Why wait in line for Florence’s Duomo when Fra Angelico’s frescoes are nearby?

The frescoes inside Florence's Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, aka the Duomo, require a bit of neck straining.


By VICKY HALLETT | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 16, 2018

At the Duomo, long lines for an underwhelming visit

Architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s massive cupola -- all 4 million bricks of it -- has dominated Florence’s skyline since 1434. It sits atop an ornate wedding cake of a cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, aka the Duomo, which is frosted in white, pink and green marble. Tourists go gaga (and take selfies). Then, many of them make an incorrect assumption: The inside must be equally stunning. So they form a line that can snake along the entire 500-foot length of the building, and wait an hour (or more!) for a chance to see ... very little. There’s a pretty mosaic floor, a clock and -- if you crane your neck and squint -- frescoes painted inside the dome. Martha Endress, 81, who recently visited from Miami, sums up the problem with a structure this enormous: "I love the stained-glass windows. I just wish they were lower, so I could see more details."

You can climb the dome for 360-degree views, but that requires ascending 463 steps and snagging a reservation, which is potentially even more challenging. (Slots book up days in advance.) The genius move for cathedral connoisseurs? Pop into the recently renovated Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, home to masterpieces made for the complex, including Donatello’s haunting wooden sculpture of Mary Magdalene and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s gilded Baptistery doors. Plus, its elevator-accessible terrace offers dome close-ups.

Location: Piazza del Duomo, Florence; operaduomo.firenze.it/en.


Visiting the Museo di San Marco "is like a pilgrimage"

Step into the Museo di San Marco, a calming cloister of a monastery a few blocks from the Duomo, and you’re immediately introduced to the star of the show: Fra Angelico. His fresco of Saint Dominic gripping the crucifix demonstrates why the "Angelic Friar" was one of the Renaissance’s favorite artists. The image - like the architecture around it - is on a human scale, so there’s no need to look way up to appreciate it, says the Rev. Michael Dunleavy, an Irish Dominican priest who lives in Fiesole, the hilltop town overlooking Florence where Fra Angelico was based for most of his career. "Coming here is not like visiting a museum," adds Dunleavy, who is writing a doctoral dissertation on Fra Angelico. "It’s like a pilgrimage."

That’s true whether visitors are searching out religion, art or history. Among the ground-floor galleries, you’ll find not just Fra Angelico’s most glam works (such as "Tabernacle of the Linen-drapers," featuring Mary in a luminous blue mantle), but also "Lamentation with Saints," a rare painting by a nun, Sister Plautilla Nelli. Waiting at the top of the stairs is Fra Angelico’s "Annunciation," which you’ll recognize from your art history textbook. Only in person will you see the angel’s wings shimmer. This floor is lined with former monks’ cells, most decorated with a fresco Fra Angelico painted himself. These works were designed for spiritual meditation, which explains the minimalist style and muted colors. Some even dabble in abstraction. (Check out those disembodied hands!)

Two cells stand out for other reasons: A luxe, two-level accommodation reserved for patron Cosimo de’ Medici and the artifact-laden digs of Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatical reformer who sparked the original "bonfire of the vanities" before meeting a similar fate. On your way out, say "ciao" to the gray cat sitting beside Jesus in Ghirlandaio’s "Last Supper." As Dunleavy says of San Marco, "Every time I go, I see something else."

Location: Piazza San Marco 3, Florence; 011-39-055-238-8608; polomusealetoscana.beniculturali.it.