6 must-see churches in Florence
Santa Maria Novella, the bride of Michelangelo*
https://www.smn.it/en/ for latest news.
Santa Maria Novella cannot be missed. It is right in front of the train station.
*Michelangelo used to call it “my bride”
Why should you visit it?
Founded by the Dominicans, Santa Maria Novella complex was one of the most important religious places during the Middle Ages and Renaissance period. As such, it attracted important famous artists who realised beautiful works of art inside the complex.
With a single ticket, you can visit the whole complex and see chapels, cloisters, the museum, the convent, frescoes, and many other wonders.
SMN is the only church in Florence having its full facade from the beginning. The artists are Fra Jacopo Talenti and Leon Battista Alberti.
This facade is one of the finest example of the Florentine Renaissance architecture and the the oldest in the city, while the church is architecturally one of the most important Gothic churches in Italy.
There are several chapels with beautiful artworks in the complex. You will find some of them hereafter.
Tornabuoni Chapel (Main Chapel)
The frescoes are by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop, in which a very young Michelangelo was apprenticed.
Beautiful frescoes by Filippino Lippi.
Cappella Strozzi di Mantova
Frescoes by Nardo and Andrea di Cione.
Della Pura Chapel
Frescoes by Andrea di Bonaiuto.
This realism is a major change from the idealized form of Byzantine art.
There is another crucifix by Giotto in the Ognissanti church.
The crucifix in the Tornabuoni Chapel is by Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor based in Italy. Mannerist Sculptor, he was artist at the Medici Court and is famous for the artwork Rape of the Sabines.
The altar is a neo-Gothic creation from the 19th century.
There are several other beautifuls altars in the church.
Cute little cloister taking its name from the frescoes originally painted in "green clay" by artists from early 15th century such as Paolo Uccello.
This cloister was built in the 14th whilst the frescoes date from the 15th century, by Alessandro Allori, Santi di Tito or Poccetti.
It was opened to the public at the end of 2016 only.
Cloister of the Dead
San Miniato al Monte
Why should you visit it?
Set atop one of the highest hills surrounding the city, the lovely San Miniato is one of the finest Romanesque buildings in Tuscany and one of the most scenic churches in Italy.
There is a bus going up there. You can also hike or bike. It is not far from the city centre but it is very steep.
Its facade is beautifully decorated with green and white marble in geometric patterns similar to Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella churches, with a mosaic in its centre.
Inside you will find mosaics and frescoes. The beautiful marble pavement in the central aisle dates back to the 13th century. There are numerous works made by famous artists.
Cappella del Crocefisso
The shrine altar with inlaid marble by Michelozzo, XV century. Terra-cottas by Luca della Robbia.
The author of Pinocchio is buried here.
The view over Florence from the front of San Miniato is splendid.
Why should you visit it?
Santa Maria del Fiore is a Gothic church set in the centre of Florence. It is well known for its iconic sight, along with the baptistery and the campanile, and for its dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.
Its interior has nothing exceptional except for the clock, the coupole and the floor.
Free entrance to the church only.
It is the only one of its kind in working order in the world. It shows the ora italica (‘Italian time’), also known as Bohemian time or Julian time, after Julius Caesar’s 46 CE calendar. It begins at sunset and ends at sunset. There is no midnight. In those times, everything was dependent of farming where the 24th hour of the day ended at sunset.
In the cathedral, the clock marked the hour when vespers, the sunset prayer service, began. The clock has to be reset weekly as sunset time changes throughout the year.
Uccello (Paolo di Dono) made the frescoes.
The clock itself was designed by the Florentine clockmaker Angelo di Niccolò.
Coupole and its fresco
These are the biggest artworks within the cathedral.
The coupole is a fantastic work of architecture capable of withstanding lightning, earthquakes and the passage of time. There was a competition held in 1418 by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. It was won by Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi vaulted the dome space without any scaffolding by using a double shell with a space in between. It was a very innovative approach.
The frescoes of the Last Judgment were designed by Vasari but painted mostly by one of his student Frederico Zuccari.
