Florence’s Churches: a tour between anecdotes and secrets
And of all I saw and of all I praised, The most to praise and the best to see
Was the startling bell-tower Giotto raised; But why did it more than startle me? – R. Browning
The tour of the most beautiful churches in Florence is a unique experience. What we offer you is a really short journey, if compared to the entire architectural and religious Florentine heritage: in the city there are more than 200 churches (plus over fifty deconsecrated ones) which have been, over the centuries, places of artistic expression, as well as of faith and prayer.
Florence’s religious architecture ranges from Romanesque to Gothic, up to Renaissance style, and often within the same structure, styles were overlapped during renovations and reconstructions. Many Florentine churches, indeed, just as the most classic of them, the Duomo, have been built in subsequent periods: designed in 1300, completed in 1500 and finished in the Modern Era. An example: the first stone of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) was laid in 1296, in 1418 a call for the construction of the dome was issued, while the façade was built in 1870.
By reading any classic travel guide of Florence, you will get detailed information about the architecture and styles of the religious heritage of the city. That’s Florence! instead, wants to provide small details and funny curiosities, to allow you to get closer to the historical and mystical birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the gnomonic hole
Our tour of the most beautiful churches of Florence begins right from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Known as the Duomo and symbol of Florence, this is one of the most important examples of Italian Gothic style.
Although many masterpieces inside the Cathedral have been transferred to the Museum Opera del Duomo, you can still admire the works of great artists such as Michelangelo, Donatello, Niccolò da Tolentino, Andrea del Castagno, Vasari, Zuccaro, Antonio Del Pollaiuolo and Paolo Uccello. However, the most spectacular achievement in Santa Maria del Fiore is definitely Brunelleschi’s dome, that rises more than 100 meters high and is universally regarded as the first great example of Renaissance architecture.
The dome has a small but important astronomical instrument on the top, designed by Paolo Toscanelli, a mathematician and cartographer of 1400. It is a gnomonic hole, which filters the sunlight to project it as a beam on the floor of the Cathedral, just as it happens with sundials. This simple tool, has served as a basis for important astronomical discoveries that led, for example, to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, to the precise definition of the calendar year and of the variation of the Earth’s axis. All this, thanks to a small 4 centimeters hole, from which the human eye observed the sun.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo, the oldest church in Florence
Not far from the square where the Cathedral stands, along a short stretch of Via de’ Cerratani and then via Borgo San Lorenzo, we come to the Basilica of San Lorenzo. This is considered to be the oldest church in the city. Rebuilt in Romanesque style in 1060, it was then re-designed in 1423, according to Brunelleschi’s artistic project.
The church is flanked by the Old Sacristy, by Brunelleschi too, and the New Sacristy, built by Michelangelo instead: the latter is also the one who designed the tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Giuliano De’ Medici, kept in the Chapel of the Princes. The church was in fact the one preferred by the De’ Medici Family, who embellished it by gathering the best artists of the period, as Michelangelo and Donatello, but also Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Andrea Verrocchio.
In the upper part of the church, on the apse of San Lorenzo, there is a magnificent pipe organ built in 1864 by the famous Fratelli Serassi factory, from Bergamo. The fine carvings of the console and the valuable woodwork, make this impressive musical instrument a unique work of art.
Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, painting lessons with Michelangelo
You enter, in your Florence wanderings, Santa Maria Novella church. You pass The left stair, where, at plague-time, Macchiavel Saw one with set fair face as in a glass, Dressed out against the fear of death and hell.- E. Barrett
Behind San Lorenzo, along via Aretino and then off Via Sant’Antonio up to Piazza dell’Unità, you come to Via degli Avelli, which leads to the magnificent Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Behind the magnificent church, which also gives name to the neighborhood, you will find Santa Maria Novella train station and the Cascine Park, where Florentines usually meet on Tuesdays to shop at the market, on Sundays to relax and skate, on Ascension Day for the famous Festa del Grillo.
