Museo dell'Opera del Duomo ★★

Recreation of Arnfolo di Cambio's original facade for Santa Maria del Fiore, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
Recreation of Arnfolo di Cambio's original facade for Santa Maria del Fiore

Florence's Duomo Museum is filled with works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and other Titans of the early Renaissance

The Museo dell'Opera Del Duomo (Museum of Cathedral Works) is directly behind the cathedral at Piazza del Duomo 9—perhaps hiding back here is how this rich and informative museum remains largely undiscovered and devoid of crowds—though the expanded and more obvious entrance helps.

All the statues removed from the cathedral (including the original, 15th century facade), as well as from Giotto's bell tower and from the Baptistery in order to preserve them out of the elements are kept here—including the original panels from Ghiberti's famous Gates of Paradise.

The best of the statues

What all that means in practical terms is that the rooms are filled with early works by Andrea Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio, Luca della Robbia, and especially the expressive and emotional statues of Donatello, including the drooping aged face of the Beardless Prophet; the sad fixed gaze of Jeremiah; and the misshapen ferocity of the leering bald prophet Habakuk that locals call Lo Zuccone ("Pumpkinhead").

Also here is one of Donatello's more morbidly fascinating sculptures, a late work in polychrome wood of The Magdalene (1453–55), emaciated and weeping and veritably dripping with penitence and looking creepily haggard.

The cantorie

Mounted on the walls above are two putti-encrusted marble cantorie (choir lofts, though they might have actually been organ lofts).

The slightly earlier one (1431) on the entrance wall is by Luca della Robbia. His panels are in perfect early Renaissance harmony, both within themselves and with each other, and they show della Robbia's mastery of creating great depth within a shallow piece of stone. Each panel is crowded with a little Renaissance boy band or girl group strumming lutes, banging drums, and belting out the hits. (The actual panels are collected down at eye level, with plaster replicas taking their place in the choir loft above.)

Across the room, Donatello's cantoria (1433–38) takes off in a new artistic direction as his singing cherubs literally break through the boundaries of the "panels" to leap and race around the entire cantoriabehind the mosaicked columns, one panel spilling into the next to create a single long scene, the kiddies flitting in and around the columns and peeking out from behind them, pushing and shoving and laughing away.

Two very different styles, both delightful.

Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise

The star exhibit is the collection of original gilded bronze relief panels from Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise from the Baptistery. Ghiberti devoted 27 years to this project (1425–52), and you can now admire up close his masterpiece of schiacciato (squished) relief—using the Donatello technique of almost sketching in perspective to create the illusion of depth in low relief.

They were removed from the Baptistery to save them from the wear and tear of the weather (those now on the Baptistery doors are replicas), and put on display here under glass after they were cleaned and restored.

(I remember them still back on the actual Baptistery gates themselves in the mid 1980s, when the piazza surrounding them was, believe it or not, a parking lot. Each panel was caked in so much sooty black dirt—the legacy of car exhaust from before Italy had catalytic converters—you could barely tell what was on them. Just a few shiny parts poked out here and there, marking the bits where decades of tourists' curious fingers had rubbed away the grime.)

Michelangelo's (?) Pietà

On the landing between the first and second floors sits Michelangelo's Pietà group—the figure of Nicodemus at the back is said to be a self-portrait.

Then again, it is also said of this work that either:

  • (a) Michelangelo took a hammer to it in a fury because it wasn't turning out right and was only stopped from destroying it when his assistants physically restrained him (and then later finished off the grouping of figures their master had abandoned), or
  • (b) Michelangelo didn't touch his chisel to any part of the sculpture and that it was entirely the product of his workshop.

Who knows? What is pretty certain—based on obvious stylistic differences—is that his followers probably did carve at least some of the figures—particularly the polished figure of Mary Magdalene on the left.

Brunelleschi's dome

There are also a series of intriguing exhibits related to the building of the cathedral, including some of the actual gear and block and tackle invented by Brunelleschi to engineer his revolutionary Cathedral dome in 1420–36 (along with a plaster cast of his death mask).

