Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 25: Florence, Part 5

November 1, 2022


The Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo)

Italy boasts approximately 3,000 churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and this is one of them.

It serves as the religious center of Florence and is a symbol of the city.

The white, pink, and green marbles create exquisite geometric patterns, making it a marvel of Italian Gothic architecture, characterized by grandeur, balance, and elegance.

Construction began in the 13th century under Arnolfo di Cambio, befitting Florence's prosperity at the time, with the aim of being "as magnificent and sumptuous as possible."

It took almost 200 years, until the 15th century when Filippo Brunelleschi completed the dome (cupola), a feat of engineering considered impossible at the time.

The cathedral can accommodate around 30,000 people.

In the 15th century, a competition was held in Florence to decide how to construct a dome over the sanctuary, which stands at an impressive 50 meters in height and 40 meters in diameter.

This was an exceptionally challenging task with the technology available at the time.

However, Brunelleschi, drawing from his knowledge of ancient architecture, including the Pantheon in Rome, devised a solution.

He built a double-shell dome, using the inner dome to support the outer one, gradually working upwards.

The result was a beautifully curved and perfectly balanced dome, completed over the course of 15 years.

It was the world's first dome constructed without support pillars and was the largest of its kind during its time.

Brunelleschi's achievement in constructing this colossal dome, once considered unfeasible with contemporary technology, marked the rebirth of classical ideas—the Renaissance—and opened the door to this era.


In the museum attached to the cathedral, there is a relief sculpture from the 13th century depicting monks examining urine samples with flasks in the monastery.

These monks observed the color, quantity, smell, and sometimes even the taste (!) of urine to diagnose the illnesses of patients, and they prepared herbal remedies.

Since then, the flask for examining urine has become a symbol for those involved in healthcare.

I've never tasted it myself, but it's true that the urine of diabetes patients is sweet.

In Latin, diabetes mellitus means "incessantly flowing honey-like urine," as diabetes translates to "incessantly flowing water" and mellitus means "honey-like."

Ultimately, diabetes mellitus refers to the condition of continuously excreting sweet urine.

 In Greek mythology, the almighty god Zeus was raised on honey given to him by a woman named Melissa when he was a baby.

From this legend, honey came to be called "mella" in Latin and "mellitus" for something honey-like.

 I'm once again amazed by the deep connection between medicine and Greek mythology, as well as the sophisticated sense of humor with which Europeans describe medical conditions.