In addition to places of worship, Florence’s churches and monasteries contain as much precious art as many museums. In fact, some no longer serve as churches at all and have been turned into civic museums. Several active churches are among the city’s top tourist attractions, and you won’t want to leave without looking up at Brunelleschi’s grand dome at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore or seeing Michelangelo’s Medici Tombs at San Lorenzo. But don’t overlook some of the lesser-known churches, where you’ll discover stunning works of marble marquetry, frescoes, mosaics, stone carving and architecture by the leading Renaissance masters and others before and after them, who make up the churches of Florence among the most beautiful in Italy. In some churches,
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1 Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Most of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance had a hand in creating Florence’s monumental architectural icon, the church’s cathedral complex, baptistery and campanili. Ghiberti’s beautiful bronze doors at the baptistery, Giotto’s graceful bell tower and Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome are just the beginning. So rich are the cathedral’s treasures that an entire museum is filled with the overflow.
2 San Lorenzo
The Medici family didn’t do things in halves, but even they couldn’t have dreamed that, more than five centuries later, their family church and mausoleum would still be regarded as one of the world’s greatest artistic achievements. And the highlight – Michelangelo’s new sacristy – was never even finished. In the church itself, Brunelleschi created the ideal of Renaissance architectural harmony and it was decorated by Donatello, Lippi and other masters.
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3 Santa Maria Novella
One of Florence’s most important churches, the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella was begun in 1246 and completed more than a century later. Its dramatic façade of inlaid colored marble, added a century later, makes it the focal point of the large piazza that stretches out in front of it. Architect Leon Battista Alberti combined Romanesque-Gothic and Renaissance styles to give it its distinctive shape. The interior also shows elements of both styles, combining the Gothic height with the open concept of the Renaissance. The rose window is the oldest in Florence and the interior is another who is who of Florentine artists.
The marble pulpit near the second pillar in the left aisle was designed by Brunelleschi in 1443. The fresco of the Trinity on the third altar is considered one of Masaccio’s finest works (note the perfect perspective). In the sacristy, the Crucifixion scene above the door is an early Giotto of about 1290. The altar painting in the Cappella Gaddi is Bronzino’s Christ Raising Jairus’ Daughter, and in the adjoining Cappella Gondi is Brunelleschi’s celebrated wooden Crucifix (1410 -1425), the first depiction of Christ without a loincloth and the artist’s equivalent of Donatello’s realistic, peasant-like Christ in Santa Croce.
The apse was completely covered in frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his assistants between 1486 and 1490. These scenes from the lives of John the Baptist and the Virgin, the last major cycle of fifteenth-century frescoes, have been beautifully restored to their original soft, luminous to colour. Notice how he shows the Biblical figures in Renaissance dress and chambers. The bronze crucifix is by Giambologna. In the left arm of the transept, the Cappella di Filippo Strozzi is decorated with frescoes by Filippino Lippi and the adjoining Cappella dei Bardi contains Vasari’s Rosary Madonna . The bronze monument in the Cappella Rucellai is by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
To the left of the church facade is the entrance to the cloisters and chapels of the former convent, where the Green Cloister takes its name from the green tones of Paolo Uccello’s frescoes of Old Testament scenes: look especially for his depiction of the Flood. But the highlight of the monastery is Cappellone degli Spagnoli , the Spanish Chapel, where Andrea di Bonaiuto’s frescoes are part of the 14th-century Italian artwork. The whole chapel is filled with detailed pictures on the theme of salvation and damnation.
Address: Piazza Santa Maria Novella 18, Florence
Official site: www.chiesasantamarianovella.it/en
4 Holy Cross
The Franciscan Church of Santa Croce was built in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the facade of inlaid colored marble added in the 1800s. Along with its exceptional frescoes and other artistic attractions, it is notable as the burial place of Florentine celestial bodies, including Michelangelo and Galileo . Although Santa Croce is Gothic, the interior is wider than most of the time, more open and spacious, with an open painted wood ceiling. Look in the aisles to find the main tombs: Galileo’s and a memorial tablet marking the burial place of Lorenzo Ghiberti (of Baptistry fame) are in the north aisle to the left as you enter the church. Michelangelo and the composer Gioacchino Rossiniare on the right along with Machiavelli , last chancellor of the Florentine Republic whose name is invoked to this day when describing ruthless political tactics. Three Muses Sculpted by Vasari Mourning Michelangelo – Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture . Also in this south aisle is a monument to Dante, erected in 1829, 508 years after his death in Ravenna, where he lived after being banished from Florence. In this aisle, look for the delicate relief of the Annunciation by Donatello (1435).
