Sacred art, reunited with its religious context
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence hits on grand idea
Ever since patrician Englishmen made Florence a stop on the Grand Tour in the 17th century, the city, a Renaissance crucible of painting and sculpture, has been a destination for art worshipers.
And while some of the great milestones in art history remain in situ — to see Masaccio’s groundbreaking experiment in perspective with the “Holy Trinity” fresco, you go to the Dominican Santa Maria Novella, for instance — a lot of others were removed from churches and monasteries over the centuries. Thanks to the collecting avarice of the Medici and of Napoleon Bonaparte, many of the masters’ religious pictures, though taken from the Florentine churches they were intended for, line the walls of public temples — the Uffizi Gallery, Pitti Palace and Bargello National Museum.
But now comes a recently renovated museum in Florence, one that aims to inspire art tourists to see masterpieces as religious works in a re-created religious setting. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which first opened in 1891 on the street that runs right behind the great cathedral’s apse, was created to house much of the sculpture and other works originally created for the Duomo in the last part of the medieval era and through the Renaissance.
Since its three-year expansion, which cost 50 million euros (about $56.7 million) was completed, the Museo has more than quadrupled its attendance. Most visitors spend about two hours experiencing its galleries, far longer than before.
You enter a light-filled atrium that makes a statement right at the outset. On one long wall facing you is a towering, exact resin model of the Duomo’s Gothic facade, including many original statues in the niches they were created for, as designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century and demolished by the Medici in the 16th century, when they wanted a Renaissance front. Across the courtyard of this huge atrium are Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous bronze baptistery doors that faced the Duomo, gleamingly restored.
The label on the atrium wall gets right to the new museum’s effort to put the works of art into their original, religious context: “Christians call the area between a Baptistery and its related church a Paradiso, evoking the joy of those who, after receiving baptism, cross that space to participate in the Eucharist for the first time.”
That description was written by a man with a mission, the museum’s director and visionary, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a native of Weehawken, N.J. Verdon got a doctorate in art history in 1975 at Yale, and became a priest in 1994. He has taught in the United States off and on for the last half-century, but has lived in Italy most of that time.
Verdon increasingly felt out of step with his fellow art historians, he said in an interview. “For a long time,” he said, “art historians thought you could only discuss art values and leave the religious meaning to the theologians. That’s false chastity!”
And the “notorious anticlericalism” in Europe made it difficult to talk about religious messages by the great masters, Verdon said.
But in 2011, his vision for a new way to present the religious art designed for Florence’s cathedral was embraced by the museum’s board, and the renovation began the next year.
“I was convinced that [the museum’s displays and texts] were the only way to let the works rediscover their own voice and say what they meant to say,” Verdon said. “In the 2,700 years of Western art, art made for temples or churches, the artists were communicating to people for whom the message was existential, not intellectual. You have to find a way to let people today into the messages in order to be fair to the artists.”
In addition to the striking atrium, an upper floor is designed to mirror the feeling worshipers might have experienced in the sanctuary. Sacred music plays, and 15th-century frescoes are projected on the ceiling. Vestments, precious liturgical objects and the Duomo’s famous carved choir lofts by Donatello and Luca della Robbia combine to moving effect even for the nonreligious visitor.
Verdon said he began to perceive a religious message in art when he was in high school in New Jersey and played hooky in Manhattan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he “fell in love.”
“I can still remember the fragrance of the floor wax in the Italian rooms and of the pigments of the restoration materials,” he said.
In particular, Verdon remembers spending many hours transfixed by the messages contained in Vittore Carpaccio’s early-16th-century painting, “The Meditation on the Passion.”
“This fascinated me,” he said. “It was the beginning of my life’s work. I realized these works reflect the artists’ layered knowledge of scripture and commentaries on scripture, and emotional faith.”
The cathedral museum’s two bestknown sculptures are stunningly showcased today. Donatello’s life-size wooden carving of Mary Magdalene stands in a seamless glass case that is brilliantly lit. In keeping with Verdon’s goal to display the well-known works in a new way, the Donatello is seen alongside paintings and reliquaries that also “evoke the world of private piety,” as the wall text explains.
And the most famous of the sculptures that once stood in the Duomo is Michelangelo’s next-to-last work, a Pietà that he originally intended for his own tomb. He was so unhappy with flaws in the marble that he destroyed some of the sculpture; Cosimo de Medici reassembled it for the Medici family crypt in the San Lorenzo basilica, and it later was transferred to the Duomo.
Verdon wrote this for the new display: “Carved in the first years of the Council of Trent, the Pietà highlights the figure of Christ, underlining the Catholic conviction that in the Mass the Savior’s body is made truly present; the Council reiterated this definition of the Eucharist with a decree published in 1551, while Michelangelo was still at work on the group . . . Michelangelo’s love for Christ is clearly stated in sonnets he wrote in the same years, one of which is transcribed in this room.”
Verdon follows in ancient footsteps. The Bargello, a state sculpture museum a few blocks from the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, occupies a palace originally built as the medieval police headquarters. Its walls are embedded with the coats of arms of hundreds of podestas, the outsiders hired by the people of Florence to administer their city for terms of one year each, because the Florentines wanted the city run by foreigners they could trust to get it right.
Perhaps Verdon is Florence’s outsider who gets its art right.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: The distinctive golden facade of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence; the 15th-century choir lofts on the walls were carved by Luca della Robbia and Donatello; the realism of the wooden sculpture of Mary Magdalene by Donatello was shocking in its day; this Pietà by Michelangelo, his second-tolast work, originally was intended for the artist’s tomb.