During my Italian summer, I found that one of the most important aspects of the culture is their strong connection, history, and reverence to their religion. Roman Catholicism has been the national religion of Italy for centuries, and throughout history Italian life centered around their faith. When the world didn’t have scientific explanations for natural phenomena, the answer for “why things were they way they were” or “why things happened the way they happened” always led to God. Biblical stories literally told the history of the world, and a vast majority of the imagery around the city has religious tie-ins.
Of the dozens of churches I have visited, out of the countless number in central Florence, these are my absolute favorites, and the ones I think are most special for a visitor to the city to see. Kindly check the individual websites with the * for midday mass closings as some of them are still working churches, and always check their opening and closing times before you visit. When visiting a Catholic church, entrance requires appropriate dress for men and women by covering the knees, shoulders, and chests.
Before we get going, it is important to know the difference between a cathedral and a basilica, because there are numerous basilicas in Florence, but only one cathedral. The difference is actually quite simple; a cathedral is the home church for the bishop or archbishop of a Catholic diocese, and there is only one cathedral for its respective major city. A basilica is a church that has been designated as such by a pope for its special spiritual, historical, and/or architectural significance. A basilica is the highest designation for a church, and once a church is named a basilica it cannot lose its status as such.
Okay, now let’s start with the obvious …
1. Il Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore
As the largest church in Florence (and one of the largest churches in the world), the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Florence, one of the most important feats of architecture, and for many more more reasons, the cathedral is my favorite building in the world! Read my full post on the cathedral before you go further! As opulent and astounding as the exterior is, the interior is much more simplified. It is a true Renaissance church with grey and white marbles, perfect proportions, and lots of arches. A visit inside is totally worth it – see the interior dome with frescoes by Vasari, Paolo Ucello‘s still running 15th-century clock that runs on twenty-four hour time, and Giotto’s and Brunelleschi’s tombs. When you go for your visit, make sure you are on line as soon as the doors open, because the queue gets insanely long and can get to be several hours of waiting time – and your time could be so much better used seeing other sights! The cathedral is free of charge to enter, and offers daily morning mass that is open to the public. *Note that the facade was built in the 19th century during the Neo-gothic period.
2. la Basilica della Santissima Annunziata*
Meaning the “Basilica of the most Holy Annunciation”, this church is baroque explosion on the inside. The church was founded in 1250 by the seven founding members of the Servite Order. Remember when I said Florence has a special-adopted relationship with the Annunciation? This church is dedicated and centered around an Annunciation scene that is one of the three miraculous Virgins in Florence. According to the legend, in 1252 the painter Friar Bartolomeo struggled with the details while painting the face of the Virgin Mary. Frustrated that he could’t get it right, he fell asleep and awoke to find that an “angel’s hand” had finished painting the details of her face, and it has since been called the Miraculous Annunciation. Since the 16th century, it has been set within an altar deigned by Michelozzo. Besides the painting, there are dozens of small familial chapels that are filled with astounding works of art by many famous artists, as well as an incredible alter and frescoed dome. Fun Fact: Santissima Annunziata is home to the oldest organ in Florence (from 1628), and the second oldest organ in Italy. This church is free of charge to enter.
3. il Museo Nazionale di San Marco
San Marco is a religious complex that combines a still-working church and a former convent that was historically home to the Dominican Friar’s from the middle ages. Dedicated to Saint Mark the Evangelist, the cells of each friar were very modest, and each had an important biblical scene on the walls. Many famous frescoes by Fra Angelico are within these walls, as well as an illustrious collection of manuscripts housed in a library built by Michelozzo. San Marco is also famous for being the seat of Girolamo Savonarola during his short-spiritual rule in Florence in the late 15th century. In my opinion, San Marco is a very moving experience, and can be combined with your visit to Santissima Annunziata, as they are in very close proximity to each other. Entrance for the convent is €8 and comes with a wonderful audio guide; entrance to the church is free of charge.
4. la Basilica di Santa Croce
Meaning the “the Basilica of the Holy Cross”, it is a Franciscan church that was built in the medieval period under architect Arnolfo di Cambio (also the architect of the Palazzo Vecchio and Santa Maria del Fiore) during the gothic period. It is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians in history, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Galileo Galilei, Niccolò Machiavelli, Gioachino Rossini, Ugo Foscolo, and Giovanni Gentile among others. The basilica is also known also as il Tempio dell’Itale Glorie, the Temple of the Italian Glories. Make sure to go through the sacristy, the refectory, the cloisters, and the family chapel built by Brunelleschi. Entrance tickets are €8.00 with an optional audio guide for €1.50 (get the guide). *Note that the facade was built in the 19th century, and that the sides are still unfinished!