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A row of chapels fills the east wall. At the end of the north transept is the Cappella Bardi, with Donatello’s Christ Crucified , criticized by Brunelleschi as looking like a peasant, but now regarded as one of the finest examples of humanism in the Florentine Renaissance. The Cappella Tosinghi-Spinelli has interesting stained glass windows from the school of Giotto. The Cappella Maggiore is covered with frescoes; those in the vault include the Risen Christ , the Evangelists, and St. Francis by Agnolo Taddi (1380), who was also responsible for the murals of the Legend of the Holy Cross. The cross above the main altar, painted by Maestro di Figline, was one of the first works of art in Santa Croce Church and has been beautifully restored.
In the south transept, look for the Cappella Bardi , where Giotto’s frescoes of the Story of St. Francis are among his most important works, done about 1320. You’ll find more of Giotto’s remarkable frescoes in the adjoining Cappella Peruzzi, where scenes from the life of Saint John the Evangelist cover the right wall and Saint John the Baptist on the left. Renaissance painters, including Masaccio and Michelangelo, admired and studied them. The last chapel on the left, the Cappella Velluti , has some damaged frescoes by a student of Cimabue and Giotto’s Coronation of the Virgin . One of the artistic highlights of Santa Croce is at the end of the transept, theCappella Baroncelli . The frescoes of the prophets at the entrance and of the Life of the Virgin on the walls are considered the greatest work of Taddeo Gaddi, who studied with Giotto.
Through a doorway, a corridor leads to the sacristy, where you will find perhaps the most famous work of art in the entire church. Sadly, Cimabue’s magnificent Crucifix was severely damaged in the 1966 flood and rose to even greater prominence as the most important work of art in the disaster. After a long and painstaking restoration, Cimabue’s masterpiece is once again on display. This was one of the first Florentine works to break away from the rigid Byzantine styles and predict the naturalism and humanism of the Renaissance. It was supposed to influence painters from Cimabue’s own student, Giotto, to Michelangelo and Caravaggio.
Address: Piazza Santa Croce 16, Florence
To the right of Santa Croce is the entrance to the monastic buildings, where the first cloister leads to the Cappella dei Pazzi . Brunelleschi worked on this from 1430 until his death in 1446, as a burial chapel for the Pazzi family and the chapter of the Franciscans. The dome has beautiful rosettes by Luca della Robbia, who also painted the Relief of St. Andrew (1445) above the wooden doors. Its four terracotta medallions depict the seated evangelists, and the twelve tondi of the apostles are in white ceramic on a blue ground. The two-story Chiostro Grande , the great cloister, was designed by Brunelleschi. Don’t miss seeing the refectory, with Taddeo Gaddi’s huge Last Supper, and above it, the Tree of the Cross . The Scuola del Cuoio was founded by the convent in the aftermath of World War II to teach war orphans a trade. Today, they still train students in the art of fine leatherwork that Florence is famous for, and you can visit the workshops to see students fashion leather jackets, handbags, wallets, and boxes. Their store helps support the school.
Address: Piazza Santa Croce 16, Florence
Official site: https://www.santacroceopera.it/en/
5 Saint Mark
The 1299 Church of San Marco was largely reconstructed and the cloister was completely rebuilt by the architect Michelozzo in the mid-15th century. Giambologna added the side altars, the Chapel of St. Antonino and the Salviati Chapel in 1588. While you’ll find some remarkable art in the church itself – the Funeral Chapel of St. Antony is considered Giambologna’s most important architectural work, and the Byzantine mosaic Virgin in Prayer from a Rome Oratory dates back to 705 – the cloister is why you should visit San Marco.
The monastery owes its fame to the Dominican monk Fra Angelico, who between 1436 and 1445 painted the monastery rooms and left us a “natural” museum. Throughout the monastery are works by this brother, along with a few others, but look out for these frescoes in particular. Opposite the entrance to the Convent of St. Antonino is Fra Angelico St. Dominic’s fresco at the foot of the Cross ; in the lunette diagonally opposite the entrance is Ecce Homo . In the Great Refectory is Fra Bartolomeo Last Judgement , and in the Sala dei Lavabo is his large 1510 panel Madonna with St. Anne and Other Saints . An entire wall of the chapter house is filled by Fra Angelico’s fresco The Crucifixion. In the small refectory is the famous Last Supper by Ghirlandaio. But what you remember most are the more than 40 cells of monks adorned with frescoes by Fra Angelico and his students. His style is unmistakable, tenderly transforming the austere rigidity of the medieval saints into gentle, human saints that exude piety and innocence . Look especially for the very intimate Annunciation opposite the stairs.