The Church of Santa Maria Novella was built in the XIII century by the Dominican friars. The façade is in Romanesque-Gothic style with white and green marble. Among the many magnificent works within it, worth a mention: the fresco depicting the Trinity by Masaccio, Brunelleschi’s Crucifix and that by Giotto as well.
Young Michelangelo, pupil at Ghirlandaio’s workshop at the time, learned important painting techniques right during the implementation of the frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel. One day, Domenico Ghirlandaio found the young fifteen-years-old student while painting some scenes of everyday life seen through the windows of the church: the precision of details was such as to make him confess to Vasari: “He’s better than me.”
Santa Maria del Carmine, an exciting expulsion from Paradise
From Piazza Santa Maria Novella, in the direction of River Arno, starts Via dei Fossi, which leads into Piazza Carlo Goldoni. From here, on Via Borgo Ognissanti, we reach the church of the same name, famous for having been the family church of the great explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci. Going ahead, you find via Melegnano, which leads to the bridge over the Arno entitled to the navigator who first realized that the New World was not part of the Asian continent. After the bridge, the road called Via Sant’Onofrio leads to Piazza de’ Nerli and crosses via dell’Orto which leads to another of the most beautiful churches of Florence, Santa Maria del Carmine. We are in the Oltrarno district, that the Florentines call Diladdarno, and where among the numerous workshops one can breathe the spirit of Renaissance Florence.
The church of Santa Maria del Carmine is famous for the Brancacci Chapel, which boasts frescoes by artists of the likes of Masaccio, Masolino da Panicale and Filippino Lippi. Among the scenes painted in the chapel, one in particular captures the eye and the soul of the spectator: the first in the top left corner, where an angel with a sword banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Adam covers his face with his hand in shame, while Eve’s expression is devastated by the pain and her hands, for the first time in her life, cover her breasts and pubic area. A really deep emotion.
As for many churches of Florence, also Santa Maria del Carmine has a long history unfolded over the centuries. Dates back to 1268, it was completed in 1480, then renovated between 1500 and 1660, destroyed by a fire in 1771 and rebuilt in the following decades. Of particular historical and architectural interest is the Convent next to the church with a cloister dating back to 1600 and a lounge with the splendid Cenacle by Alessandro Allori.
The Church of Santo Spirito, Buonarroti’s school of anatomy
Leaving Santa Maria del Carmine and walking along Via Santa Monica, which becomes Via Sant’Agostino, you come to Piazza Santo Spirito, which hosts the homonymous Basilica, one of Florence’s major churches.
The Church of Santo Spirito has a smooth white facade, apparently anonymous, but as a whole, it is the ultimate expression of Brunelleschi’s architectural art. The church was based on his design, but built only after his death, in 1446. In addition to the numerous works of art preserved in the aisles, including 38 richly decorated altars on the sides of the church, the magnificent transects with richly decorated chapels, the octagonal sacristy from which you access the Cloister of the Dead – so called for the many tombstones placed on the walls – the Church of Santo Spirito is famous also for a crucified Christ made by a young Michelangelo Buonarroti. The artist, at the age of 17, after the death of his patron Lorenzo De’ Medici, took refuge here with the prior of the Church. The latter, understanding Michelangelo’s artistic grandeur, allowed him to deepen the studies of anatomy directly on corpses. Vasari writes that the crucifix was made by Michelangelo “thanks to the patronizing prior, who hosted him in comfortable rooms, and gave him the opportunity to skin dead bodies, in order to study anatomy, so that he begun to give perfection to his great artistic value“. An artistic value that allowed him to achieve his greatest works, including the Sistine Chapel and the Pietà.
The Basilica of Santa Croce, the Pantheon of Artists
…On the farther side of which rose a black-and-white facade of surpassing ugliness. Miss Lavish spoke to it dramatically. It was Santa Croce.- E. M Forster
The Basilica of Santo Spirito is the last of the most beautiful churches in Florence’s Oltrarno. Slipping along via de’ Pitti, you come right on the square of the Pitti Palace, then you cross Via de’ Guicciardini, which leads to Lungarno Torrigiani and then Ponte delle Grazie. Through which, along Via de’ Benci, you arrive in Piazza Santa Croce, where stands this wonderful Franciscan basilica.
