The International Writers Magazine: Travel Archives - Italy
The Basilica - a Step into History
Florence: the city of the Medici, of Renaissance excellence, of epic history. When living in the city, one does not have to go far to find an historical treasure; the city itself is one. As you can imagine, it’s overwhelming. For ten college students on an adventure of a lifetime, we had no idea where to start.
Leaning out of our apartment windows, we scanned the city skyline, searching for an anchor in this overwhelming city of history and splendor. Where could we possibly begin our adventure? Luckily, the answer presented itself to us in a gargantuan way. We would visit the city’s basilica – our main goal: to conquer the dome.
La Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower) is the largest structure in Florence in height as well as pure massiveness. Visible from anywhere in the city, it has served as the city center for over 6 centuries. The rusty –red tiled dome rises like a balloon up into the heavens. Its prominence is so essential that a law has been passed to prevent any building from surpassing it. In fact, the building is not only important to the city of Florence, but to the worlds of engineering and architecture. At its completion, the dome was the largest in the world – a record it held until modern building techniques were developed in the 20th century. But even more impressive, this giant dome completely supports itself without the aid of scaffolding. This feat of engineering has made it a marvel of ingenuity which has awed and inspired people since its completion.
The 15th century architect of the dome of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Filippo Brunelleschi, seemingly thought of everything. Towering over the skyline of the city of Florence for almost 600 years, it has served as a witness to vast changes in human history from the rule of the Medici family, to the Nazi destruction of its beautiful city, to the political turmoil of contemporary Italy. It would seem that Brunelleschi and his fellow architects had created a cathedral that would last throughout the ages. Yes, it would seem he has thought of everything. But I believe Brunelleschi did not plan on people’s bodies changing, particularly when designing the internal channels within the Dome. People have gotten bigger. The constricted passages may have been just fine for the malnourished Renaissance peasant but for the McDonalds-four-times-a-week American tourist – not so much. One enters the Dome through a narrow door, a prelude to the claustrophobic-inducing dark passages, the window-less staircases eternally twisting up into the sky. With the stairway’s end nowhere in sight you are surrounded by the must of body heat and ancient dust, a souvenir from the 600 year old ghosts walking right beside you.
|To reach the apex of the Duomo, one must tackle a twisted maze of helix-shaped staircases and contracted corridors barely lit by windows the size of playing cards. With a guard at every confusing turn and only one direction to go, the actual probability of getting lost is zero. But the dank, dark, dusty tunnels forced me to quickly forget this comforting fact. As we continued to climb up, the sounds of the bustling city below began to dwindle away. We could no longer hear the purring of motors, callings of vendors, clicking of camera shutters. Although these sounds diminished, silence did not become our companion.
Our ears picked up the scuffle of dragging feet across a concrete floor; the panting and wheezing of tourists out of shape and out of luck. Some sections were so dark; I was forced to rely on the sounds of fellow climbers ahead of me for navigation. I smelled the dank and dusty air between the shells of the Duomo. So far from windows, this particular section had not been aired out since the outer wall of the Dome was completed all those centuries ago. My nostrils were assaulted by the pungent tang of sweat and other assorted body odors seeping off the struggling and wheezing tourists climbing the stairs with extreme effort.
Suddenly, the flat plane of our path sharply inclined into a daunting set of narrow stairs. The gaps between each step felt 2 feet high – although my adrenaline rush and slight vertigo may have exaggerated my memory. Maybe. Then it dawned on me that we were climbing the dome itself. The smooth, white, concrete shell adjacent to our white-knuckled-grip in the handrails curved gracefully like the neck of a swan. Hidden from light, the white plaster was cool to the touch. After centuries of fellow climbers running their hand over the very same walls as me, the smoothness had ebbed away to reveal a rough and ragged plane below. Occasionally my fingers would dance across some sharp engraving of initials, a memento added to the wall by a young, amateur carver from perhaps hundreds of years past. The incline became steeper and steeper as we climbed, surrounded by darkness, dust and the sound of our own labored breath, completely at the Duomo’s mercy. The end had to be near. Like heaven beckoning to us to salvation, I could see light breaking over the top of the staircase.
Finally! My head thrust up through the trapdoor like a rabbit resurfacing for spring. I could only see bright, open sky dotted with dollops of snowdrift clouds. A fresh breeze caressed my face, dabbing the dust of the dome away. The metropolis spanned out around me, nestled by the Senese Clavey Hills. What a sight. To literally be on top of the city, I finally understood why this place was so ingrained in the Florentine culture. Florence was once at the top of the world civilization and is still seen as a capital of history in Europe. But so much has changed. The modern era sent the old world into a tailspin, throwing traditions and memories into oblivion if they are not strong enough to survive. But the Renaissance legacy of Florence has survived. This dome has survived as the center of fiorentini life. The Basilica represents power and stability, an architectural authority that can withstand any trial: war, plague, famine, even the 21st century.
© Alex Kenkelen - May 2012