Address: Piazza San Marco 3, Florence
Official site: https://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/index.html
6 San Miniato al Monte
With all the remarkable churches right in the center of Florence, you may wonder why you should take a bus or climb to this one, high above the city on the other side of the Arno. The answer lies both in the church and the location above Piazzale Michelangelo, the city’s best and most popular viewpoint. After touring churches and museums, you’ll want a break, and the trip to San Miniato – and the view – will restore your enthusiasm. Even the inlaid facade of white and white marble – the first in Florence and soon copied by other churches – is different, with a large golden mosaic. You will see how styles already fused in the late 11th and 12th centuries, with Byzantine mosaics and echoes of Classical Rome in Romanesque Tuscan architecture. But it’s the interior decoration that really sets San Miniato apart. The choir and main altar rise high above the nave, which is wide and open, with a mosaic floor (note the zodiac motifs) and painted wooden ceiling. Step forward into the Renaissance, at Michelozzo’s Cappella del Crocifissoat the end of the nave, whose glazed terracotta ceiling is in Luca della Robbia’s signature blue and white. Back in the late Romanesque style, the 12th-century marble pulpit and richly decorated chancel screen are among the highlights of the church, along with the mosaic in the apse, again showing Byzantine influences. Below the altar is the crypt with frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi and columns recycled from Roman buildings. Saving the best for last, to the right of the high altar is the sacristy, fully lined in Spinello Aretino’s 14th-century masterpiece, The Life of Saint Benedict. Vibrant colors and the intricate detail used in decorating the hollow that frames the scenes make this one of the most beautiful rooms in Florence.
Address: Via delle Porte Sante, 34, Florence
7 Santissima Annunziata (Kerk van de Annunciatie)
Completely rebuilt by Michelozzo between 1444 and 1481, the church is considered his architectural masterpiece and contains some fantastic works of art, although some of the artists may not be universally known names. The rotunda, divided into nine chapels, was begun by Michelangelo in 1444 and completed in a different style by Leon Battista Alberti. Close to the entrance, on the left, Michelozzo’s small marble temple was commissioned to house the miraculous image of the Annunciation (the marvel includes the 13th-century monk who fell asleep while painting and awoke to find angels holding it Face of Mary). Florentine newlyweds still come here today to leave the bride’s bouquet.Savior and St. Julian (1455). His Trinity is in the second chapel, and the fourth chapel has a panel by Perugino, Ascension of Christ . The Cappella della Madonna del Soccorso was designed by Giambologna between 1594 and 1598 as his own tomb and is decorated with frescoes, statues and reliefs.
A door on the left side of the portico leads to the Chiostro dei Morti, where the fresco Madonna del Sacco is an important work by Andrea del Sarto (1525). Adjacent are the chapter house, several chapels and the sacristy. The right door in the portico leads to the chapels and the Chiostrino dei Voti (Votive Cloister), known for its frescoes. From the left are these masterpieces by Andrea del Sarto (scenes from the life of St. Filippo Benizzi); Cosimo Rosselli ( Summoning and Robing of St. Filippo Benizzi ); Alesso Baldovinetti’s Birth ; del Sarto’s Coming of the Magi and one of his best, Nativity of the Virgin (1514).
Address: Piazza SS Annunziata
8 San Michele in Orto
This well-preserved 14th-century building grew from an oratory and a grain trading hall, creating a wondrous sight that attracted more worshipers than buyers. So at the end of the 14th century, the religious significance of the building prevailed and it became a church, also known as Orsanmichele. It bears some of his most famous art on the outside. Before entering, walk around it to admire the delicate stonework in the window arches and niches that mark its architecture. On the side of Via dei Calzaiuoli (on the left) is Lorenzo Ghiberti’s St. John the Baptist (1414), the first great Renaissance statue in bronze. The next niche (by Donatello) contains Andrea del Verrocchio’s most important work, Incredulity of St. Thomas,and St. Luke by Giambologna (1600) is at right. On Via dei Lamberti (south) is the beginning of Donatello St. Mark and on the west facade is the main large statue of Lorenzo Ghiberti, St. Matthew (1419-1422), and his St. Stephen . On the north side is Donatello’s St. Peter . The interior is worth a look for its frescoes, paintings and stained glass windows. The right nave ends with the famous Gothic marble tabernacle of Orcagna from 1349-1359, with the miraculous 1347 statue of the Madonna by Bernardo Daddi in 1347.
