The last exhibition area, a “museum within the museum”, is comprised of five spaces illustrating the façade made for the Cathedral in the 19th century. The first of these, a corridor with showcases at right and left, introduces the history of the new façade beginning with the painted Duomo front done in 1688, the last traces of which are visible in mid 19th-century photographs. Damaged by exposure to the elements, this mural originally made as decoration for a Medici wedding evoked the distant past: the Medici dynasty had ceased to rule in 1737. Their successors, the grand dukes of the Lorena family, returning from the exile imposed by Napoleon, found a cultural climate eager for new social and artistic ideas.
Proposals for an architectural façade to replace the ruined painted front began to circulate in the early 1820s and were all in a gothic style that alluded to the Florence of Dante. The design process, occupying almost eighty years of time and marked by intense artistic and ideological debate, coincided with the national unification movement known as the Risorgimento, and the façade of Florence Cathedral in fact was the initial creative project of the new Kingdom of Italy. Its first stone was laid by Victor Emmanuel II in 1860 and the last of its bronze doors was unveiled in the presence of Victor Emmanuel III in 1903.
On view in this room are drawings, watercolors and prints by Giorgio Muller, Niccolò Matas and Emilio De Fabris belonging to the early stages of planning for the façade. A cast of Aristodemo Costoli’s circular relief in honor of Arnolfo di Cambio placed in the Duomo in 1844 evokes the renewed interest in the building’s early history in those years and the resulting neo-gothic trend in Florentine taste. Two large paintings by Niccolò Barducci then shift attention to the final phase of the planning process; realised in 1884-1885, they depict the two solutions finally proposed by the architect chosen, Emilio De Fabris: the “cusped” and the “basilican”.
The whole debate about the façade in fact revolved around which of these interpretations of gothic style was aesthetically and politically preferable. Many considered the cusped version to be “northern” and thus “Austrian”, in an Italy then still under the yoke of Vienna. By contrast the basilican version, more rectilinear, less pointy, seemed authentically “Italic”.
This room offers samples of the rich decoration realised or at least planned for De Fabris’s façade on the basis of Augusto Conti’s iconographic program, with Lot Torelli’s Adam and Eve, set on the front in 1886, and Giobata Tassara’s Aaron and Samuel statues, commissioned in 1882-1883. Also of interest is Amos Cassioli’s Founders of the Florentine Charitable Institutions, painted for the December 1879 unveiling of the façade’s left side, with plaster versions of the statues and canvases in place of the future mosaics. The mosaic finally realised was done to a design by Niccolò Barabino, but Cassioli’s painting, unfortunately damaged in the 1966 flood, is an important instance of the complexity of the planning process, and was among the works on display when the Museo dell’Opera opened its doors to the public in 1891.
In this fourth room visitors see a pencil and wash delineation of one of the bronze doors of the new facade, a work by Amos Cassioli and his son Giuseppe, and – in the showcase occupying the room’s far end - three bronze panels by Giusepe Cassioli, demonstration pieces for one of the doors. The final competition regarding the new façade was in fact that organised by the Promotional Deputation in 1887 for the three doors, the last of which, Augusto Passaglia’s main portal, was solemnly unveiled in 1903 in the presence of Italy’s King and Queen. This room also contains 19th-century vestments and liturgical furnishings.
Emilio De Fabris died in 1883 without seeing the completion of the façade to which he had dedicated almost his entire professional life, and here a period portrait of the architect seems to look at two paintings made a year later in preparation for the mosaics which would adorn the north and south portals: Charity with Representative of Florentine Charitable Institutions and Faith with Representatives of the Florentine Guilds, both by Niccolò Barabino. The cartoon for the mosaic above the center façade portal, Christ Entroned Among Saints, also by Barabino, is exhibited on the landing of the New Staircase.
In Barabino’s paintings, where Virtues are depicted with the appearance of Mary, and in the plaster models for the portraits of illustrious Tuscans set high on the façade, we hear an echo of the iconographic program articulated by the philosopher Augusto Conti, in which Marian devotion and civic culture interpenetrate and become one, as in the sentence from Conti’s program reproduced here in a wall text. After De Fabris’s death the task of completing the façade was entrusted to his assistant Luigi del Moro, appointed head architect of the Opera del Duomo in 1884. When the façade was officially inaugurated on 12 May 1887 it was in fact Del Moro who received both the praise and the criticism directed toward the work. Del Moro was the architect of the few exhibition spaces of the origianl Museo dell’Opera: his neo-Renaissance style is seen in the 19th-century staircase visitors descend to reach the Cappella Musicale, the Cortile di Ticciati and the exit.