Many decorations date from the 16th-century patronage of the Grand Dukes. The pavement in colored marble is attributed to Baccio d'Agnolo and Francesco da Sangallo and some pieces of marble from the façade were used, topside down, in the flooring.
Watch the sunset over Piazza del Duomo
The change of colours of the buildings at sunset are really amazing. It goes from yellow to grey and then to pink and even blue.
You absolutely need to reserve if you want to climb the dome and see the frescoes from close and admire Florence from there.
The way is through tight and narrow corridors used by the workmen who built the cathedral for maintainance. The entire climb is 463 steps and some of them can be steep.
The Campanile - Bell Tower
Started by Giotto, it was completed after its death by Andrea Pisano and finished by Francesco Talenti.
The rich decoration tells the story of the Redemption of Mankind. Several great artists worked on it: Andrea Pisano, Luca della Robbia, Nanni di Banco and Donatello.
After a climb of over 400 steps, you reach a large projecting terrace, final feature in Talenti's design, replacing a spire in Giotto's original plan.
Baptistery of St. John
It is one of the most important monuments in Florence and its oldest religious site.
White Carrara marble and green Prato marble are typical of Florentine Romanesque architecture.
The doors are famous for their decorations made by Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti.. The most important door has always been considered the one leading to the Duomo. Some of them are on display in the museum, with copies replacing them in situ.
Opera del Duomo Museum
It houses the works of art which had been removed from the Duomo and the Baptistery. It is also a refuge from pollution for many of the outside sculptures of the cathedral.
Try to spot the bull's head on the duomo ;-)
There are two stories explaining its presence on the building.
One says it is a tribute to the draft animals used during the construction work.
The other story is funnier. One of the stonemasons had an affair with the wife of a rich shopkeeper. This one discovered the betrayal and lodged a complaint to the ecclesiastical court. The affair was then ended. Heartbroken, the stonemason created the bull’s head so that the horns were pointing right towards the shop of the husband as a reminder.
Santa Croce, Temple of Italian Glories
Why should you visit it?
This is where Stendhal got his panic attack and thus it is where the stendhal syndrom was born. Santa Croce is beautiful and houses several tombs and cenotaphs of famous people such as Michelangelo, Galileo or Dante.
There are frescoes by Giotto, Gaddi, Donatello, chapels, cloisters, a crypt...
When St. Francis of Assisi visited Florence in 1212, he setlled right outside the walls of the city, in a swampy area.
The present church was erected around 1294 but its exterior was covered with a polychrome marble façade only in 1863.
Santa Croce is planned as an Egyptian cross, with an open timber roof.
The Basilica of Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world.
The original bell tower collapsed in 1512. Francesco da Sangallo was asked to design a new one. Due to lacks of funds, it is not until the 1800s that it was finally finished.
Entry to the church is 6€ but it is worth it!
Several famous people are burried in Santa Croce. There are also several memorials. Santa Croce is nicknamed the Temple of the Italian Glories.
Because of his beliefs about the earth revolving around the sun, he was not allowed a Christian burial before 1737.
Vasari designed the monument. Three mourning allegorical statues represent his artistic views: Painting and Architecture by Giovan Battista Lorenzi and Sculpture by Valerio Cioli.
Michelangelo died in 1564 in Rome. According to the legend, his admirers stole his bones so that they would be buried in Florence.
Machiavelli died in 1527 but his tomb was not built until 1787.
Before the Medici invaded Florence, Machiavelli was a diplomat and even responsible for the Florentine militia. After the Medici took over the city, he was accused of conspiracy, tortured and retired to his estate at Sant'Andrea in Percussina where he wrote essays and plays, whilst politics remained his main passion.
His famous book “The Prince” was published after his death. For years, The Prince was read as a political manifesto glorifying instrumentality in state building. Written as advice for a monarchical prince, it contains arguments in favour of republican regimes.