The full story is told on the page about Brunelleschi, but in brief, there were two problems to solve.

  1. Architectural: Everyone said the empty space to be capped by a dome was too big and any dome would collapse under its own weight. Based on the best architectural practices and theories of the time, they were right. 

    Brunelleschi, however, had studied the Pantheon in Rome and came up with an elegant architectural solution. He built the dome in two shells of bricks—interlocked in a herringbone pattern and supported by vertical ribs—and had the shells thin and become lighter as they approach the top (and each other).
  2. Engineering: Everyone said, fine, even if you could build a dome, it would still be prohibitively expensive and cumbersome to fill the entire church with enough scaffolding atop which to build the dome. 

    Again, this was the best engineering solution available to them at the time, and they were right. Brunelleschi's outside-the-box solution was to do away with the traditional forest of scaffolding entirely. Remember those interlocking bricks (molds for which are on display here)? 

    They also made each level of the dome self-supporting, allowing Brunelleschi's team to work on just one level, or layer at a time—which they did from small scaffolds hung from the inside of the partially completed dome itself. In effect, they used each recently-completed layer to support the workers while they built the next one. Ingenious.

(Fun aside: Brunelleschi also installed a tavern up in the job site itself so his workers wouldn't waste time lowering themselves back down to the ground and then up again for lunch.)

To ferry workers, equipment, and supplies up to his novel working environment, Brunelleschi also adapted and invented new pulley systems, cranes, and those hanging scaffolds, some of which are the items on display here. Yes, these are the actual, 590-year-old wooden devices that revolutionized the world of architectural engineering in the early 15th century.

The facades that never were

There are also several 16th century wooden models of potential cathedral facades offered by the architectural greats of the day, including Giambologna and Bernardo Buontalenti.

These were part of a 1588 competition finally to give the Duomo a proper High Renaissance facade. As part of the buildup to the competition, in 1587 church authorities merrily scraped away the original, partial facade by Arnolfo di Cambio that had graced the bottom third of the cathedral front since 1420.

(Luckily, they saved di Cambio's original statues, now on display in the first room as pictured in the photograph up at the start of this page.)

Unfortunately, they jumped the gun with the whole "destroying the existing facade" move. The patron behind the work—Grand Duke Francesco de' Medici—died before he could choose from among the submissions. For various reasons, none of the new plans were every selected or built.

Subsequent attempts to get a facade program off the ground failed as well, and the Duomo remained largely faceless for more than 300 years.

The Duomo remained faceless until the local purses of the 18th century—heavy with money and relentless bad taste—hired Emilio De Fabris to design the cathedral's current, Neo-Gothic facade in 1871. As this was in the wake of nationalist euphoria when Florence was (briefly) capital of the newly created Kingdom of Italy, he did the whole thing in the colors of the country's new flag: Red, white and green.

Photo gallery
  • Recreation of Arnfolo di Cambio
  • Room of the cupola, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Silver altar of San Giovanni Battista (1367–1483), Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Cantoria, or Choir Loft, (1433) by Donatello, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Erik Drost)
  • Room of Mary Magdalen, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The Bandini Pietà (1545–55), left unfinished and partially destroyed by Michelangelo, restored by Tiberio Calgagni, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5)
  • Corridor with the names of all the artists who have worked on the Duomo over the centuries, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Room of the Recreation of Arnfolo di Cambio
  • , Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Jordiferrer)
  • Silver altar of San Giovanni Battista (1367–1483), Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Detail from the silver altar of San Giovanni Battista (1367–1483), Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Cantoria, or Choir Loft, (1431–38) by Luca della Robbia, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • North doors of the Baptistry (1401–28) by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Room of the old facade, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Room of the cantorie, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
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Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into Museo dell'Opera del Duomo for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

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How long does the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo take?

The Duomo museum will eat up 45–90 minutes of your time, depending on how into it you get.


The expanded museum has a pretty nifty gift shop.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).