Visitor's Guide to Florence's Stunning Opera del Duomo Museum
Updated: May 8
Here's my guide to an absolute must visit museum in Florence, the Duomo Museum. It's officially called the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. This translates to the museum of the cathedral's building or works committee.
The museum is a fabulous treasure box of sculpture. It boasts an unparalleled collection of Medieval and early Renaissance Florentine pieces by artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo, Arnolfo di Cambio, and Nanni di Banco.
The museum is housed in the Piazza del Duomo at the back of Giotto's Bell Tower, behind the Duomo apse. It's the same space where Michelangelo famously carved David in secret. On top of the art, its rooftop terrace offers a mesmerizing view of Brunelleschi's dome.
Many tourists skip this stop when touring the Duomo complex, even though it's included in the combination ticket. What a shame. If you're wondering whether to visit Florence's Duomo Museum, the answer is a decided yes. It's not only "worth it," it's amazing.
Top 10 Highlights & What To See Inside Florence's Duomo Museum
Recently renovated to the tune of 50 million euros, the Duomo Museum is aiming to be more than an overlooked hidden gem in Florence visited only by art historians. Attendance has already quadrupled since 2015. It invites you to see great masterpieces, created for a religious setting, in a beautiful new museum space.
The museum displays over 750 master works on three floors spanning 6000 square meters. Most of the works were either in or on the Duomo. You enter through a light filled atrium, and are immediately gobsmacked.
1. Reconstructed Duomo Facade | Hall of Paradise
The first thing you see is the museum's well lit showstopper -- the Hall of Paradise. (Shown at the top of the article.) It's also called the Hall of the First Facade. It's the heart of the museum.
The hall contains a magnificent reconstruction of a Duomo facade designed by the first Duomo architect Arnolfo di Cambio. In 1587, it was torn down to make room for a Renaissance facade (that was never completed).
The reconstructed facade has exact replicas of 40 sculptures from the 14th and 15th centuries that once adorned it. The original sculptures are shown elsewhere in the museum, at the height they would've been seen on the Duomo.
The facade is made of resin and marble dust, rebuilt following an extant 16th century drawings. It was left white because the exact design of the former pink-green-white marble facade wasn't known. So any historical mistake was avoided.
There are two loggia-like galleries in the museum where you can see the facade from different heights. It makes for an impressive, and unique, museum experience.
2. Ghirberti's Gates of Paradise
Across from the facade are the most famous doors in the world -- Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise. They are gleamingly restored and no longer black with grime. Ghiberti worked on them for 27 years.
Once displayed on the eastern side of Florence's Baptistery, the gates were nicknamed by Michelangelo. He said that the doors were so beautiful that they could actually be the "doors to heaven."
Although the Duomo Museum is the cathedral museum, these gates weren't created for the Duomo. They were commissioned by the Guild of Wool Merchants of Florence (the wealthiest guild) for the Baptistery.
They were intended for the north side. But the doors were instantly recognized as a masterpiece. Because they were so beautiful, the doors were instead placed on the eastern portal facing the Duomo, in a place of honor.
The massive doors weigh 8 tons. They're 17 feet high and 10 feet wide. They have ten square scenes from the Old Testament.
Compared to Ghiberti's early Gothic doors, these are much more complex. Ghiberti uses linear perspective and creates a convincing illusion of space on a relief sculpture. The figures are full of movement, not stiff, and in contrapposto position.
Scholars believe the most masterfully executed panel is the scene of Jacob and Esau. Ghiberti uses a new system of linear perspective to construct a complicated narrative. There are fully three dimensional characters and impressive architecture.
The museum also has Ghiberti's earlier gates from the famous 1401 competition with Brunelleschi, which art historians say kicked off the Renaissance period. The earlier doors are very different -- Gothic in style, and set in quatrefoils. They show scenes from the Sacrifice of Issac.
3. Michelangelo's Florentine Pieta
The Florentine Pieta is one of Michelangelo's last, and unfinished, sculptures. It's also known as the Bandini Pieta or the Lamentation over the Dead Christ.
Michelangelo reputedly carved this poignant piece for the altar of his own tomb. Michelangelo slaved away for years on the pieta.
But it proved a formidable task, especially given his advancing age. (He was around 80.) When Michelangelo discovered defects in the marble, he destroyed parts of the sculpture in rage. He never gave Christ a left leg.
Michelangelo's servants sold off the parts. The new owner pieced them back together and reconfigured it. The figure supporting Christ's arm isn't by Michelangelo. The figure holding Christ after his deposition (Nicodemus in the bible) may be a self portrait of Michelangelo.
In November 2019, a restoration project on the sculpture was launched behind glass, in full view of the public. The intent was to remove grime, wax, and assess breakage. Some of sculpture's discoloration was just as Michelangelo suspected -- due to flaws in Carrara marble.
4. Donatello's Penitent Magdalene
Donatello's Penitent Magdalene is a life size wooden carving of Mary Magdalene. It stands isolated in a well lit glass case, and is very moving.
Donatello was the best sculptor of the 15th century. He had a wide range of expression; his works all look different. This one, completed at the end of his life when he was more pious, was his only sculpture in wood.
