The 7 Best Churches in Florence
Florence is known as the cradle of the Renaissance; the heart of one of the most influential periods of history across the world and certainly in Italy. As well as being home to a multitude of artistic masterpieces, the city’s architecture is renowned for its mix of Gothic, Romanesque and classic Renaissance design features, from the Palazzo Pitti to the Ponte Vecchio.
All of Italy’s towns, cities and villages are flooded with churches, which is no surprise when you consider that the country is the centre of the Catholic religion. Churches in Florence range from the gigantic Santa Maria cathedral with its signature red, domed roof, to the idyllic San Miniato al Monte church which is perched on top of a hill that overlooks the capital city of Tuscany.
Whether you’re after fine examples of Renaissance frescoes, a fan of Brunelleschi’s architecture, or you’re interested in the history of some of the city’s monasteries, there is truly something for everyone when it comes down to the selection of famous churches in Florence. With so many different options across the city, it can seem like an impossible task trying to choose where to visit, which is why we have come up with this selection of the 7 best churches in Florence.
CATHEDRAL OF SANTA MARIA DEL FIORE
Santa Maria del Fiore is the most famous church in Florence, often referred to as the ‘Duomo’ because of the iconic red dome that crowns the building. Once the largest Christian church in the world, the cathedral can be found right in the centre of the city overlooking the Piazza del Duomo, and was designed so that it could be seen wherever you were approaching Florence from.
The Duomo’s original design was Gothic, but in the 14th century a new facade was commissioned for the building, on which sat the dome designed by the famous Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi. This remains the biggest masonry dome in the world, and is thought of as one of the most impressive architectural achievements of the Renaissance.
If you visit only one church during your time in Florence, it has to be the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, both for the sheer impressive size of the building and for its elaborate decoration inside and out. Right next to the church you can also visit the famous Baptistery of St. John, which is an incredible Romanesque structure that holds the title for the oldest building in Florence.
BASILICA OF SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
Built by Dominican monks between the 1200s and 1300s, Santa Maria Novella church is best known for its white and green marble facade that was designed by Leon Battista Alberti a century after the original building was completed. The Dominicans were a holy order similar to the Franciscans, whose preachings from the church were so popular that the surrounding piazza had to be widened a few times to fit the crowds that gathered there.
If you are a fan of classical Italian art then the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is the perfect place for you to visit, containing pieces by great artists such as Brunelleschi, Giotto, Masaccio and Ghirlandaio. Inside the church’s nave hangs Giotto’s famed crucifix, perhaps one of the artist’s most famous pieces and certainly a highlight of the work on display in the building.
The church looks out over the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, which is one of Florence’s largest historical squares, and is only a short walk from Florence’s main train station. Your ticket to the building complex will also allow you entry to its cloisters and the museum, where you can learn more about the history of the building and the monks who founded the church.
THE BASILICA OF SANTA CROCE
Another of Florence’s incredible Gothic churches is the church of Santa Croce, which was built in the 14th century with the help of donations from some of the city’s richest families. Santa Croce is the main church of the Franciscans in Florence and has also been designated as a minor basilica for the Catholic Church, giving it a grand and significant heritage.
The Basilica of Santa Croce was referred to as ‘tempio dell’Itale glorie’, which translates to ‘temple of Italian glories’. This is in reference to the numerous famous Italian’s who are now buried in the church, such as the artist Michelangelo, the composer Gioachino Rossini, the influential physicist Galileo and poet Ugo Foscolo.
There are sixteen chapels to explore within Santa Croce, most of which were designed for the influential families living in Florence at the time the church was built. The most famous of these are the Cappella Peruzzi, Cappella Bardi and Cappella Pazzi, all complete with beautiful frescos and impressive examples of Renaissance architecture.
You can find this church close to the banks of the River Arno, beside the spectacular National Central Library which is known for being the largest of its kind in Italy.
BASILICA OF SAN LORENZO
Whilst the exterior of the Church of San Lorenzo might not look particularly impressive, it is on our list of the best churches to visit in Florence for a reason. One of the oldest churches in the city, it was once the main place of worship in Florence and has a very rich history.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo was chosen by the influential Medici family as their parish church, who hired the famous architect Brunelleschi to renovate the building. Although the church’s facade was never finished, the interior architecture and decoration speak of the wealth that this political dynasty had in ancient Florence, and make it an incredibly important historic site in the city.
This church is actually a complex of buildings, within which you can visit the Medici family chapels, the cloisters and the Medici Laurenziana Library. It’s also only a short walk from Florence’s Duomo, making it an excellent place to visit if you have already explored and enjoyed the city’s biggest cathedral.
BASILICA OF SANTO SPIRITO
If you’re visiting the South of Florence then one of the city’s best churches can be found in the Oltrarno district; the Basilica of Santo Spirito. Oltrarno is a key historical area of Florence, home to many galleries and piazzas across its three historic quarters, and this church is one of the neighbourhood’s most popular sites.
The name Brunelleschi comes up a lot when talking about famous churches in Florence, and this one was entirely designed and built by him with a relatively simple exterior structure and grand Renaissance interior. His motivation for the design of the church was that it interacted with the nature and landscape around it, which inspired the clean lines and elegant shape of the building.
As well as the private chapels within the church that belonged to nearby families, and were decorated by renowned painters, a crucifix carved by a young Michelangelo hangs in the Sacristy of Santo Spirito. The artist became a guest of the monks who lived in the church after his patron died and he had nowhere to go, and he was allowed to study the anatomy of the patients in the convent’s hospital when he was a young man.
The Orsanmichele church is quite unique in its design; it certainly looks different from many of the other churches you are likely to find in Florence. The building was originally an oratory for the Benedictine monastery of Saint Micheal, then a loggia (room with an open wall) for a market which burnt down in the 13th century.
Before the original building was destroyed, an image of the ‘Madonna of the Graces’ was painted on a pillar, which was said to have been involved in numerous miraculous events. After the Orsanmichele was rebuilt again in the 14th century as a market and storage space for grain, pilgrims kept coming to the site and eventually, it was decided to return the space into a religious building.
Orsanmichele is famous for the series of statues of saints that were placed in niches on all four sides of the building by different guilds in Florence, who wanted to decorate the outside of the church. Many of these were designed in the 15th century by famous Renaissance artists, although many of the originals no longer remain.
SAN MINIATO AL MONTE
If you’re after a church with a view then there is no better place to visit than the San Miniato al Monte, which is perched on a hill that overlooks the whole of Florence. The scenery and peace are worth the uphill walk to visit the building, along with its beautiful Romanesque facade that features a golden mosaic. You will also pass the famous Piazzale Michelangelo on your way up to the church, which is a large square offering panoramic views of Florence and a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David.
The church is named after and dedicated to Saint Miniato; one of the first Christian martyrs. Miniato was said to have come to Florence on a religious pilgrimage, where he then became a hermit and was killed during the Emperor Decio’s anti-Christian persecutions.
Built in the 11th century, San Miniato al Monte is another one of Florence’s oldest churches and is still a working monastery belonging to an order of Benedictine monks. There are a lot of very impressive mosaic frescos lining the walls of the church’s interior, and visitors can also explore the crypt, the sacristy and the shop connected to San Miniato al Monte, which sells products made by the monks.
This selection of some of the best churches in Florence is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes down to magnificent religious buildings that are available to visit in Tuscany’s capital, along with a host of other incredible historic buildings and examples of architecture from across the centuries.
If this has piqued your interest in taking a trip to the magnificent city of Florence, then contact one of our experts at Italy4Real, and get started in planning your unique Italian holiday with us.