Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Arnolfo di Cambio

Principal master of Italian Gothic (c. 1232-1300)

Click to enlarge

Arnolfo di Cambio, sometimes called DI LAPO, the principal master of Italian Gothic, b. at Florence, about 1232; d. in the same city, in the seventy-first year of his age probably in 1300, during the brief period of Dante’s power. Who Arnolfo was seems to be scarcely known, though few architects have left greater works or more evidence of power. According to Baldinucci, Cicognara, and Gaye, the father of Arnolfo was called Cambio, and came from Colle, in the Val d’Elsa. Arnolfo’s first appearance in history seems to have been among the band of workmen engaged upon the pulpit in the Duomo of Sienna, as pupil or journeyman of Nicolo Pisano. With him there was a certain Lapo, sometimes called his father (Vasari), sometimes his instructor, but who very likely was only his fellow-workman and associate. The same band of workmen, under the same master, Nicolo, worked also in Pisa, Perugia, Cortona, Orvieto, and Rome. Arnolfo was thirty years old when his father died. He had already attained high repute, having learned from his father whatever the latter could teach, and also having studied the art of design under Cimabue for the purpose of employing it in sculpture. He was already considered the best architect in Tuscany when the Florentines confided to him the construction of the outer circle of their city walls; they also erected after his plans the Loggia of Or San Michele, their corn-market, covering it with a simple roof, and building the piers of brick. The year when the cliff of the Magnoli, undermined by water, crumbled away on the side of San Giorgio, above Santa Lucia, on the Via de’ Bardi, the Florentines issued a decree that no building should be thenceforth erected on this perilous site. In this regulation they followed Arnolfo’s counsel. His judgment has been proved correct by the ruin of many magnificent houses and other buildings in later times.

In 1285, Arnolfo built the Loggia and Piazza of the Priori. He also rebuilt the principal chapel of the Badia (abbey) at Florence, with an additional chapel on each side, and restored the church and choir which had been constructed on a much smaller scale by Count Ugo, the founder of that abbey. The old church was demolished later, in 1625, and was rebuilt in the form of a Greek cross. For Cardinal Giovanni degli Orsini. the pope’s legate in Tuscany, Arnolfo erected the campanile of the same church, a work highly appreciated in those times; but the stonework of this tower was not completed until the year 1330. In the year 1294, the church of Santa Croce, belonging to the Friars Minor, was begun after the designs of Arnolfo, in which he gave so large an extent to the nave and side aisles that the excessive width rendered it impossible to bring the arches within the roof; he therefore judiciously raised arches from pier to pier, and on these he constructed the roofs, from which he conducted the water by stone gutters built on the arches, giving them such a degree of inclination that the roofs were secured against injury from damp. The novelty and the ingenuity of his contrivance were no greater than its utility. At a later period, Arnolfo drew the plans for the first cloister to the old convent of this church. Soon afterwards he superintended the removal of the various arches and tombs (ancient monuments mentioned by Boccaccio) in stone and marble, that surrounded parts of the external walls of the church of San Giovanni, and covered the walls of the church with block marble from Prato. About the same time the Florentines wished to erect certain buildings in the upper Val d’Arno, above the fortress of San Giovanni and Castel Franco, for the greater convenience of the inhabitants and the more commodious supply of their markets; they entrusted the design of these works also to Arnolfo (1295), and he so completely satisfied them that he was elected a citizen of Florence. When these undertakings were completed, the Florentines resolved to construct a cathedral in their city, of such extent and magnificence that human power or industry should be able to produce nothing superior or more beautiful. Arnolfo prepared and executed the model for the cathedral, afterwards known as Santa Maria del Fiore, directing that the external walls should be encrusted with polished marbles, rich cornices, pilasters, columns, carved foliage, figures, and other ornaments. The cathedral, as Amolfo planned it, may be seen in Simone Memmi’s great painting in the Spanish chapel in Santa Maria Novella. In his general plan he incorporated the earlier (cathedral) church known as Santa Reparata, besides other small churches and houses which stood around it. To please the Signoria he also built into the new edifice the tower of the Vacca, or “Cow”, in which hung the great bell of Florence, that with good-natured pleasantry was so styled by the Florentines. To accommodate this tower at the center of the building was a troublesome business (Vasari) but it was so skillfully accomplished by “filling up the tower with good material” such as flint and lime, and laying a foundation of immense stones, that it proved equal to the support of that enormous construction, the cupola, which Brunelleschi erected upon it, and which Arnolfo had probably not even thought of placing thereon. The cathedral was finally completed in May, 1886. Within a few years the cathedral, the Palazzo Publico, and the two great churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, sprang up almost simultaneously. The Duomo was founded, according to some, in 1294, the same year in which Santa Croce was begun; according to others, in 1298. Between these two dates, in 1296, Arnolfo undertook the erection of the Palace of the Signoria, the seat of the Florentine commonwealth and the center of all popular life. His genius requires no other evidence than these famous edifices. The stern strength of the Palazzo and the noble lines of the cathedral show how well he knew how to vary and adapt his art to the different requirements of municipal and religious functions, and to the necessities of the age. Arnolfo died after he had built the Palazzo and just as the round apse of the cathedral was approaching completion. His portrait by Giotto may be seen in Santa Croce, beside the principal chapel; he is one of the two men who are speaking together in the foreground, where monks are represented lamenting the death of St. Francis.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!