A site for sore eyes: Florence's Duomo reopens with high tech social distancing alarms

Patrick Sawer
The small device, distributed free of charge at the beginning of a visit and returned at the end to be sanitized, signals with a sound, vibration and light when the minimum allowed distance between visitors is being exceeded - FLORENCE MUSEUM PRESS OFFICE/AFP via Getty Images

Like generations of pilgrims before them they stared in wonder up at the interior of Brunelleschi’s 295ft high Duomo, enraptured by all its renaissance glory.

But there was something distinctive that marked out these visitors to Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore from the thousands of cultural tourists and devout worshippers who have come before.

Around their necks hung a special gadget designed to emit an alarm each time they strayed too close to another visitor.

Welcome to sightseeing in the age of Covid-19.

Not that anyone was complaining. For those who had queued up on Friday, on the first day of its reopening since Italy’s strict lockdown began, it was enough simply to be able to enter the doors of the great cathedral and enjoy its ornate interiors once again.

“Finalmente!” shouted one woman in delight as the doors were swung open by masked security staff. “At last!”

The special devices, which are anonymous and do not track any data and are issued free on entry to each visitor, flash, vibrate and beep when people come within two metres of each other (see picture below). 

an attendant (L) handing to a visitor a new device that allows to maintain a safe distance between visitors, during testing on the eve of the museum's and Florence's Duomo reopening as the country eases its lockdown - FLORENCE MUSEUM PRESS OFFICE/AFP via Getty Images

Timothy Verdon, director of the Duomo Museum, said the cathedral is the first in the world to employ such a device in a museum setting, adding that visitor numbers will be reduced in line with Italy's continuing social distancing measures, with online booking and masks now obligatory.

At the entrance, guards used thermal scanners to take the temperature of visitors, before each one was given one of the devices. These will later be disinfected before being used again.

While this may appear an antiseptic way of enjoying one of the world’s greatest churches it will come as a welcome relief to hundreds of Italians and foreign visitors, deprived until now of a glimpse of the divine since churches and cultural institutions shut in March.

"It's beautiful and touching to see the Duomo open again, especially since it's not often that you see it so empty," said Marco, a local resident. "It's even better that way."

Gabriele, another Florentine, pointed out that visits to the cathedral and its associated sights - which include the famous octagonal Baptistery and Giotto's free-standing 85 metre tall Campanile - were free until the end of the month.

"It's been so many years since I've gone inside the Duomo. It's a perfect occasion to take advantage of with fewer tourists and people," he said. "It's a great feeling."

Within 24 hours of the announcement that the Duomo was to re-open, more than 10,000 people reserved tickets.

The Duomo’s administrators said they were surprised by the overwhelming enthusiasm of those who wanted to visit the building, begun in 1296 in the Gothic style and not completed until 1436, with the building of Filippo Brunelleschi’s Dome.  

Lorenzo Luchetti, director general of Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, which administers the cathedral, said the reopening marked a symbolic moment for Italy following the ordeal of the pandemic, which has killed more than 32,600 people on the peninsula.

"We decided to reopen free of charge for everyone to give a message of hope, of revival, of a return to normal life," he said.