“I never weary of great churches. It is my favorite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson
Like many who have fallen for Italy, I too never weary of churches. I am not shy in professing my love of all things Duomo, but, a dire la verità (to tell the truth), a church doesn’t have to be especially grand to steal a piece of my heart.
If Wikipedia has its numbers updated and correct, there are 70 churches in Florence: 48 north of the Arno (the Duomo side), 22 south of the Arno (the Oltrarno/Santo Spirito/across the Ponte Vecchio side).
Of course there are the rockstars: Santa Maria del Fiore topped with Filippo Brunelleschi’s iconic red dome, Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. Italy Magazine names these as the three most important churches in Florence and in my opinion, should not be missed by a visitor to the Renaissance capital.
But my love story with the churches of Florence has built over time, spanning several years and separate visits. It’s a story still being written, one I hope to add to, chapter by chapter, for many years to come.
Santa Maria del Fiore
I can’t help myself, loving this cathedral so much. It overwhelms with its beauty, grace, architecture and dominance. I have seen visitors to Florence, upon catching their first glimpse, drop their bags on the sidewalk and scramble for their camera, mouths agape and eyes fixed on the Duomo.
Noteworthy: Filippo Brunelleschi, who solved the problem of constructing the dome and presented the world with his engineering wonder is buried in the lower level of the church, amongst the artifacts of Santa Reparta, the early Christian church dating back to the fourth century.
Tips: I highly recommend investing in the Firenze Card, especially if you will be in Florence for a couple of days. With it, you can access Florence’s most popular attractions and significantly reduce your entrance wait time. Purchase in various locations around the city, including the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio. Visit Museum Florence for tourist information.
About a half mile away and easy walk from Santa Maria del Fiore is the basilica of Santa Croce, the main Franciscan church of Florence, said to be founded by St. Francis himself. Santa Croce houses 16 chapels, including that of the Pazzi family, deadly rivals of the Medici.
Noteworthy: Here you will find tombs to some of history’s most famous Italians, including Michelangelo (pictured above), Galileo and Machiavelli. The chapels and grounds of Santa Croce provide peaceful spots to wander, and there is a long list of artwork housed here by Renaissance heavy-hitters, including Cimabue’s Crucifixtion, and works by Giotto, Vasari, della Robbia and Donatello.
Image Credits: exterior, Michelangelo’s Tomb
Resources: Wikipedia; for visitor information click here or here
Santa Maria Novella
Stepping out of the Florence’s main train station, one of the first structures one may see is this monochromatic stone church of Santa Maria Novella, from which the station takes its name.
It wasn’t until my fourth visit to Florence (!) that I saved time to explore the grounds of Santa Maria Novella, which include a church and cloisters. I was pleasantly surprised with the inviting piazza and graceful facade of the church’s front.
And once inside, there is much to see. This Gothic-Renaissance style church is the largest of the Dominican churches in Florence. Construction began in 1279 and it was consecrated in 1420, timing which was perfect for some of the Renaissance masters to be commissioned for the interior.
Look for works by Botticelli, Bronzino, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Lippi, Uccello, Vasari. Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, (below), is considered one of the finest early Renaissance examples of utilizing a vanishing point in a two-dimensional work to create the feeling of a three-dimensional space. In the Tornabuoni Chapel, Domenico Ghirlandaio and his team completed the frescoes, which included his young apprentice, Michelangelo Buonarroti.
The pulpit is noteworthy for both architectural and historical importance. “Commissioned by the Rucellai family in 1443, [it] was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and executed by his adopted son Andrea Calvalcanti. This pulpit has a particular historical significance, since it was from this pulpit that the first verbal attack was made on Galileo Galilei, leading eventually to his indictment [under the Roman Inquisition]”. (source)
Sidenote: The cloisters and grounds are peaceful and pleasant in their own right, a lovely place to wander, take in the frescoes and enjoy being removed from the crowds of Florence. While in the area, I highly recommend a visit to the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica, just a few blocks from the church. Now more of a perfume museum, this “pharmacy” was established by the monks of Santa Maria Novella in the 1200s and still sells some of the formulations popular during the Renaissance (including Mona Lisa’s scent of choice — acqua di rose, rose water).