While you’re in the Piazza di Santa Croce, stop into some of the leather stores; this area is famous for some of the best tanners in the city!
5. la Basilica di Santa Maria Novella
Located on the site of the nineth-century oratory called Santa Maria delle Vigne, Santa Maria Novella, meaning “new”, was assigned to the Dominican Order in 1221. The church was designed by two Dominican friars: Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi. Building began around 1246 and lasted about 80 years. The Dominicans prized themselves on their study of science and math, which is represented in the facade that is of perfect geometric proportion … a real feat of knowledge and engineering pre-Rensaisance. The church was consecrated in 1420. Fun Fact: Santa Maria Novella has one of the few authentic-to-the-period facades in the city!
The church is a trove of important art works, and holds works of art such as Massacio’s Holy Trinity fresco, which was the first painting to use accurate perspective since antiquity, a crucifix by Giotto, and frescoes by Filippino Lippi in the Strozzi Chapel, which are a word-for-word portrayal of Dante’s telling of Inferno. Ticket entrance is €7-10 depending on the season.
6. la Basilica di San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo is most well known for being the burial place of the Medici family. This complex is more unique in its “sights” so to speak, because there are few ticket options to guests. There is the church, the treasury, the Medicean-Laurentian Library, and the Cappelle Medicee. The church itself is typical Renaissance with grey and white stones, and perfect proportions, and repeating arches designed by Brunelleschi. The famous works inside are the pietra dura altar, a chapel built by Brunelleschi, and one of the last paintings made by Mannerist-master Bronzino. The treasury holds many artifacts, relics, and works of art, and from here you are able to fully see the tomb-with-in-a-column of Cosimo “the Elder” de’Medici, the founding member of the legacy we know today.
The La Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana, sometimes known simply as the Laurentian Library, holds a collection of books and manuscripts gathered during the 15th century in Florence by Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent de’Medici. When Lorenzo’s nephew Giulio was elected pope (Clement VII) in 1523, he commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to construct a library attached to the church. The first drawings for the building were made in 1523. Michelangelo’s designs for the staircase of the library were finished by Bartolomeo Ammanati and Giorgio Vasari in 1559. *Note that the facade remains unfinished
The true “gem” (pun intended) of San Lorenzo is la Cappelle Medicee – an entire chapel made of floor-to-ceiling of pietra dura. Accessed through a separate church at the back of the church, you first walk into the museum of the chapel, then walk up to the second floor to get to the Capelle. It was the private family chapel of the Medici Dukes and Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Also here are the unfinished tombs for the Medici’s made by Michelangelo. Tickets for the church, treasury, and library are bought from the same booth in the front of the church and range fro €5-12 depending on what you want to see, and a separate ticket for the Cappelle is bought in the back-side entrance of the chapel for €8.
7. la Basilica di Santo Spirito
Meaning “Basilica of the Holy Spirit”, it is located on the oltranro side of the city (across the river), and is another design of Brunelleschi. He passed away just ten days after building started, but his design was followed by the subsequent architects. Santo Spirito has a miraculous wooden crucifix that survived a fire which destroyed the old church, and another (non-miraculous) wooden crucifix done by Michelangelo when he was 17/18 years old. Check the opening and closing times for this because they close midday then reopen. Entrance to the Basilica is free, though donations are always encouraged, and to see the Michelangelo crucifix is €2. *Note that the facade is unfinished
Piazza di Santo Spirito is one of my favorite places to go in the evening for aperitivo, drinks, and dinner!
BONUS: The Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine:
This small but important chapel holds one of the most famous series of frescoes in the world! Masaccio depicts scenes of the stories of Saint Peter. The baroque-style church itself is closed during business hours, but you can take a peak around if the daylight is bright enough! Tickets for the chapel are €7-1, ,and the optional touch screen audio guide is free with a refundable deposit (the guide is really amazing and I encourage everyone to get it!!!).
And there you have it, le mie chiese preferite a Firenze, my favorite churches in Florence! I think visiting churches in any country, from any culture is very important to better understand their culture and way of life. Also, these large and important churches provide exemplary models of architecture, art, and history that belong to the world, and provide a special experience that you cannot get in a museum. Dio benedcia, and happy visiting!