The entire flock of pre-modern Western thought, religious, spiritual, artistic and scholastic, seems to have roosted in this remarkable tower. In the 14th century these various species were all alive and comprehensible, but since then most of them have become extinct, and interpretation of such a complex monument is today a largely irrelevant exercise. The tower remains an iconic feature of the architectural landscape of Florence, and of what the city has come to represent for Western civilisation.
Arnolfo di Cambio, the first Master of the Works of the Cathedral, died in 1302, and 32 years later Giotto was appointed his successor in 1334. He was 67 years old, and devoted himself to designing this free-standing bell-tower, of which only the ground floor had been completed by the time of his death in 1337. His plans were nevertheless scrupulously followed by Andrea Pisano, and completed in 1359 by Francesco Talenti, who omitted Giotto’s spire, thereby reducing the intended overall height by 37.5 metres. Although principally known as a painter, Giotto was also one of the founding fathers of Italian Renaissance architecture, along with Brunelleschi and Alberti.
Apart from the complex mathematical correspondences involved in the geometry of the building, the façade was adorned with panels of sculpture designed to beam out a whole new outlook on the world. It is tempting to draw a comparison with early black-and-white silent movies from Hollywood, which rapidly developed into a powerful world-wide phenomenon. Giotto’s tower and its context projected what they represented, affecting the likes of Trithemius, Paracelsus, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus, and many more, and profoundly changed the world in many ways. By comparison, from Hollywood we got Ben Hur and Terminator 2!