Guide to Florence’s Stunning Opera del Duomo Museum

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is a stunning sculpture museum that serves as a safe haven for incredible artworks originally from the Duomo complex.

Think of this museum as a treasure chest overflowing with sculptures.

It’s home to an amazing collection of medieval and early Renaissance art from Florence, featuring masterpieces by renowned artists like Donatello, Michelangelo, Arnolfo di Cambio, and Nanni di Banco.

the Hall of Paradise in Duomo Museum, a must see site in Florence Italy
the Hall of Paradise

It’s located in the Piazza del Duomo, right behind the apse of the Duomo and near Giotto’s Bell Tower. It’s his museum is also the historic spot where Michelangelo secretly carved his famous David.

And there’s more: the rooftop terrace of the museum offers a breathtaking view of Brunelleschi’s dome – a sight not to be missed.

Wondering if the Duomo Museum is worth a visit? The answer is a resounding yes. It’s not just worth it; it’s an unforgettable experience.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through all the must-see exhibits in the Duomo Museum

carving by Arnolfo di Cambio
carving by Arnolfo di Cambio

Guide To The Duomo Museum: What To See

Recently renovated to the tune of 50 million euros, the Duomo Museum aims to be more than an overlooked hidden gem in Florence visited only by art historians.

Attendance has already quadrupled since 2015. The Duomo Museum 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.

portion of the reconstructed facade

1. Reconstructed Duomo Facade | Hall of Paradise

The first thing you see is the museum’s well-lit showstopper — the Hall of Paradise. 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.

Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise in the Duomo Museum in Florence
Ghiberti’s gorgeously restored Gates of Paradise, 1425-52

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.

panel from Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise doors
panel from Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise doors
Jacob and Esau panel of the Gates of Paradise doors
Jacob and Esau panel of the Gates of Paradise doors

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.

Michelangelo, Florentine Pieta, 1547-55
Michelangelo, Florentine Pieta, 1547-55

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.

READ: Guide To The Michelangelo Trail In Florence

Donatello, Penitent Magdalene, 1455
Donatello, Penitent Magdalene, 1455

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.

Arnolfo de Cambio, Madonna of the Glass Eyes, 1300
Arnolfo de Cambio, Madonna of the Glass Eyes, 1300

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.

Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1411
Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1411

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.

Donatello Choir Loft
Donatello Choir Loft

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.

Della Robbia choir loft in the Duomo Museum in Florence
Della Robbia choir loft

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.

Gallery of Giotto's Bell Tower
Gallery of Giotto’s Bell Tower

8. Gallery of Giotto’s Bell Tower

The first floor Gallery of Giotto’s bell tower is amazing. It’s 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 on the second. It’s almost like a museum within the museum.

The first thing you should do is sit down and watch the 10 minute film about the building of Brunelleschi’s dome. You’ll learn how Brunelleschi managed to pull off this feat of engineering. You’ll even seen the tools they used to build it.

Amid beautiful stained glass, you’ll also learn about other dome options, see models of Brunelleschi’s dome, and even see his death mask.

Brunelleschi's model for the lantern of his dome
Brunelleschi’s model for the lantern of his dome

You’ll find models of Giotto’s bell tower. And models for the proposed Renaissance facade for Florence Cathedral that was never built by architects like Ammannati and Giambologna.

There are even late 15th and early 16th century models illustrating proposals for the dome’s drum, which was left unfinished when Brunelleschi died.

READ: Guide To the Duomo and Brunelleschi’s Dome

On this level, you can also step out on the Brunelleschi Terrace for panoramic views of Florence.

sculptures in the Giotto Gallery
sculptures in the Giotto Gallery

Practical Guide & 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: If you buy the Brunelleschi ticket, you have entry to all of the Duomo sites including the Duomo Museum. You can also book a guided tour of the Duomo complex to get the full scoop.

Pro tip: Plan to spend around 1-2 hours. It makes sense to go to the museum and learn about the Duomo at the Duomo Museum before visiting the Duomo itself. The museum also has a fine bookshop.


model of Brunelleschi's dome
model of Brunelleschi’s dome

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to visiting the Duomo Museum in Florence. you may enjoy these other Florence travel guides and resources:

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