“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.
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).
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
Click to read Churches of Florence: A Love Story Part Two