Image Credits: Exterior photo one, exterior photo two,
Resources: Wikipedia, Museums in Florence, Atlas Obscura
Via Calzaiuoli is a street made for strolling. Along this pedestrian-only thoroughfare, you can easily access Florence’s biggest sites, from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio. Tucked in between these landmarks is the church of Orsanmichele. I passed it by numerous times before I finally ventured inside.
“Orsanmichele is a rather long name for a church, comprised of three different words all compressed into one,” writes Donna Scharnagl for Visit Florence. “First documented in the year 895, [Orsanmichele] stood as an oratory in the monastery St. Michael (San Michele). The construction was surrounded by a vegetable garden (orto) belonging to the Benedictine monastery. Thus the name, a bit modified over the years, became known as: Or – San – Michele.”
In 1337 the original structure was built, and Orsanmichele began its life as the granary of the republic (look for the grain chutes when you venture inside!). By the end of that century, the structure was consecrated as a Christian church and represented Florence’s numerous and most powerful guilds. Each commissioned a statue for one of the church’s 14 exterior niches to symbolize their guild. Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti, among others, contributed to the collection. (Originals housed in Orsanmichele’s museum).
It was very quiet the day I wandered inside the church. With soft light, muted colors and very few visitors (not to mention history and art), I highly recommend this peaceful spot.
Image credits: Orsanmichele exterior, interior images my own
Resources: Wikipedia; Visit Florence; I Musei del Bargello; The Churches of Florence
Click to read Churches of Florence: A Love Story Part Two
22 Comments Add yours
Your photos make me wish I as if I am back in Florence again! I’m always overwhelmed with the beauty of Italian churches. Thanks for a wonderful post.
Thank you, Katherine! I’m so happy you enjoyed it. Merry Christmas!
I love this post and can’t wait for the next! Where do you usually stay in Florence?? You and Debra have traveled Florence the most out of all the Italophilies I know. I’ve been there twice but for short intervals..must get there sooner!
Thank you! Hopefull I can get it published soon!! I have stayed in a few spots in Florence. I highly recommend Hotel Calzaiuoli, a little boutique hotel just a couple of blocks from the Duomo (it’s very close to Orsanmichele, located on the pedestrian only street). The staff are very kind, the rooms are beautiful and the location is perfetto! xoxo
I adore churches. First thing I look for is the red light/candle which shows the presence of the Eucharist. It is not in the same place in churches in Italy and can sometimes surprise you! How lovely to be in the presence of God and surrounded by beautiful art and sculpture.
Interesting note, I’ll keep watch for that red candle! Sending holiday blessings!
I really loved and enjoyed your descriptions of the churches, Part I. You and I have the same interests in the history and the art (since I was steeped in those areas because my father taught it all at MSU). I still have his slides from 1957 and 1966, when our family toured Europe together. Thanks for this “labor of love.” Beth
Thank you so much! You are lucky to have those slides. Were you in Florence in 1966? That was the year of the big flood. Thank you for being here. Love you!
Wonderful article thank you. I love Florence and am coming to study for a month next March. Can’t wait!😀
Thank you for spending some time here on my site! Wishing you a wonderful experience in Florence next spring!
Fun piece, Stacy! 🙂 Your love of Florence is contagious. Thank you for that. Have you ever been upstairs in Orsanmichele? I believe that’s the one that they open the upstairs on occasion. It is filled with sculptures and statues and amazing views.
Orsanmichele is usually quiet. It seems to be overlooked by most visitors to Florence. I take all my visitors there. I think it is stunning.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s a lovely place to pop into every day while in Florence!
What a beautiful post, especially coming up to Christmas. ( I abhor the commercialism of this time of year). Grazie dal cuore, carissima.
Thanks so much, Annmarie. I’m happy you liked the piece; I so enjoying writing this post. I agree with you about the commercialism. We get so far away from the intent of the season. Hope you are surrounded by all you love, this time of year and always!
Thank you. Great details … many about places that, like you, I’ve passed by (because there’s so darned much ELSE to see). Hope I can go back, because you’re correct: it takes multiple visits to squeeze it all in, unless one has a month or 2 for an extended stay.
Thank you, Brad, glad you enjoyed the piece. I find that’s the beauty of returning to the same spot over and over, to be able to absorb different details of a favorite city.
This is wonderful.
Thank you so much, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!