, is problematic, as there were many saints named Alexander. A similar problem exists with regard to Saint Donatus. Since he is wearing a bishop’s chasuble, he could be Saint Donatus of Arezzo, bishop and patron saint of that city, but it is more likely that he is in fact the Saint Donatus who was bishop of Fiesole in the ninth century.
Do not forget to take a look at the counter-facade of the church, which has a large glazed terracotta statue of Saint Romulus high above the entrance. It was executed by Giovanni della Robbia’s workshop in 1521 and commissioned by Guglielmo Folchi, bishop of Fiesole (ca. 1510-1530). The Latinised version of his name can be found below the statue.