Covered by scaffolding for over ten years, the Baccio D’Agnolo Balustrade, located at the external base of the cupola of the Florence Duomo has been restored and is now on show to the observant spectator. The best spot to view it is the newly open Biblioteca delle Oblate – also a great place to hang out and read newspapers and magazines (English language) for free.
But back to the balcony. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) rightly gets the credit for designing and overseeing the construction of the dome on the Duomo. He also designed the marble lantern that tops the terracotta-clad dome, but did not live to see it completed (1471). It wasn’t until 1506 when Baccio D’Agnolo designed the covered balustrade to cover the wide strip of bare bricks at the top of the cupola drum between the marble cladding and the terracotta roof.
The design was for a loggia-style balustrade between each of the eight white ribs that arch over the dome. Each section would contain twelve columns carved in white marble with eleven arches sandwiched by two narrow marble fences. The balcony was to wrap around each rib with another pillared arch.
The design was complicated and D’Agnolo was so proud of it that he stopped the work when one section was finished on the southeast side of the dome. He asked for comments from the artists and politicians of Florence.
As luck would have it, Michelangelo was in town, having finished the David only two years before to much acclaim. The artistic and political powers-that-be listened with bated breath. Reportedly, Michelangelo, always the critic, said, “It looks like a cricket cage to me.”
Baccio, 13 years older than Michelangelo, was so offended by these words that he abandoned the project and it was never finished.
By standing on the corner of Via dell’Oriuolo and Via del Proconsolo, you can see the newly clean section of the D’Agnolo Balustrade. But a better spot is from the third floor porch of the Biblioteca delle Oblate, located at Via dell’Oriuolo, 26 (open 8:30am – 6:30pm Mon.-Fri.).
The Biblioteca is a newly-created public space in what was an old convent. Just walk straight in from the street and take the elevator to the top. Walk through the reading room (note the great children’s library/activity room inside) where English language newspapers and magazines are available, exit to the open porch. You will get a completely new view of the Duomo and the Giotto’s Bell Tower.
A Historical Postscript
The architect Baccio D’Agnolo did not escape the critics once he left the service of the Duomo Works to start his own studio. In 1523, he designed the Palazzo Bartolini on Via Tornabuoni. The debate was bitter with many thinking that the architecture was better suited to a church. This time though D’Agnolo fought back. His inscription over the door, Carpere promptius quam imitari – “It’s easier to criticize than imitate” – was Baccio’s firm reply.