This long-awaited monograph by the former field director of the investigations at Florence Cathedral arrives nearly forty years after both the major excavations beneath the cathedral and Franklin Toker's extensive and brilliant excavation report published in 1975.1 It is part of the Florence Dome Project, which envisages the appearance of four volumes related to the diachronic history and the longue durée of this important monument. Known as Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral is the result of a series of building campaigns carried out from the end of the thirteenth century to the late fifteenth century under the guidance of celebrated architects and artists such as Arnolfo di Cambio, Francesco Talenti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Giotto. The Baptistery of San Giovanni corresponds more or less to the same chronological span, since its main building and decorative components date back to the period between the second half of the eleventh century and the beginning of the sixteenth. The history of the complex, however, is rooted in deeper history: corresponding to the western part of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Late Antiquity there stood the first Florentine ecclesia episcopalis. A first phase of the baptistery is likely to belong to this church, although our understanding of its chronology remains problematic. The earliest ecclesia underwent major structural changes in the course of the ninth century. In 852, it appears in written sources as domus sancti Iohanni, while a document from 987 mentions its dedication to Santa Reparata. The church of Santa Maria del Fiore that was built over this earlier structure became one of the most important architectural monuments of medieval Europe.
The excavations, conducted from 1969 to 1974, reach their final conclusion in this volume. In addition to the excavations that he oversaw himself, Toker examines earlier archaeological investigations that were conducted at the site starting in the late nineteenth century. He also includes the “informal excavations,” which began in 1331 on the initiative of the Bishop Francesco Salvestri, and in which were found (according to their medieval chronicler Giovanni Villani) the remains of Saint Zenobius, an important bishop of the church of Florence in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.
The book is divided into three main parts, each organized into multiple chapters. The first part of the book, “Excavated Structures,” includes a helpful timeline and an extensive section documenting the cathedral and its baptistery in color photography. Here, Toker rightfully describes the Baptistery of San Giovanni as “among the most enigmatic buildings in Europe” in terms of its original form and building chronology. He provides a very useful and substantial review of all previous investigations of the monument and attributes its original construction to the early Middle Ages. Toker's proposal that the baptistery was an auxiliary to Santa Reparata rather than to Santa Maria del Fiore is a very important point, since the presence of a baptistery in close relation to the first church, likely in the sixth century, seems to confirm that this complex as a whole must have been the insula episcopalis, the main episcopal church of the city.
Part I ends with an extensive, detailed analysis of Santa Maria del Fiore and Santa Reparata, moving backward from the most recent material to Roman times. This analysis is the largest and most important part of the book, providing a new understanding of the building's formal evolution and historical context. The discussion is enriched by ground plans, elevation drawings, and other helpful illustrations, many of which originated in connection with the site's excavations in the 1970s. Toker carefully examines the Late Antique building fabric, emphasizing the uncertainty of its dedication date while at the same time upholding the plausibility of its dedication to Santa Reparata. A central find from the original building is one of the biggest and most significant mosaic floors in all of Italy, located in an apsidal interior divided into three aisles by two rows of columns, an arrangement common to Late Antique episcopal complexes. Based on the correspondence of the results from radiocarbon dating to epigraphic considerations of the donor inscriptions in the mosaic floor, Toker proposes a sixth-century date for the original church building. The subsequent early medieval phase involved major structural and planimetric changes, wherein the building was expanded with side chapels and a crypt. This expansion likely reflects significant investments on the part of Carolingian elites, whose intention could be described as the renewal of the postclassical city. Such investment would have occurred in spite of socioeconomic policies that, at least in Tuscany, had by the ninth century onward diverted spending to rural areas.
The smaller second and third parts of the book may be of less direct interest to architectural historians, but they offer useful considerations for the chronology and use of the buildings and their phases. The second section, “Excavated Artefacts,” is a collaboration among several medieval archaeologists and art historians, who examine all of the finds from the excavations. The section begins with a methodological introduction by Toker, which is followed by specialized discussions focusing on the ceramic and numismatic finds as well as art historical analyses of paintings and sculptures from various eras spanning Roman through early medieval contexts. The final part of the book, “Application of Archaeological Science,” presents a very useful study of issues related to archaeometrical analysis. The first two chapters of this part, which are coauthored by several scholars, follow a diachronic and archaeological approach to provide a detailed overview of the absolute chronologies inferred from the stratigraphic analyses of the various phases of Santa Reparata. The authors support a dating of the earliest construction of the church building to the sixth century, and indeed samples from the mosaic floor may conclusively exclude an alternative dating to the second half of the fourth century. In addition, anthropological studies of the remains found in the graveyards (most notably those of Filippo Brunelleschi) provide interesting insight into the daily life of medieval Florence and its inhabitants. The book ends with a concise but exhaustive summary of the technological applications employed in the study, including dendrochronology, thermoluminescence, archaeomagnetism, and metallurgy.
To sum up, Toker and the numerous other scholars who have contributed to this volume provide an authoritative overview of, and compelling conclusion to, centuries of archaeological campaigns. This book will be a fundamental point of reference for researchers interested in the Florence Cathedral and, more generally, Roman to Renaissance Florence. Moreover, it sets a brilliant example for archaeologists and historians of art and architecture wishing to collaborate across disciplines to create successful diachronic analyses of important monuments and sites of long duration.
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- 1.↵I wish to convey my deepest thanks to Professor Olof Brandt (Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana) for giving me the chance to write this review.Franklin Toker, “Scavi del complesso altomedievale di Santa Reparata sotto il Duomo di Firenze,” Archeologia Medievale, no. 2 (1975), 161–90.