Traditional imagery of Mary Magdalene shows her as a beautiful young woman. Donatello uses an entirely different approach. He shows her as frail and wrinkled, after years of seclusion and penitence. Mary appears emaciated, hunched, and wrapped in her body length hair.
She's wasted away as a hermit, seeming to be driven only by pure spiritual energy. Brought together, her long elegant hands almost form a cathedral-like shape.
The sculpture evokes a feeling of piety and atonement. Once, the statue had been painted and gilded. Much of that is gone now.
5. Arnolfo de Cambio's Madonna of the Glass Eyes
Madonna of the Glass Eyes is a hugely important sculpture from 1300. It was originally in the center of Arnolfo's facade. Arnolfo was a sculptor as well as architect. This sculpture marks the beginning of the transition from the flat International Gothic style to the naturalism of the early Renaissance.
In it, Arnolfo pays attention to anatomy and the draping of the clothing. Mary's feet even make an indentation in the cushion. Baby Jesus still looks a little mannish with a receding hairline. But that was the all knowing way he was portrayed at the time.
You can contrast this sculpture with another Arnolfo sculpture in the museum, the enthroned Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface was the infamous pope who began the practice of selling indulgences to fill church coffers. Executed two years earlier, this sculpture is stiff and looks almost Egyptian. There's no individuality or emotion in the face.
6. Four Evangelist Sculptures
Four seated evangelists once flanked Arnolfo's Madonna on the facade. The sculptures were created by Nicola Lamberti (St. Mark), Nanni di Banco (St. Luke), Donatello (St. John), and Bernardo Ciuffagni (St. Matthew).
Originally, the first three artists were part of a formal competition to see who could nab the coveted commission for a fourth sculpture. Florence was a city that believed in competitions. But the artists were so slow in creating their competition works, that the Opera (building or works) committee went ahead and had Ciuffagni create St. Matthew.
I think Donatello's St. John is the best, though di Banco's St. Luke is well executed too. In St. John, you can see the contours of his anatomy through the drapery. He has a long beard and expressive hands. The psychology of the evangelist comes through.
St. John was actually sculpted inside the Duomo in a private chapel. It was provided to Donatello to permit him to work independently, hidden away from prying eyes. Renaissance artists were notoriously protective of their "intellectual property," perhaps as a result of all the city's competitions.
7. Donatello's and della Robbia's Carved Choir Lofts
Once upstairs, you'll enter a room with two large choir lofts. Donatello and Luca della Robbia carved them for the Duomo's sacristy doors between 1431-39. At first glance, they look like rather large sarcophagi. The choir lofts were removed from the Duomo in 1688 and put into storage. They were reassembled in the room you see them today.
The lofts are called "cantoria,"which translates into either singing loft, choir loft, or organ loft. Given the ambiguous translation, it's unclear exactly what they used for, other than the production of music.
They're set at their original height in an arched hallway called the Sala della Cantorie. The lofts are arranged face to face, giving you a chance to compare and contrast the styles of two early Renaissance masters. There's wasn't an official competition, but Donatello wins the virtual one.
Lucas della Robbia was most renowned for his glazed terra-cotta relief sculptures. But in this piece, we see that Della Robbia could also work with marble. There are 8 large square panels, each illustrating a celebratory song from Psalm 150. Jubilant children sing, play instruments, and dance.
In Donatello's loft, the artist pulls out all the decorative stops -- mosaics, enamel, gold, relief, motifs. One frieze is decorated with a motif of cherub heads set into enamel. There's also gold mosaic decoration behind the dancing low relief cherubs, who run and jump wildly.
In the two central panels, there are two bronze busts. No one knows who they are. One is theorized to be an ancient Roman bust. At the top, is a running frieze with amphora and acanthus.
8. Room of the Silver Altar
Right next door to the choir lofts, there's a room with works of art that were part of the Baptistery treasury. The very glittery silver altar consists of 27 panels embroidered in gold and polychrome silk. It was created by Florence's silversmiths. The altar tells stories from the life of John the Baptist.
8. Gallery of Giotto's Bell Tower
The first floor Gallery of Giotto's bell tower is lined with 16 statues formerly on the bell tower facade, including five by Donatello. The most famous ones are Donatello's Jeremiah and Habakkuk.
Opposite are 54 carved relief panels from the facade. The panels are placed at a high level, enabling a close inspection. They were created by Giotto (or his workshop), della Robbia, and Nicola Pisano.
9. Gallery of Brunelleschi's Dome
There's an entire room devoted to the building of Brunelleschi's dome. It's almost like a museum within the museum.
Amid beautiful stained glass, you'll learn about other dome options, see models of Brunelleschi's dome, learn how Brunelleschi managed to pull off this feat of engineering, and even see his death mask. You'll also find models of Giotto's bell tower.
Practical Information for Florence's Duomo Museum
Address: Via della Canonica 1
Hours: 9:00 am to 7:00 pm (but closed Sunday afternoon at 1:45 pm)
Entry fee: Purchase the "Grande Museo del Duomo" combination ticket online for 18 euros.
Pro tip: Plan to spend around 2 hours. It makes sense to go to the museum and learn about the Duomo before visiting the Duomo itself. The museum also has a fine bookshop.
Would you like to find out more about Florentine art? Here are some of my other arty guides.
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