The Opera del Duomo was the institution that was founded by the Florentine government in 1296 to oversee the construction of the new cathedral, the Santa Maria del Fiore or Duomo. It was the organisation in which architects, artists and workers collaborated. The Opera has been at its present location in a palazzo behind the apse of the Duomo since 1400. The palazzo, which was originally used as an office and workshop, has been a museum since 1891. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has on display some of the finest art that once adorned the Duomo itself, the Baptistery and Giotto’s campanile. Between 2009 and 2015, the museum was closed for renovations. It was also enlarged significantly and reopened on 29 October of last year.
The highlight of the museum is, in my honest opinion, the room in which the original facade of the Duomo has been recreated. As I have told elsewhere, the original Gothic facade was left unfinished, with only the lower portion being completed. The “semi-facade” was dismantled in 1587-1588, but not replaced with a new one until Emilio De Fabris’ Neo-Gothic facade was completed three hundred years later. The recreation of the original facade is quite impressive, with all the statues in their original positions. Several of them are attributed to the first architect of the Duomo, Arnolfo di Cambio (died before 1310), and his workshop. Highlights include the ‘Madonna of the glass eyes’, statues of Florence’s patron saints, Santa Reparata and Saint Zenobius, and a very elongated statue of Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303), who was staunch supporter of the ‘Black faction’ of the Guelfs in Florence. His ‘pointy hat’ (i.e. his tiara) is rather peculiar, but keep in mind that the statue was placed high up on the facade and was meant to be viewed from down below.
In the same room, we can find the original doors of the Baptistery. There are three sets of doors, one by Andrea Pisano (ca. 1290-1348) and two by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), including the famous Gates of Paradise which were completed in 1452 and installed in the east portal of the Baptistery, immediately facing the cathedral. The sets of doors have been discussed elsewhere.
The original statues and other decorations of Giotto’s campanile have also been moved to the museum to protect them against air pollution. Among the statues are some masterpieces by Donatello (1386-1466). We can for instance admire his dramatic Sacrifice of Isaac (co-attributed to his pupil Nanni di Bartolo) and a statue presumably representing the prophet Habakkuk. The Florentines call it Lo Zuccone (pumpkin-head) because of its distinctive bald head. Not all the statues here are by Donatello. The much older statue of King David is by Andrea Pisano for instance.
The hexagonal and lozenge-shaped reliefs that are exhibited in this part of the museum are also from the campanile. Many are by Pisano and his workshop, a few others by Pisano’s son Nino (died 1368). Some of the newer reliefs are by Luca della Robbia (ca. 1400-1482). Della Robbia’s cantoria – singing-gallery – is also in the museum, as is the cantoria (ca. 1433-1439) designed and executed by Donatello. Both were originally in the Duomo. Luca della Robbia’s nephew Andrea sculpted the beautiful glazed terracotta emblem of the Arte della Lana (see the image above), the powerful wool workers guild that was in charge of the Duomo project. Time for a couple of images:
The museum has many more highlights which are definitely worth our attention. One of them is the Florence or Bandini Pietà, an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo (1475-1564) that was possibly intended for his own tomb. The already elderly Michelangelo worked on the group consisting of four figures for eight years (1547-1555). Included in the group are Jesus Christ, who has just been taken off the cross, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and a man with a hood who is identified as either Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. It has been argued that the face of the man is that of Michelangelo himself. In another room, we find Donatello’s wooden statue of Mary Magdalene, the so-called Penitent Magdalene. It is deservedly famous for its realism, but it does look a bit terrifying. The statue used to be in the Baptistery.
The museum also houses the silver altar of Saint John the Baptist (see the gallery above), formerly in the Baptistery as well. Several artists worked on the altar over the course of more than a hundred years. Work was started in 1367 and the altar was only completed in 1483. The central figure of John the Baptist is by Michelozzo (1396-1472), the man who, among other things, designed the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Among the other collaborators, Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), Leonardo’s teacher, is probably the most famous.
Not all of the artworks in the museum are sculptures. The museum also has a nice collection of paintings. These include a rather gruesome triptych showing the execution of Saint Sebastian by Giovanni del Biondo (active until the end of the fourteenth century), as well as a panel painting of the three patron saints of Florence, Saint Zenobius, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Reparata. Technically not a painting, but interesting nonetheless: a mosaic (ca. 1505) of Saint Zenobius by the rather obscure artist Monte di Giovanni del Fora (ca. 1448-1533).
The museum comprises twenty-five rooms on three floors and offers a lot of historical information about all the buildings that are part of the Duomo complex. Entrance to the museum is included in the ticket that gives access to the other monuments.
The website of the museum can be found here.
Updated 6 May 2023.