Founded in 1891, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo possesses the world’s largest concentration of Florentine monumental sculpture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: statues and reliefs in marble, bronze, and precious metals by Arnolfo di Cambio, Andrea Pisano, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and others. Almost all these works were made for exterior or interior areas of the ecclesiastical structures that stand in front of the Museum: the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore or “Duomo,” and Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower). The Museo dell’Opera’s unique mission in fact is to display works made for these buildings, themselves part of what today is called the “Grande Museo del Duomo” or “Greater Cathedral Museum.”
It was therefore with considerable relief that in 1997 the Opera del Duomo acquired a vast structure adjacent to the existing museum: almost 10,000 square feet of space that could be added to the 7,500 of the old museum. Erected as a theatre in 1778, this building had served various purposes in the nineteenth century, finally becoming a parking garage. Happily free of distinguishing architectural features, it could, by Italian law, be remodelled according to the purchaser’s needs, with no obligation to preserve anything more than its roof line.
The architecture. As Monica Preti wrote in Il Museo dell'Opera del Duomo di Firenze (Electa, 1989): "The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo's collection faithfully reflects the multi-faceted history of centuries of artistic activity concentrated in the Florentine Church's three most important monuments, three focal points in the city's civic and religious life that symbolise its economic and cultural vitality".
Our project set itself three tasks: to renovate part of the existing the museum; to devise a new layout for the brand new display area; and to design the interconnecting spaces between the two. The new display area is situated in the former Teatro degli Intrepidi, a theatre which opened in 1779, closed down and was turned into a warehouse in 1914 and later became a garage.
Our design has preserved the memory of the theatre's large empty central space by converting it into a top-lit area in which to allow recreations of now lost architecture to interact with the works of art that once adorned it.
Given the now irreversible process whereby original works of art have to be brought indoors if they are to survive and to be replaced in their original locations by copies, a constant exchange has been engendered between the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and Piazza del Duomo to ensure that, little by little, the works migrate from the open air into a sheltered environment.
In the new hall, the works of art are bathed in the same kind of light and sometimes even stand in the same virtually inaccessible positions for which they were originally designed.
The theatre's former auditorium hosts a life-size model of the cathedral's first façade. The most important sculptures are set on bases beneath the model in such as way as to allow the visitor to admire them from close up, while all the others have been replaced in their original positions to recreate the overall effect of the early façade.
This life-size model evokes Brunelleschi's extraordinary invention known as the perspective panel, with the Baptistry drawn from the main door of Arnolfo's cathedral. To paraphrase Alberti – "and know that no painted thing can be seen as conforming to its real counterpart unless they are seen from a very specific distance" – we might say that nothing real will seem real any longer if it is moved in relation to where the observer is actually standing.
The project has created new interconnecting areas between the theatre and the other buildings, with a new floor improving the regularity of the volumes between the theatre and the museum to form a gallery that is virtually invisible from the outside.
The area thus recovered houses the models for the dome, Brunelleschi's building site and Bandinelli's choir, while a single area two storeys high between the Gallery of the Dome and the Choir Room has allowed us to design a top-lit hall for displaying Michelangelo's Pietà.
Thus in tackling the restoration of the overall complex we have tailored our criteria to meet the specific requirements of each different area, taking advantage of the need to restore and consolidate the structure of the former garage to give it a thorough makeover. We have completely changed the existing distribution of space, creating new galleries and levels together with a number basement areas. Two new staircases now supplement the old monumental stairs to improve the distribution of the museum's various entrances and escape routes. And the main hall has been completely reroofed, though maintaining a reticular metal structure fitted with an overhead skylight.
The intermediate wing between the existing museum and the former garage has been restructured and reorganised to form a large, linear gallery. By revamping the existing spaces and increasing the area's overall height, we have managed to create a new level above the former Boniface VIII Room and the former garage's utility rooms. In the rest of the existing museum we have confined ourselves to altering a few details and to changing some of the layout.
The enlargement project has permitted the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo to more than double its exhibition space, its net display area increasing from 2,400 mt2 in the old museum to 6,000 mt2 in the new.
All of the museum's exhibits have been rearranged to reflect the new layout devised by Monsignor Timothy Verdon. They now come together to tell the astonishing story, both sacred and secular, of the monumental complex comprising the baptistry, the cathedral, the dome and the bell tower.
Having described the aim that the overall project set itself, we can now take the visitor with little time on a tour of some of the rooms in the museum.
The Room of Paradise (The Room of the First Façade). The large auditorium of the former theatre is dominated by an evocative recreation of the first façade of the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, designed and carved by Arnolfo di Cambio and shown here as it would have looked before it was dismantled.
In this magnificent interior – a theatrical reconstruction of an open-air cityscape – architecture once again takes pride of place among the arts to recreate one of the most astonishing architectural and artistic stories of all time. The former theatre has maintained all of its features but its interior space has been totally redesigned.
One of the room's two longer sides is taken up by a partial reconstruction of the early façade, with a model rebuilt "from life" (based on a drawing by Poccetti) using a resin frame filled with marble dust on a metal structure which seeks to convey an image of the original façade rather than to pose as a full-fledged recreation of it.
On the other long side of the room, three galleries have been built on three levels overlooking the spectacular area containing Arnolfo's façade. The galleries, which host the works of art from the bell tower and the models and studies for the cathedral's west front, are framed by a façade in white statuary marble designed to emulate the wings of the theatre. This, façade is perforated in such a way as to allow the visitor to inspect the main room from different angles and at different heights, but also to house the three sets of bronze doors from the baptistry in three special display units.
The perforated wall continues at the same rhythm into recessed panels in the ceiling of the great hall where the windows, covered by an opalescent screen, allow the natural light from the skylights above to flood the entire area.
Thus the visitor is presented with the unfolding of a great architectural and artistic story designed to display the museum's exhibits in a manner at once clear, evocative and spectacular.
From the large Room of the First Façade, visitors with little time can choose to shorten their visit by proceeding towards the rooms in the current museum on the ground floor, which have been restored to provide a fitting setting for Donatello's Magdalen and Michelangelo's Pietà, before making their way to the exit via the museum's bookshop, cloakroom and other facilities.
The Pietà Room. This room, which is situated where the old Boniface VIII Room once stood, comprises an introductory area and an extremely high-ceilinged main area hosting the sculpture group proper.
The pure space is lit from above with an awning to simulate natural light penetrating into an interior.
The sculpture group, the Pietà itself, is set off by the whitewashed end wall, between grey side walls and a stone floor.
A central base reminiscent of an altar allows the visitor to appreciate the group's religious aspect and from a standpoint similar to that originally envisaged by Michelangelo himself.