Gnomon, revisited

Today, I attended a summer solstice event at Santa Maria del Fiore (aka the Duomo)—the observation of the transit of the sun on the meridian plane, a phrase I don’t understand any better than I did when I attended Lo Gnomone a couple of years ago! As with reading certain books, though, I hope that repetition will eventually lead to some degree of understanding.

What stood out for me this year, having seen this before, was the reaction of other people. When the sun’s rays first appeared on the pillar opposite me, the couple next to me was astonished. When the sun’s light morphed into a disc on the floor, people were craning necks and lifting phone cameras to capture the image, especially since it disappeared and reappeared as clouds moved over the sun. When the disc of light eventually covered the marble disc on the floor, the woman next to me said, “You can actually see the sun move.” When I repeated what the professor giving the presentation said, “It is we who are moving,” her eyes widened and she said, “You’re right!” It was a great moment of connection over this interesting phenomenon.

 

 

 

Gnomon

Another great day in the Duomo! Today I attended an observation of the transit of the sun on the meridian plane (I’ll have to study more to understand that fully!). What happens is that on a few days in June, the sun’s rays are channeled through a bushing under one of the windows of the lantern atop the dome. The resulting disc of light covers a disc of marble set into the floor (the ‘solstitial marble’) on the northern side of the cathedral.

The bushing is the summit of a gnomon (“an object that by the position or length of its shadow serves as an indicator especially of the hour of the day”). Documents in the archive of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore suggest that Florentine mathematician Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli was the designer of the gnomon and that it was operational by 1475. Professor Alberto Righini, who gave us a presentation, also noted that this is the largest and most beautiful pinhole camera in the world!

When the disc of light first appeared, it was several feet away from the marble disc in the floor. I have never been more aware of the fact that it is not, in fact, the sun that moves, but the earth that rotates, as when Professor Righini said, as we watched the disc of light move, ‘it is the image of our motion.’

I came away having witnessed a fascinating phenomenon, with a book to add to my reading list (The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories by J. L. Heilbron), and with a potential obsession with seeking out other churches with gnomons! 

“Gnomon.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 17 June 2016.

Astronomy in the Cathedral:  Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.

Images © Melissa Corcoran

A Duomo day, part 2

It was raining when I woke up this morning and as I walked from my bus stop to the Piazza del Duomo, I told myself that this was a sign that I did not have to climb the bell tower. This was a relief since my calf muscles were aching from the climb of the dome yesterday. Instead, I would go to the Baptistry as planned, then head for the crypt.

As on my first visit to the Baptistry this past spring, I was immediately struck by how the colors of the mosaics glowed – it’s like being inside a jewel box. Because the one other visitor was there only briefly, I was able to get photos of the mosaics in the low light by resting my camera on the floor. That brought to my attention the design of the floor. I read in the brochure that “the floor evokes the Islamic world: oriental zodiac motifs are visible in the ‘carpets’ between the Gates of Paradise and the hall’s center” and that the mosaics reflected the influence of Byzantine art. The brochure goes on to say that “the overall effect reflects the magnificent crossroads of civilizations that was medieval Europe,” something I had also read in the museum yesterday.

Coming out of the Baptistry, the lure of the bell tower proved to be too strong (either that, or it was the lure to a compulsive person of going to all five of the places covered by the ticket). As you can imagine, the stairs were mostly free of other people, although that could have been the early hour too. Even on a rainy day, the views were beautiful. I like the look of tile rooftops in the rain – as a friend of mine says, they look varnished. The umbrellas held by pedestrians below were a bright spot, as was the line of tourists heading down Via Roma – a line that made me think of the opening to the book Madeline.

The Duomo from the top of the bell tower.

Staggering down the stairs, I found I was too early to go into the church and the crypt. I walked around, watching one of the guards (who are very much in evidence these days, patrolling the piazza) suiting up; that equipment looked heavy. As I was taking pictures of a detail of the cathedral front, I was approached by two young women who asked if I minded that they had filmed me. They are attending university locally and were told by their instructor that they should ask people’s permission if they took photos or video. They explained that they were very conscious of this anyway because the laws regarding use of people’s images were so strict in their country (Abu Dhabi).

When the church opened, I lit a candle before heading downstairs to the crypt. I was surprised when Angela told me the day before that the remains of the church of Santa Reparata had not been discovered until the 1960s. Once again, I saw details I had not noticed on my previous visit (maybe the exhibits had changed or I was paying a different kind of attention). I remembered the mosaic floor, dating back to the Roman city of Florentia; it’s amazing to see something that old. What I noticed this time was the peacock, symbol of immortality, and the list of fourteen donors who financed the construction of the first church, along with the number of feet for which each accounted!

