The Cupola is a marvel. An eight sided marvel. As round as it looks from a distance up close we can observe that it is an octagon. The eight sides of the Cupola are referred to as “veils” or in Italian “veila”, like the sails of a ship. It’s interesting that such a mass of rock, limestone, mortar and iron, be given such a light and lofty name when referring to it’s parts, but this is how it is.
The Cupola is not an eight sided structure by accident. The ancients believed that the number eight carried with it, mathematical and biblical powers. The eighth day is said to be the day of the lord, so the religious buildings followed a mathematical structure that would honor the days of the week and leave room for the lord.
The Cupola is also a mirror of another famous building in Florence, one that pre-dates the Cupola by at least four hundred, but by as many as eight hundred years. The Battistero of San Giovanni is an small mid-evil eight sided structure that is the “other church” in Piazza Duomo. This building features a majestic mosaic ceiling and is said to have been the site of a Roman temple dating back to before the time of Christ.
Actual documents exist from the year 897 AD proving the building has been standing for at least a remarkable 1100 years. It is still a working church and served as the official Baptistry for Florence. From 1450 on one can view the records of Baptisms in the city of Florence at the archive of the Opera del Duomo.
For Filippo and his predecessors it provided a challenge. It meant building the Cupola to a specific standard while maintaining rights and rituals laid down before him. The scale is much larger than the original Baptistry. In fact the alter which sits under the Cupola today carries the exact same dimensions of the inner walls of the Baptistry. If you were to visit Florence and see the baptistry first, then visit the cathedral, it’s quite an impressive way to appreciate just how vast the Cupola is.
The walls are five meters thick and arch upward to a hight of 66 meters. That is the height were Filippo’s work began. He would have to manage the curves and arches of this eight veiled structure and have them meet at a point some 90 meters above the ground at the center of the cross that forms the floor plan of the church.
The Battistero is and was central to Florence life and Saint John the Baptist is the patron Saint of the City. It is said that at one moment in History when Florence had a particular advantage over Rome, that a deal was struck to to have the remains of the head of John the Baptist purchased from the Vatican and brought to the city of Florence.
The deal was set and the plan was set in place to transfer funds and exchange the remains. Legend has it that a small group of Romans caught wind of the plan and moved the remains before the Pope could recover it and sell it to Florentine interests.
It’s just one example of how divided, or proud, cities remain, even within the larger structure of the 150 year old country known as Italy. One can not help but begin to understand why Rome is Rome, Florence is Florence and Pisa is, well, let’s just forget about Pisa.