The Duomo of Florence in colour: the surprise during restoration
Thanks to the work on the Cornacchini Gate, it was discovered that the sculptural group of the Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels was polychrome
During the restoration of the Porta dei Cornacchini in the Duomo of Florence, which began in September 2021 and was completed a few days ago, extensive traces of colour were discovered on the marble sculptural group of the Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels, made between 1359 and 1360, confirming that the sculptural group was originally polychrome. By removing considerable deposits of surface dirt and degradation phenomena of various kinds, the restorers brought to light the precious damask decoration of the Child's robe, lacking the now-lost metal blade, the pupil of the Virgin's left eye and, in circumscribed areas, the blue-green colour of the inside of the Virgin's mantle and traces of red on the outside as well as the creamy-ivory tones of the left angel's robe.
This is the first time such extensive traces of colour have been found on sculptures that decorate or adorned the exterior of Florence Cathedral. Previously, tiny traces of gilding and blue colour had been found on other sculptures in the Cathedral.
In all likelihood, the Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels was not the only one of the polychrome sculptural decorations in Florence Cathedral that now appear the colour of white marble. Phenomena of decay but also aesthetic and conservative interventions carried out in previous centuries have contributed to their loss. A cathedral, therefore, in colour, which together with the white, green and pink marble of the exterior façades and the red and gold mosaics of the Arnolfo Canonici façade must have taken one's breath away with its beauty.
The restoration of the Porta dei Cornacchini and the marble facing of the north side of Florence Cathedral, covering a total of over 1,000 square metres, was commissioned and directed by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore with the contribution of the Fondazione CR Firenze under the supervision of the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio for the metropolitan city of Florence and the provinces of Pistoia and Prato.
Unfortunately, not much remains of the polychromy of the Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels because a compact brown oxalate layer is present on most of the sculptural group's surfaces. In agreement with the Superintendency, the decision was made to remove the surface deposits and the fluorosilicate product and leave the brown layer, which is a natural protective layer and has made it possible to preserve the marble of the sculpture, which is in a good state of preservation.
"The exciting discovery of polychromy on the figures of the Porta dei Cornacchini of Florence Cathedral," explains Timothy Verdon, director of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, "reminds us that Florence in the late 14th and early 15th centuries was a very colourful city, just think of the pavement of Piazza del Duomo that was made of terracotta and the white, green and pink marble that stood out against this red backdrop. The cathedral also had statues painted with gilding on the angels' wings and robes, so it was a celebration, a celebration that we have forgotten and are now beginning to rediscover'.