The Basilica of Santa Croce, built at the end of the 13th century, is one of the best examples of Italian Gothic architecture. The interior of the Basilica is adorned by two chapels painted by Giotto: the Bardi Chapel – decorated with the Stories of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and the Peruzzi Chapel – with frescoes depicting the Stories of St. Francis. Of admirable workmanship is the “Cappella de’ Pazzi” by Brunelleschi, another masterpiece of Renaissance art.
The Basilica of Santa Croce is considered the Pantheon of artists, and is nicknamed “The Temple of Italy’s Glory“: here are kept the mortal remains of famous artists and thinkers, like artists Donatello, Michelangelo, Leon Battista Alberti and Lorenzo Ghiberti, scientists Galileo Galilei, Guglielmo Marconi and Enrico Fermi, composers and musicians Luigi Cherubini and Rossini, writers Niccolò Machiavelli and Ugo Foscolo.
The Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, a miraculous church
Leaving the Basilica of Santa Croce, in the bottom of the square, on the right, starts Via Giuseppe Verdi, which in ancient times was called Via del Fosso because it was located along the moat that surrounded the first circle of the city walls. After Piazza Gaetano Salvemini, via Verdi becomes Via Fiesolana, which little more than a hundred meters away crosses Via degli Alfani.
Via degli Alfani leads to another of the most beautiful and important churches of Florence included in this tour, the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata. The homonymous Square, connected to the Basilica through Via dei Servi, is characterized by a great harmony of style and is home to several historic buildings, such as the Hospital of the Innocents, a masterpiece by Brunelleschi and the first orphanage in Europe, and the Lodge of the Servants of Mary, designed by Bacio D’Agnolo and Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. The Church of the Santissima Annunziata is Florence’s Marian Church, boasts lavish interiors and is literally covered with works of art from the 14th to the 19th century.
According to a legend told by the members of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Florentine nobles devoted to charity and prayer, the church has a miraculous origin. It is said that a famous painter of the time, Fra’ Bartolomeo, was commissioned to decorate the oratory that stood there before the Basilica, with a fresco depicting the Annunciation. As the work was almost entirely completed, the artist lacked only the Virgin’s face, but he didn’t know how to represent it. Fallen into a deep sleep, when he woke up the painting turned out miraculously finished. The mass of people who shortly thereafter began to go on a pilgrimage to the place of the event, persuaded the guardians of the Oratory that the time had come to build a real church, which, by the years between 1250 and 1500 was well built, finished and consecrated.
The Church of San Marco, Savonarola’s Pulpit
The last stop of the tour of the most beautiful churches in Florence is towards the Church of San Marco, just a few minutes away from Via Cesare Battisti. Near the church rises the National Museum of San Marco, located in the historical part of a former Dominican convent renovated by Cosimo de Medici. Here lived Beato Angelico and Girolamo Savonarola, the mad monks, who railed hard against the Florentines’ lascivious habits and ostentatious luxury, considered safe routes to the devastation on human souls. The museum houses an evocative painting depicting Girolamo Savonarola burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria, but also collects the works by Fra Angelico.
The Church of San Marco stands where once stood an oratory dedicated to St. George. In 1437, Michelozzo began the renovation of the complex, while the decorations were entrusted to Beato Angelico. Consecrated in 1443, the monumental structure was transformed into a museum in 1869. The history of the Church of San Marco is closely linked to that of Girolamo Savonarola, who, from its pulpits, preached and gave lessons on the Holy Scriptures before falling into disgrace and being tortured and then hanged and burned at the stake as a heretic.
From Piazza San Marco branch out two streets, Via Ricasoli and Via Cavour, both leading, after 300 meters, to the heart of Florence, there where this tour of the most important churches of the cradle of the Italian Renaissance started, Piazza del Duomo.