Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 10, 2017
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Florence, Italy
Lorenzo Ghiberti. Gates of Paradise (1425–52). Opera del Duomo Museum. Florence, Italy. Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. Photo: Antonio Quattrone.

The spectacular new Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence, Italy, which opened on the fall of 2015, is in a very real sense a twenty-first-century manifestation of two closely associated late eighteenth-century European cultural and intellectual accomplishments. The remarkable invention of the public museum is deeply connected to the development of art history as an independent academic discipline. Both are manifestations of the Enlightenment belief that the appreciation of art might shape moral and ethical character, that people’s lives might be improved and transformed by experiencing art. This Kantian notion found a practical application by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his 1764 History of Ancient Art, which proposed a systematic method for the classification of sculpture based on visual characteristics, virtually founding the modern discipline of art history. By instructing the viewer how to see, the edifying power of art could be extended to anyone who wanted to learn. Within the establishment of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin in 1904 (now the Bode Museum), Wilhem von Bode added a groundbreaking installation strategy that employed a Winkelmann-inspired Kulturgeschichte. Bode insisted that the architecture of the room itself—floors, moldings, fabrics—should be designed with historical equivalency to the paintings, and as much as possible should have chronologically related objects on display. Thus he established the museological strategy of the “period room,” taxonomically installing art works within a setting that at once affirmed and enhanced the edifying function of the objects themselves.

Programmatically, systemically, and historically, the new Opera del Duomo Museum is a modern manifestation and technological extension of exactly the same Enlightenment principles that inspired the creation of the public museum. It is an extensive pedagogical installation focused on historical context and religious belief that intentionally aspires to educate and spiritually transform each visitor. Movingly, the installation is located on the site that the Opera has occupied since 1296, when it was established for administering the construction and decoration of the Florence Cathedral.

Professor Monsignor Timothy Verdon has been director of the Opera del Duomo since 2011, but his visionary plan for the new museum preceded his directorship by nearly fifteen years. In 1997, as a member of the Opera’s board, Verdon was asked to provide a programmatic vision for a museum structure that would not only involve the reinstallation of works previously on view, but would also allow for the display of the entire collection. Bode’s incipient approach to Kulturgeschichte finds its twenty-first-century extension in the coherent arrangement Verdon proposed for the museum. The 5,500 square meters of gallery space—more than doubled with the 50 million euro acquisition of the Regio Teatro degli Intrepidi adjacent to the original Opera structure in 1997—solve many of the spatial challenges the Opera previously faced as the custodian of objects associated with the Cathedral, the Bell Tower, and the Baptistery. The vaulted space of the old theater inspired a monumental museological installation—the most impressive feature of Verdon’s proposal—which was brought to fruition by the supervising architect, Adolfo Natalini, and his colleagues.

The shell of the old theater, rechristened as the Sala del Paradiso—“Hall of Paradise”—has been repurposed in the staging of a spectacular, theatrical installation of the sculptural program of the cathedral facade. Here the visitor encounters a soaring, sixty-foot-tall, one-to-one reconstruction of the cathedral facade based on the copy of a 1587 sketch by Bernardo Pocetti. The art-historical and didactic purpose of this imposing backdrop is further enhanced with the display of the sculptural program originally realized for Arnolfo di Cambio’s fourteenth-century facade. Opposite this reconstruction, the three bronze baptistery doors and the sixteenth-century statuary groups that accompany them are installed, vividly restoring the sacred spatial dialogue between the original cathedral facade and the baptistery. With Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (1425–52), from which the name of this new gallery derives, positioned opposite the cathedral’s reconstituted central portal, the space becomes a vibrant recollection of the original Renaissance religious experience. The fact that the individual pieces of the facade’s sculptural program—all originally designed for specific locations—can now be studied as they were intended to be seen is of enormous art-historical importance and makes the originality of Arnolfo’s conception abundantly clear. The viewer, for example, may now compare the seated statue of Boniface VIII represented by a plaster copy in the uppermost register of the facade with the original, installed at eye level. The attenuated torso and visual dislocation between the torso and the legs adjust to a much more unified form when placed high on the facade. To see this and other extraordinary works positioned in a precise simulacrum of Arnolfo’s intended context is revelatory.