Address: Via dell’Arte della Lana, Florence
9 Holy Spirit
Several wealthy Florentine families commissioned Brunelleschi, the city’s famous architect, to design and build a new church in the Oltrarno, and by the time of his death in 1446 the building had progressed as far as the vaults. It was completed, but not quite according to his original plans, so the austere exterior gives no indication that the inside is one of the purest Renaissance churches. The side altars in the nave sparkle with paintings, sculptures and reliefs; be sure to look back at the rose window in the façade, Descent of the Holy Spirit , designed by Perugino. But the transept chapels contain some of the greatest treasures. In the first chapel of the left arm, look at the window and at Ghirlandaio’sAscent of Calvary , and in the Cappella Corbinelli, beautifully designed by Andrea Sansovino in 1492, also note its sculptures. The right arm of the transept contains the most important work in the church, the 1490 altarpiece Madonna and Child with Saints and Donors by Filippino Lippi. Where the transepts meet on the crossing is Caccini’s early Baroque baldachin altar, richly decorated with pietra dura, the intricate mosaic of semi-precious stones in which Florentine artists excel. In the left part is the entrance to a beautiful vestibule built by Cronaca (1492-1494) and the octagonal sacristy, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo in 1495, a masterpiece of European architecture.
Look to the left of the church for the entrance to the Cenacolo, the refectory that is the only remains of the old Augustinian convent. It contains the fresco of The Last Supper from about 1360 by Andrea Orcagna. Although badly damaged, it is one of the most sublime 14th-century works of art in Florence.
Address: Piazza Santo Spirito 30, Florence
10 All Saints (All Saints’ Church)
The Church of Ognissanti, one of the first Baroque churches in Florence, dates from a 13th-century building, but was completely renovated in the 16th and 17th centuries and restored after damage from the 1966 flood. On the second altar on the right, in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Madonna della Misericordia (1470), looking for the young Amerigo Vespucci, the navigator for whom two continents are named. This was his family’s parish church, and Ghirlandaio took him in with one of the parishioners depicted long before his illustrious career began. The sacristy contains a painting on wood , Christ Crucified, in the style of Giotto and a fresco of the Crucifixion by Taddeo Gaddi. Enter the cloister through the transept to see 17th-century frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Saint Francis. Gone is the Cenacolo del Ghirlandaio, the refectory with its fresco of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio taking up the entire back wall. Also here are Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome in his Chamber (1480) and famously of Sandro Botticelli St. Augustine in his studies .
Address: Piazza Ognissanti 42, Florence
11 Holy Trinity
Florentines are particularly fond of this venerable church, founded as far back as the 11th century and rebuilt in the 13th century (probably by Niccolò Pisano) as Florence’s first Gothic church. It was rebuilt at the end of the 14th century and its facade, designed by Buontalenti, dates from the end of the 16th century. Inside, you’ll see a fine example of 14th-century Florentine Gothic, along with some notable works. Primary among these is the Cappella Sassetti, in the right arm of the transept, where you can find frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1483-1486) from the life of St. Francis. The most famous of these is Confirmation of the order line, where the artist included contemporary personalities and buildings: Lorenzo the Great, Ghirlandaio himself (he is the one with the hand on the hip), the Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Trinità. The 1485 altarpiece Adoration of the Shepherds is also by Ghirlandaio. In the left arm of the transept is the marble tomb of Bishop Benozzo Federighi, one of Luca della Robbia’s finest works.
Address: Piazza di Santa Trìnita, Florence
12 Last Supper of Sant’Apollonia
Visit this former convent, now part of the university, to see the beautiful cloister and refectory housing Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper . Painted around 1457, this fresco has an important place in Renaissance painting. Castagno was one of the first to achieve accurate perspective and also one of the first to capture the physical drama of a scene. Above that are Castagno’s Crucifixion , Entombment, and Resurrection , as well as his two lunettes Pietà and Christ Crucified with the Virgin, John, and Saints , all discovered under the white wash when the monastic buildings were secularized.
Adres: Via XXVII 1 april, Florence
Other notable churches
Saint Mary Magdalene of the Pazzi
The chapter house of the former convent next to the church, dedicated to a local saint, contains some of Pietro Perugino’s finest frescoes. The Crucifixion scenes – Christ on the Cross and Mary Magdalene, Saint Bernard and Mary, Saint John and Saint Benedict, Christ on the Cross Helping Saint Bernard – date from 1493 to 1496, his most creative period. The landscape in the background is clearly Perugino’s native Umbria. The church itself is perhaps Florence’s best example of high baroque style.
Address: Borgo Pinti, 58, Florence (toegang via Liceo Michelangiolo, Via della Colonna 9)
Official site: https://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/index.html
Although the church and artwork were badly damaged in the floods of 1966, the Church of the Holy Apostles is worth seeing for the large terracotta tabernacle by Giovanni della Robbia in the left aisle and a panel of the Immaculate Conception by Vasari (1541) in the third chapel of the right aisle. The green marble columns have composite capitals, the first two of which are from the nearby Roman baths.
Address: Piazza del Limbo, Florence