Seeing art where it was first meant to shine—in situ—is a moving experience. In Italy, many of the greatest works of art were designed for churches. Rich patrons, to show off their beneficence…and wealth, funded artists to fresco chapels, design tombs, create altarpieces, and adorn churches in ecclesiastical splendor. One of my favorite things to do in Florence is visit churches where Florentine art shines and its history comes alive. There are so many Florence churches to choose from that a traveler may feel overwhelmed though, so here are some of my favorites.
Near the ritziest street in Florence, via de’ Tornabuoni, travelers (lured by the glitz of Gucci and Pucci) might pass right by Santa Trinita’s unassuming façade. But that would be a mistake. Inside are works by Neri di Bicci, Luca della Robbia, Bernardo Buontalenti, Bicci di Lorenzo, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Chapels to note: Sassetti, Bartolini-Salimbeni, Doni, Spini, and Davanzati.
This church is rich with art both inside and out. Around the exterior you can view statues commissioned by various guilds during the Renaissance. Some of these were sculpted by the likes of Donatello. Inside, this former granary (yes, this awesome building once held grain!) hosts ancient-looking frescoes and a tabernacle by Orcagna.
Tip: on Mondays the museum of the church is open and you can see most of the original statues and get good views of the city.
Designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, the main cathedral of the city (that’s what duomo signifies in Italian) and the most famous church in Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, can surprise visitors with its rather stark interior. Its exterior is a cacophony of green, pink, and white marble, but inside feels cavernous and austere. Check out Vasari’s painting on the dome which brings color to the vast drum. If you want a close-up of Vasari’s painting, climb the dome, as there is a viewing platform on the way up.
Admission: free (but be prepared to wait). There is a fee to climb the dome or visit the Santa Reparata archaeological remains beneath the church. Here is my blog on how to buy Duomo tickets.
Legend has it that, after being beheaded, St. Minias picked up his head and walked up a Florentine hill where a shrine was later built in his honor. The church that stands there now dates back to 1018. Faded frescoes and glimmering mosaics speak to its age. Out front, there is an intriguing cemetery and visitors can enjoy views over the city from this hilltop vantage. It is definitely worth a climb, but a bus will get you there with less of a workout.
Near the Arno River is one of the most fabulous churches in all of Florence—Ognissanti. The church itself has gorgeous frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli. The interior is a mix of Renaissance and Baroque. Botticelli is buried in Ognissanti, his tomb seems quite underwhelming for such a noted artist though. Make sure to visit on a Monday or Saturday between 9 and 1 if you can, so that you can see the amazing Last Supper mural by Ghirlandaio. It is simply spectacular. For years I missed it because I didn’t know the opening hours, but now that I do it is a “must-see” for me. Sit in front of the painting and take it all in and then wander around the peaceful cloister of San Salvatore.
Designed by Leon Battista Alberti, this Renaissance church is an explosion of color and detail (thanks in part to its Baroque redesign). Muted-colored frescoes welcome you in the cloister then the interior explodes with paintings by Andrea del Sarto, Giorgio Vasari, Andrea del Castagno, Pontormo, and Bronzino.
The following churches are fabulous, but have admission fees. If money is tight, you may want to skip them in favor of some (or all) of the free churches I’ve listed. It is a shame that admission for the three has grown so high, especially since so many churches in Italy are free. If you have the money (or a pass that covers admission) though, the following churches should not be missed.
This magnificent basilica greets travelers as they first get off the train and set their sight upon Florence. Many noted artists have left their mark on this Renaissance cathedral in some way: Alberti, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Ghirlandaio, Giambologna, Ghiberti, Vasari, and Giotto. There is a lot of beauty to see and the cloister is lovely, but Santa Maria Novella has a price entry free.
This church has a “who’s who” of famous tombs and memorials. Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli all call Santa Croce their eternal resting place. There is a memorial to Dante (although he is buried in Ravenna) to note the contributions to the city by that famed author. See frescoes by Giotto and the famed Pazzi chapel. Wander around the various tombs and make sure to look down to see well-worn effigies in the floor. Works by Canova, Cimabue, Andrea & Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Agnolo & Taddeo Gaddi, and others adorn the interior. The church is simply fabulous.
Located in Santa Maria del Carmine, this church is a little off the beaten path, but its vivid frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino are worth the detour. See The Temptation of Adam & Eve, the sorrowful Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the thought-provoking Tribute Money, and the evocative cycle of St. Peter’s life (by Filippo Lippi). I find the grounds of the church and minor works quite lovely, too.
Exploring churches can provide you with important insight into the culture and history of a place. As I go about my daily walks, I pop into an open church and enjoy the art and solitude. With the exception of the really popular churches, you will likely find few people in most of the churches on this list. Sometimes I’ve stumbled on choirs practicing or a guide giving a tour (love these free explanations), which adds a thrill to my trip. I enjoy seeing art in the place it was created for while admiring the talent of those who created it. I’m perpetually grateful to those people who showed off their devoutness by endowing the decoration of these spaces. Some Florentines were trying to buy a ticket to Heaven. Thankfully for us, we can enjoy it for a much lower price.
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