Left: peacock. Right: list of donors.

Left: peacock. Right: list of donors.

I finished my visit to Il Grande Museo del Duomo by paying my respects at Brunelleschi’s tomb. Although tradition has that Giotto, Arnolfo di Cambio (who designed the cathedral) and Andrea Pisano (who made the bronze doors on the south side of the Baptistry) are also buried here, no trace has been found of their graves.

What a grand twenty-four hours at Il Grande Museo del Duomo!

Piazza del Duomo:  Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

A Duomo day, part 1

During the many years I lived in Boston, one of my favorite places was The Brattle Theatre, which showed second-run and classic films. I got to see some of my favorite movies on the big screen that I had previously seen only on television, like “Singing in the Rain” and “Rear Window.” The problem was that when the movie came around again in a couple of years, I’d want to see it on the big screen again. Not sure why, but I thought I had to justify a return visit and resorted to saying things to myself like ‘well, this is a restored version, so I can go see it again.’

Similarly, I justified my visit to Il Grande Museo del Duomo today by buying a ticket that included a tour of the north terrace, an area closed to the general public. The ticket included admission to the dome, the crypt, the baptistry, the bell tower, and the new Opera Duomo Museum.

The tour exceeded my expectations. First of all, my guide Angela was wonderful. She introduced herself to me in English, which is how I responded. Then I realized that I knew the Italian for that and repeated my introduction in Italian. She was so encouraging, telling me to try speaking Italian whenever I could, even if it wasn’t perfect.

I didn’t realize that the tour would include more than climbing up to the terrace. Angela took me into nave, pointing out and explaining various elements of the church. This added another layer to my understanding and appreciation of the cathedral as a whole, which, after all, is not just about Brunelleschi’s dome. A symbolism I particularly liked is that the colors of the robes of the three virtues depicted in the dome’s fresco – Faith (white), Hope (green), and Charity (red) – are echoed in the colors of the façade of the cathedral. My curiosity was piqued when Angela pointed out the door that leads to the stairs the clock keepers use to adjust the twenty-four clock over the center doors (hmmm, wonder what tour lets you up there?).

Leaving the nave, we climbed to the north terrace. What a view! Angela pointed out an observatory that is still in use, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (you can’t go ten feet in this city without falling over a Medici), and the unfinished façade of Basilica di San Lorenzo. It was wonderful seeing the city from that in-between height, but best of all was seeing the outside of the dome from a different angle.

I said goodbye to Angela with a ‘grazie mille,’ which elicited a smile and more encouragement about using whatever Italian I know, and started the hike to the top of the dome. Perhaps because my eyes had already been opened to new details, I noticed some things I hadn’t noticed on previous climbs, for example, that the depiction of hell on the fresco is quite gruesome. A more-pleasing moment was noticing the herringbone pattern of the bricks, one of the techniques used by Brunelleschi to support the massive dome.

Reaching the top, I found it blissfully uncrowded. I performed one of my minor jobs in life, which is taking photos for people. After all, how could I say no to the young woman who asked me to take a photo of her with Giotto’s bell tower – I mean, she used the proper name! When I offered to take a picture of a couple from Australia, I met Colleen and Peter, with whom I started a conversation that went from the cupola to the bar of the museum. We talked about politics, the medical systems of our respective countries, and how good the house wine is at restaurants in Italy!

My next stop was the museum, which recently reopened after an expansion and renovation. It is stunning. The size has more than doubled, which allows for some fantastic exhibits, including a reconstruction of the earliest façade of Santa Maria del Fiore. One of my favorite galleries was the Galleria della Cupola, focusing on Brunelleschi and the construction of the dome. Here I found a connection to an area I love – the Casentino Valley – in the three ‘tree trunks’ that represent the forests of the Casentino from which came the wood used for the scaffolding and machines used to build the dome.

Leaving the museum, I calculated how much more I could see the next morning. The ticket is good for twenty-four hours, and my first entrance was around 10:45, so I should be able to see two of the three remaining places if I start early.

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A Duomo day, part 2

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

Commemorating Filippo Brunelleschi

The anniversary of Filippo Brunelleschi’s death (April 16, 1446) was commemorated in Florence today with a procession and wreath laying ceremony at his grave in the crypt of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo). Brunelleschi was the genius behind the construction of the cupola of the Duomo and is one of my heroes.

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All images © Melissa Corcoran.