Years ago I was in charge of the history section of a Barnes and Noble. Part of my responsibilities included knowing about all of the new books displayed in the section. One book that came out during my time was Ross King’s, Brunelleschi’s Dome. Up until that point in my life, my knowledge of Brunelleschi was limited to the fact that he had something to do with the famous cathedral, known as the Duomo, in Florence, Italy. So I flipped the book open and it didn’t take long before I was captivated by the history of the Florence cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. I checked the book out that day (a perk of being a BN employee is that you can borrow books from the store), and for weeks couldn’t stop singing the praises of the book.
But this post is not about the history of Florence’s Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s Dome, or the Last Judgment, the giant painting that covers 3,600 meters of the interior of the dome, which was begun by Georgio Vasari and finished by his student Federico Zaccari. This is about my visit to the Duomo.
Within minutes of arriving at the lovely Grand Hotel Baglioni in Florence, my wife and I, feeling jetlagged and exhausted after an overnight flight, met our tour guide outside the hotel. Even though we were barely able to stand straight, we were eager to discover Florence. On our walking tour, we passed Galleria dell’ Accademia where Michelangelo’s David can be found, Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, Santa Croce, and the Medici House. But even though I was suffering from sleep deprivation, I couldn’t wait to arrive at the Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral was the last stop on the tour.
Fighting our urge to be grumpy (did I mention that we were tired) we looked around the cathedral and marveled at the architecture and art. We stood in awe of the beauty and majesty of the building. There were moments when my wife and I discussed our observations, but most of the time we just stared. Unfortunately, our walking tour did not include an opportunity to climb the Duomo, so with the tour concluded, we headed back to the hotel.
The next morning, I ate an early breakfast in the dining room of the Hotel Baglioni, which has wonderful views of the Cathedral, because I wanted to hurry up and be one of the first to climb the Duomo. (The earlier you go, the less of a wait there is.) I was alone on this adventure since my kids were back in the U.S. with relatives and my wife was tied up in a business meeting.
Climbing the 463 steps to the top of the dome is not an easy feet. The steps wind up a narrow space and it can be difficult for one person to pass another. Fighting my issues with claustrophobia, I climbed the steep stairs. Since my anxiety increased if I was trapped between two people, when I came upon someone climbing slower than me, I would say “mi scusi”, quickly squeeze by the person, and continue on my way. Without fail, they flashed a forgiving smile.
My memories of Ross King’s book sprang fresh to mind as I climbed. I thought about the many men who had built the dome and the famous artists that helped Brunelleschi build his model. I thought about the men that worked to build the cathedral. The wars, fighting, debates, and competitions during the years the dome was under construction are the stuff of a good novel. I remembered how people believed that Brunelleschi was a madman for building this type of dome and how, later, he was regarded as a genius for doing it.
My feet began to climb faster and faster as I neared the top. Feeling a little tired, I placed my hand on the wall in the staircase to take a break.
And suddenly, I missed my family.
I was so excited to be in Florence climbing the Duomo, and I was thrilled that I was finally able to have the experience of seeing this beautiful building I had read so much about, but I had nobody to share it with. My hand was touching a wall that was built in the 15th century and I suddenly felt very selfish that I had this moment all to myself. I thought of how difficult the climb would have been for my kids, but I knew that they would have talked about that climb for the rest of their lives. I withdrew my hand, fought down the emotion, and kept climbing.
Arriving at the catwalk inside the Duomo, I was amazed that I was so close to the artwork. Vasari and Zuccari’s artwork is both beautiful and horrifying. With paintings of demons and angels surrounding me, I wondered what my children would have thought. My wife and I have deep conversations about art and I wondered what her thoughts would have been. What would she have noticed that I was overlooking? I took a bunch of pictures, but I couldn’t get them to focus right inside the Dome. She is usually the one that takes the best pictures and I wished for her to be there to take the shots that I was messing up. I took one last look at the intense painting and made my way out the door for some air and to take in the views of Florence from atop the Dome.
Looking at the city, I again wished that I could put my arm around my wife and take in the view together.
I made my way back down the many steps and walked outside. I stopped to get a slice of pizza and some gelato and watched the people walk by. After lunch, I walked around Florence and wondered what it would be like to live among such great architecture and art. Would I always appreciate it, or after a while, would I take it for granted and fail to see the glory. And with that thought, I remembered my family again.
Am I taking advantage of this time and fully immersing myself in being a father and a husband, or am I too often overlooking the opportunity I have every day to witness my amazing family in action in all of their wonderment.
I loved Florence’s Duomo and hope to one day climb its steep steps again, but next time, I’ll have my family in tow.