What makes a perfect museum?

I have spent many hours enjoying the delights of museums and galleries around the world. This morning, in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore I delighted in near perfection in such an experience. The museum of the cathedral in Florence was redesigned between 2013 and 2015 and I have previously visited it in both incarnations. I had quite forgotten how wonderful it now is. Ok, so I appreciate that the last positive experience one has in any sphere often seems like ‘the best ever’. I adore the symphonies of Beethoven and whenever anyone asks me which is my favourite I always answer ‘the last one I heard’. So I thought I would document my morning and what made it so special, sharing it hopefully with others who may one day visit here and making a permanent record for myself to look back on.

So, what makes a great museum. In my opinion, it requires both structure and content. By ‘museum’ here, I’m choosing to include any space where works of art are exhibited, so I consider churches, galleries and other public spaces, both indoors and outdoors. The space used for display is, I believe, fundamentally important in the viewing experience. Many such spaces are indeed the main attraction of the visit, such as some of our British stately homes or some of the beautiful churches here in Florence. I’m going to put in a word of praise here for Kelvingrove in Glasgow, which I think is a wonderful architectural space and I have visited as often to sit and have a coffee as to view the works on display. Sometimes the space can actually detract from the viewing experience; have you ever tried to see the ‘Mona Lisa’ in the Louvre? Often cramped spaces and, in particular poor lighting, bedevil the viewing attempts of even the most dedicated visitor.

What should a good museum space achieve? Visitor flow is important, no-one wants to be jostled and denied space and time for viewing. Open spaces aid this flow and prevent the claustrophobic feeling of more confined galleries; I find the lower floor of the National Gallery in Edinburgh, where the Scottish paintings are displayed, struggles here. Also, crucially, exhibits must be hung or otherwise displayed and then lit in a way which allows them to be viewed from all angles; this particularly applies to works exhibited behind glass, where reflection can often frustrate.

Providing good quality, legible information is appropriate too. Obviously, individual works need to be described in a way which is comprehensive and legible, but also works need to be collected and grouped in a manner which is logical and coherent and this also requires to be conveyed to the visitor so he or she knows what is on view in the room they are about to enter.

Variety is helpful too; a prolonged promenade in front of row upon row of works can test even the most dedicated visitor. Space to sit is always welcome and audio-visual presentations can help the educational experience without further taxing ones energies.

These are my personal views; those of you who regularly visit museums will have your own favourite features of course. So, how does the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo measure up? In my opinion, it hits the spot on every count; let me explain why before I take you on a tour of some of the highlights.

Firstly, buying a ticket is pretty easy. Queuing at the Uffizi or Accademia induces a loss of the will to live but here queues are short or non-existent, helped by a modern, open area with helpful staff and a ticket machine if you want just to use your credit card. Entry requires a security check, as does every public space in these times, but this is efficiently and courteously done then one enters a large, open atrium forming an introduction to the museum, with each floor clearly displayed along with a suggested itinerary for your visit.

The museum is laid out over three floors and has a wonderful flow through, with no need to double back. The rooms are clearly enumerated and follow a logical time passage through the history of the Duomo. Should you be temporarily disorientated, there are helpful star patterns projected onto the floor in front of the next exit you should take. The culmination of the journey is on a rooftop viewing space with wonderful views of the dome.

Works are displayed in rooms organised by type or period and a full written explanation precedes each room. Some attempt is made to exhibit sculptures from as near possible to their intended viewpoint; however, given the height at which these works were intended to be displayed this wish is only partly realised.

In addition to displays of sculpture, stonework and painting, a novel hall displays cut out models of the dome and its cupola, designed to demonstrate the innovative design brought into being by Brunelleschi. An audio-visual display provides further welcome detail. Here there is also a projection rotating through the stained glass panels inside the cupola, which also zooms in on areas of each pane.

The development of the facade is similarly treated. There is a display of several wooden models for a Mannerist facade commissioned to replace the existing one. By a clever design feature, one can glance through spaces in the museum walls to directly compare these plans with a large scale model of the original facade on the ground floor. Before proceeding to drawings and sculptures relevant to the current facade, one can rest in front of a full audio-visual description of the history of fronting the building.

Lets look at some of these features.

Of course, it helps if there are a number of treasures inside and this museum delivers in spades. As one enters, several small items are laid out, including a panel from the original East doors and sections from the mandorla over the door.

Then there is a huge room, down one side of which is a reconstruction of the original facade. Placed in the appropriate niches are the original sculptures. Touching each picture will reveal its caption.

Also in this room are exhibited two original sets of doors from the baptistery. The first set are by Lorenzo Ghiberti, executed between 1403-24 and showing scenes from the Stories of the Life and Passion of Christ.

Adjacent are found the magnificent ‘Gates of Paradise’, from the East doors, which Ghiberti and his workshop laboured on for 27 years after he defeated Brunelleschi in a competition in 1425. These panels show scenes from the Old Testament. Ghiberti has included a representation of his face.

As one leaves this room, there are displayed some fragments of mosaics which reveal close up the more intricate beauty of the sculptors work.

The Duomo complex also contains the campanile and baptistery. On the next floor are exhibited sculptures originally placed on the campanile. These are beautifully arranged opposite each other; on the left wall as one enters, the panels sculpted by Pisano are arranged.

Here are three large structures by Donatello. The most famous is ‘Habbakuk’, known as ‘Lo Zuccone’ (pumpkin head) due to his bald pate. The other two are prophets, described as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘beardless’.

It is wonderful to be able to see the panels from the campanile walls up close. The hexagonal panels by Andrea Pisano show the creation of man, followed by the mechanical arts and then the creative arts. Again, tap image for caption.

Above each hexagonal panel is a lozenge, again by Andrea Pisano; these cover the planets, the liberal arts, the virtues and the seven cardinal sins; I show just three.

Now we come to some art works from inside the cathedral. Most famous is the unsettling ‘Magdalen’ carved in wood by Donatello, a work of staggering realism.

There are a number of painted art works, both panel and fresco.

I had quite forgotten that there is a ‘Pieta’ by Michaelangelo here. Less famous than his St Peter’s work from 1498, this is his penultimate work from 1546; he portrays himself in the face of Niccodemus.

The cathedral is perhaps best known for its dome, designed and built by Brunelleschi. This is celebrated in a large room which includes models of the dome and cupola, cut away to reveal structural details. There is an informative audio-visual display and models of equipment used to hoist the blocks. Finally, a projection shows the stained glass windows within the dome tambour.

Next we come to another large space where the two cantoria (choir lifts) designed by della Robbia and Donatello face each other. Firstly, that of della Robbia:

And now Donatello:

Time moves on and we leave the Renaissance to the time of Mannersim when Duke Cosimo I commissioned Bacco Bandinelli to sculpt some works to decorate the new sacristy.

Perhaps the most beautiful object on display is a stunning silver altar which was worked on by a series of smiths over a period scanning the 14th into the 15th century. It has a quite amazing sheen and detail.

Next, one reaches a series of wooden models put forward as replacement facades in a Renaissance style; none were ever realised. Here is where one can look through the museum walls to compare with the original designs as seen below.

The visit finishes on an open terrace with magnificent views of the dome. A perfect end to a fulfilling and exciting visit. If I’m Florence it should be right at the top of your list!

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