There is a love-hate history between Dante and Florence. The poet was exiled from Florence for his political activities in 1302 and was not allowed to return. He stayed, died in 1321 and was buried in Ravenna. Since then, Florence and Ravenna fight for his remains. NOw that he was famous, Florence decided to have him back. In 1519, Pope Leo X ordered the bones to be transferred to Florence. An empty coffin was sent back and the Franciscan monks who had charge of Dante’s remains hid them in their monastery... and forgot about them.
It is not before 1865 that the hidden bones were found, during renovations. Luckily enough, the monks had written the name of Dante on the coffin.
Fun fact: the city council of Florence finally passed a motion rescinding Dante's sentence in... 2008!!!
There are also many tomb slabs set into the pavement.
The Legend of the True Cross by Agnolo Gaddi, son of the more famous Taddeo and last of the followers of Giotto.
Sacristy and Rinuccini Chapel
Frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi, Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Spinello Aretino.
Inside the sacristy there is a chapel dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin and to Mary Magdalen. The cycle of paintings is by Giovanni da Milano and Matteo Pacino.
Frescoes on the life of Our Lady by Taddeo Gaddi.
The Stories of Saints by Agnolo Gaddi, together with some collaborators.
It was built by Brunelleschi.
The decoration is quite simple. The domes are the main pieces of interest. One is decorated with a fresco painting reproducing the sky over Florence on July 4th 1442. The central dome is decorated by Luca della Robbia, with round sculptures and the coat of arms of Pazzi Family (two paired dolphins) made of glazed terracotta.
Numerous artists contributed to the decoration works of the Pazzi chapel: Giuliano da Maiano; Luca della Robbia ; Brunelleschi; Desiderio and Geri da Settignano; Alesso Baldovinetti...
The complex of Santa Croce hosts three cloisters.
Former cemetery that later became a garden surrounded by the classical cypress tree. It was built by Arnolfo di Cambio.
One of the most harmonious buildings of the Florentine Renaissance.
It is decorated by glazed terracotta roundels made by Luca della Robbia and his followers.
Fun fact: In 2001, Ridley Scott filmed some of the scenes off his movie Hannibal here.
The ancient cloister
This is the smallest cloister of Santa Croce, heart of the Franciscan complex.
Why should you visit it?
The church has a very peculiar architecture. It looks more like a civic building than a religious one.
From at least 895 to 1239, an oratory of San Michele in Orto was erected there. Around 1290 a loggia was built. First a loggia for the sale of grain, it was slowly transformed into a place of devotion after several miraculous events. The loggia was closed in and two storeys were added, used as granary. Orsanmichele was completed in 1404, in late gothic style and with stained-glass windows.
The interior of Orsanmichele preserves its late gothic appearance almost intact. The museum has yet to be finished but some major works can be seen there: Vercocchio, Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia...
Plus, there is a fantastic view over the city. Chech the opening schedule before going as the upper floors are not open to public all the time.
No photos allowed on the ground floor.
Here you will still see large metal rings embedded in the ceiling. They were used to load and unload the heavy blocks of grain.
Once inside Orsanmichele, you cannot deny it is a church anymore. There are some traces of frescoes on the walls depicting the patron saints of the various guilds. The most important feature is the tabernacle (1348-59) by Orcagna. It frames the beautiful painting of miracles by Bernardo Daddi.
Museum (upper floors)
Here you will see the vaulting and brickwork of the building and truly appreciate its size. The views are also superb. There is a wide range of statues and artistic styles of the saints that were decorating the external niches.
Why should you visit it?
It does not look like it with its unfinished facade, but San Lorenzo was once the Cathedral of Florence. It held the title of Duomo during 300 years.
When consecrated in 393 by Saint Ambrose of Milan, it was outside Florence walls. As the oldest church in Florence, it is home to many important artistic and architectural innovations. The fact that it is the parish church for the Medici family is also not estranged to that.
The church is free but you have to pay to visit the complex and the Medici Chapel.
San Lorenzo was the first project of Filippo Brunelleschi in Florence (1419). The facade was supposed to be covered by a facade by Michelangelo. Florence has a long history of unfinished business due to its complex history. San Lorenzo is one of them.
The interior of the church is surprisingly classical.