Arnolfo’s emerging mindfulness of the observer comes to full consciousness in Donatello’s seated Saint John the Evangelist (1408–13). The foreshortening caused by the view di sotto in su now adjusts Donatello’s elongation of the torso, and the deeply carved draperies now appear harmonized as the base on which the majestic torso of the Evangelist rises. Likewise, the compositional relationship between the hands and the prophetic beard is now evident, and Donatello’s psychological conception of the prophet clearly responds to the viewer who passes beneath his gaze to enter the church, turning subtly but clearly to the right. All of this was an academic argument before this installation. It is palpable and experiential now. Verdon has been driving art-historical scholarship around the religious significance of the relationship between the three buildings of the cathedral complex for many years, and here in the Sala del Paradiso, this scholarship is made concrete.

The other installations of the new Opera Museum are also pedagogically driven. On the second floor, the Galleria del Campanile displays the sixteen statues from the third register of the Bell Tower, including three of the most moving of all fifteenth-century sculptures: Donatello’s Jeremiah (1427–36) and Habbakuk (the “Zuccone”; 1434–36), and Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo’s Sacrifice of Isaac (1421). These pieces have all been cleaned, as have the fifty-four reliefs by Andrea Pisano and Luca della Robbia from the tower’s first and second registers. In arranging these reliefs according to their original placement, the revolutionary character of Donatello’s art and in particular his vivid interpretation of the nature of prophetic personality is now fully comprehensible. Donatello’s artistic trajectory from the 1410s (Thoughtful Prophet and Beardless Prophet) to the 1430s (Habbakuk) can also be clearly seen by examining these works together, beautifully restored after many years.

The thoroughness and intellectual rigor of the galleries are underscored in the treatment of some of the Opera’s more famous works. Michelangelo’s Pietà (1547–55) is installed on a taller base and is illuminated by a skylight, helping to suggest how he may have wanted it to be experienced. Donatello’s Magdalen (ca. 1450) has recently been restored, and is now located in a gallery with other works that concentrate her mystical intensity. Baccio Bandinelli’s design for the cathedral’s choir has been given a clarifying installation. The precise wood model of its octagonal form by Franco Gizdulich is installed in the center of the museum’s octagonal gallery and is surrounded by the twenty-four relief panels from the sixteenth-century choir. A gallery dedicated to the history of the cathedral’s dome is also a didactic success, which includes Brunelleschi’s wooden models, his death mask, and a video explaining its dome’s construction. The badly tarnished Silver Baptistery Altar and Pollaiolo’s Silver Cross have been polished, reclaiming the sparkling Renaissance visual impression of these precious objects. In the same room, Pollaiolo’s embroidered panels for the vestments of the baptistery are given a new didactic frame, staged within mock-ups of the cope, chasuble, and the two dalmatics for which they were originally designed. For those who recall the undistinguished glass and wood cases in which they were displayed for many years, this new installation clarifies how they were to be experienced and likewise clarifies Pollaiolo’s narrative intention.

Interactive displays are abundant and very useful, and there is an app for handheld devices that deepens the historical context of the displays. High-definition projections also enhance the contextual experience: the one dedicated to the fifteenth-century stained-glass windows in the tambour of the cathedral, always difficult to see in situ, is particularly noteworthy.

However, it would be a simplification to treat the physical space of the Opera Museum alone. Fundamental to the museum’s conception is the connection between the installations and the actual buildings themselves. Here the museum itinerary, an idea born and nurtured in the Enlightenment with the development of the public museum, is made even more focused and comprehensive. The admission ticket includes entrance to the three buildings of the cathedral complex, encouraging the visitor to draw connections between the museum’s displays and the actual buildings they engage. In this sense the “greater” museum is an exhibition extraordinaire, themed to the buildings in the Piazza del Duomo. The Opera Museum is thus closely related to Bernard Tschumi’s 2007 Acropolis Museum in Athens, an installation dedicated to the history of the Greek citadel located a mere four hundred meters from the ancient site itself.

The “greater” museum exists in a very large footprint in the virtual world as well. Two ambitious websites ( and offer a virtual extension of the museum, with additional historical material, short articles, an online magazine, access to the Years of the Cupola digital archive, and many other resources that extend and deepen an understanding of the works and buildings under the Opera’s care. The Opera Museum is both actual and virtual.

Perhaps the directors of the early European public museums, like Bode, would have recognized the new Opera Museum as a colossal and complex “period room,” focused on instructing the visitor regarding the relationship between art, experience, and the ethos central to Florentine life in the Renaissance. While it is true that we live in a post-Enlightenment world where the spiritual and the secular are conflicting categories, the Opera Museum concept eschews the distinction. Instead, it deliberately engages the Enlightenment belief in the power of visual experience to transform the viewer morally, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Eric M. Frank
Professor, Art and Art History, Occidental College