Holy dilemma: capturing Florence’s cathedral


The Duomo dominates the Florence skyline, as seen from Piazzale Michealangelo. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

Florence’s cathedral, or Duomo, has to be one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. But for photographers its sheer size and location – sandwiched amid the narrow streets of the centre of Florence, present a holy problem. So what to do?


My advice – and I don’t profess to getting good shots of this building despite many visits to the city – is you have to get up close … or a long way away.

The Duomo really stands out among the world’s cathedrals, probably due to its horizontal layers of green, white and pink marble. Built over 150 years from 1296, years of dirt and grime can take their toll on its bright exteriors, meaning there is usually scaffolding covering at least one section where repairs or cleaning are taking place. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Duomo without some sort of hessian skirt on parts of it.


The Duomo and campanile, early morning. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

I’ve always liked the Duomo, perhaps because I can imagine my forebears walking the cobbled Piazza del Duomo over the years, or because to me, up close, it looks like a giant iced cake. But over the years I reckon I have failed miserably at trying to take photographs of it.


Up close and at ground level, the Duomo faces the west, with its giant red dome on east side. It’s the east side that is always under a shroud of scaffolding, hessian and plastic and, besides, here it is hemmed in by a strip of shops and cafes, giving photographers no room to work. The best time, then, is take photos from the west in the late afternoon to catch the sunset light. However, you then have to negotiate the crowds, as well as the Bapistry (Battistero) and bell tower (Campanile). Again, there is no real space available to get a good wide angle shot of the building.

Balloons and Bapistry, Piazza del Duomo, Florence.

Balloons and Bapistry. The Battistero, across from the Duomo, in Florence, early morning. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

The campanile provides a good vantage shot from above. I have photos of the Duomo’s dome (and some of the brave souls who have climbed the dome stairs to the outside viewing platform) taken from the campanile from pre-digital film days. I’ve never climbed to the top of the Duomo, but if it’s anything like the climb to the top of St Peter’s in Rome, well, I think I’d prefer the campanile. From the bell tower, you at least get to see the Duomo.

If you don’t want to deal with the crowds, get to the Duomo early and take shots of the locals walking or cycling past that beautiful red, white and pink backdrop.

But if you want to capture the Duomo and its prominence in the cityscape, head across the Arno and up to Piazzale Michelangelo towards sunset. Here all of historic Florence will be glowing in the early evening sunlight for you, and dominating it all will be the Duomo.

The joy of Piazzale Michelangelo is no secret and you will have to fight your way past the tour buses and David souvenir stalls, but there is plenty of room to take in the views. And with so many locals enjoying the scenery as much as tourists, there’s always a chance for a novel Duomo capture from behind a budding painter in the nearby Giardino di Bardini.

_ Chris Mannolini

Painting the Duomo. From the Giardino di Bardini.

Capturing the Duomo … in oils and megapixels. A local in Florence’s  Giardino di Bardini. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

Have you had better luck taking photos of Florence’s Duomo? I’d love to hear your tips.


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