Organ balcony, best known as "cantoria" (singer's gallery), by Donatello.
Fresco about the Glory of Florentine Saints, by Vincenzo Meucci.
Chapel of the High Altar
The beautiful high altar is decorated with inlaid hard stones. the marble crucifix is made by Montelupo Baccio, a pupil of Michelangelo.
On the floor, there is a circular metal grille defining the place where Cosimo the Elder (d. 1464) was buried in the cellar (see below). Following Cosimo's will, Donatello, his favorite artist, rests at his sides (d. 1466).
There is a splendid fresco by Bronzino (1569). It is depicting the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence in a Mannerist study of the human body.
This is one of the last works of Bronzino. On the left of the fresco, beneath the statue of Mercury, Bronzino painted a self-portrait together with two portraits of his master, Pontormo, and his pupil, Alessandro Allori. You cannot miss them, they are darker than the rest of the fresco.
Mannerism exaggerates proportion, balance, and ideal beauty, often resulting in compositions that are asymmetrical or unnaturally elegant.
The Old Sacristy (Sagrestia Vecchia) is considered to be “the first accomplished cultural and artistic message of the early Renaissance” because "it set the tone for the development of a new style of architecture that was built around proportion, the unity of elements, and the use of the classical orders.”
Donatello worked here between the years 1428 and 1443. He made eight tondi (circular reliefs) inside Brunelleschi's geometrically precise Old Sacristy. They depict the Evangelists and scenes from the life of St. John. He also designed the lunettes, the reliefs above the doors and the doors themselves.
Look up for the small planetarium painted on the inside of the dome. It is supposed to reproduce the actual placement of this celestial satellites above Florence in July 1442.
Several tombs can be find there: the sarcophagus of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici and Piccarda Bueri, by Buggiano, and the porphyry and bronze sarcophagus of Giovanni and Piero de' Medici, by Verrocchio.
The beautiful bronze pulpits (circa 1460) are Donatello's last work and depict the Resurrection and scenes from the life of Christ. They have been restaured recently and are protected by glass. You have to pay 2€ to get closer.
Savonarola used to preach his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons from these pulpits. Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498, Savonarola is famous for burning books and destroying what he considered immoral art.
The Cannon's Cloister
Assigned to Brunelleschi, it was executed by his disciple Antonio Manetti Ciaccheri (1457-1460).
It is a two-storey loggia with a round-arch arcade and Ionic columns.
There is a second cloister not open to the public.
St. Lawrence Treasure
The museum showcases a collection of liturgical props and the basilica’s precious reliquaries, as well as a model of the finished facade.
Often refered to as a crypt, it is more of a cellar or an underground chamber seated right under the Chapel of the High Altar.
Cosimo was buried within the column, confirming his role as the “pillar” of the family and the church.
San Lorenzo is the burial place of the Medici family. The Medici Chapels date back to 1520 when Cardinal Giulio de Medici, future Pope Clemens VII, decided to build a proper family mausoleum.
The chapel is divided into three distinct parts:
It houses minor members of the dynasty and numerous tomb slabs.
Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes)
Six of the Medici Grand Dukes are buried here
The huge dome was designed by Buontalenti and took 4 centuries to be completed (started in 1604). The frescoes were added in 1828 by Pietro Benvenuti.
The walls are covered in colored marbles and semi-precious stones.
The chapel itself was built by the architect Matteo Nigetti and is a rare example of baroque in Florence.
It is the mortuary chapel for members of the Medici family, by Michelangelo between 1520 and 1534, helped by his pupils Montorsoli and Baccio di Montelupo.
There you will find the tombs of Lorenzo Duke of Urbino and Giuliano Duke of Nemours with the famous symbolical figures (Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk).
Medicea Laurenziana Library
The Library is open to the public only when an exhibit is on display, which is a shame because it is an extraordinary example of Mannerist architecture by Michelangelo.
He also designed he benches in the Library. They served a double purpose: space to sit and study as well as home to the core collection of over 3,000 manuscripts gathered by the Medici family.