Several beautiful sculptures adorn the facade and sides of the world-famous Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, yet many of them go unnoticed, especially when observed with a quick, distracted glance. One sculpture, likely ignored by many, seems to be out of place: the head of a horned ox.
It’s located along the left side of the Cathedral, between via Ricasoli and via dei Servi.
What does the head of an ox have to do with Florence’s Duomo?
It’s a mix of history and legend that goes back to the time of the construction of the cathedral, around 1400, in the late Middle Ages. The official version says that the statue of the ox represents an homage to the animals that were so important during construction, transporting the heaviest materials to the construction site. It wasn't unusual in the past to dedicate sculptures to animals to recognize their sacrifice and help for building works of art.
Popular tradition, however, attributes the unusual sculpture to a rather different story. It was said that a master builder of the Cathedral had a love affair with a married woman, whose jealous husband was a tailor who lived on Via Ricasoli, very close to the Cathedral.
Upon learning of his wife's infidelity, the man decided to report the adultery to the ecclesiastical court. In response, the master builder chose to take revenge by placing the ox's head in such a way that the horns of the animal pointed exactly in the direction of the tailor's home to remind him every day of his 'betrayed husband' status (in Italy, horns are synonymous with infidelity; “essere cornuto”, to be ‘horned’, means to have been cheated on).
“Oltre al danno la beffa”, as we say in Italian (add insult to injury). You choose the story you like the best, and perhaps, next time you visit Florence’s Cathedral, go look for the ox’s head.
[Photo credit: Marcello Alinari / https://duomo.firenze.it/]