Florence churches worth a visit

During my one week stay in September 2019 in Florence, my host suggested that I visit four churches, namely, Santo Spirito, San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, and Santa Croce. I am not particularly religious, but apparently, there are some great art and history there. Here are some of the highlights that blew away my mind.

Santo Spirito

The first church I visited was Santo Spirito, a basilica designed by the Italian Renaissance architect Brunelleschi in the early 15th century. It is located in Oltrarno, on the side of the river not far from Ponte Vecchio.

The Cloister of the Dead

The Cloister of the Dead

Built later in the early 17th century, the cloister has walls lined with tombstones. There are beautifully engraved inscriptions and gorgeously crafted family head crests on these tombstones. It kind of reminded me of the beautiful cemeteries I saw years ago in the Cinque Terre or Pere Lachaise in Paris. The setting was a bit different though, the tombstones here being better protected from the natural elements. Not that I really need that kind of protection when I am dead.

Poccetti’s The Last Supper

Poccetti's The Last Supper

Poccetti’s The Last Supper

In one of the small rooms in the cloister, there is a fresco by Poccetti, the Last Supper, that is definitely worth a visit. There are actually three dinner scenes in this fresco in this long tiny room, which is actually a sectioned off part of an older, larger refectory. I could not really stand back far enough to appreciate the three scenes in all its glory, nor could my photographs do it any justice.

Michelangelo’s Crucifix

Michelangelo’s Crucifix

My favorite part of Santo Spirito is Michelangelo’s Crucifix. Apparently, he stayed in Santo Spirito and was given the corpses from the hospital to study human anatomy. To thank the monks for all these free corpses, he carved this Crucifix for the church. Honestly, his studies in anatomy must have really paid off: the nude Jesus in polychrome wood is amazingly lifelike with perfect proportions. I felt almost the same emotional reaction I got when I saw the sculptures in the Borghese Villa in Rome a few years back. Simply stunning.

Unfortunately, the church does not allow tourists to take photos of the Crucifix anymore. It would have been so much fun getting different shots at the Crucifix in different lights.

San Lorenzo

The second church I visited was San Lorenzo. Consecrated in 393, it is considered as the oldest church in Florence, and it was the Parish church for the Medicis.

The Medici Laurentian Library

The Laurentian Library

The Laurentian Library

I was there at The Medici Laurentian Library when they held an exhibition of the antique books from Cosmos I di Medici. Apparently, it houses one of Italy’s most important collection of antique books. I was not really there to look at the old books, but rather to admire the interiors designed by Michelangelo in the mannerist style. It is well worth the 3 euros extra in entrance fee when the library is open, and the library is only open to the public when there are special exhibits on.

Bronzino’s The Martyrdom of St. Lorenzo

Bronzino's The Martyrdom of Lorenzo

Bronzino’s The Martyrdom of Lorenzo

In the church itself, there are many artworks on both sides of the church. At the very end of the north aisle, there is a Bronzino’s The Martyrdom of St. Lorenzo. My jaw dropped when I laid eyes on it. Male nudes on both sides, drawing your eyes in perfect symmetry and perspective to the top end of the painting. San Lorenzo lies on a barbeque pit in the center, with women and children in the foreground. Everyone looks either anguished or annoyed except for San Lorenzo, who is being grilled and being pretty nonchalant about it. Either he was happy to be heading to heaven, or he must have read some serious Marcus Aurelius and was a convinced stoic.

While I was there, an American stood in front of me, blocking the shot I wanted to take. He explained to his friend that Lorenzo was ordered to be grilled alive, and when he was half grilled on one side, he asked to be turned over to the other. Apparently, he is the patron saint of cooks, chefs, and comedians. I hope he is the patron of foodies too.

Santa Maria Novella

The next church I visited was Santa Maria Novella that houses some late Gothic and early Renaissance frescos.

The Spanish Chapel

Spanish Chapel

Spanish Chapel Ceiling

The frescos in the Spanish Chapel, mostly painted by Andrea di Firenze, are simply stunning. Perhaps just a tad rigid in composition, it is filled with incredibly human portraits in fabulous colors. Filling up the walls and the ceiling, it was delightful to just swirl around to take in all that beauty. I tried to take a video with my gimbal doing that, but I was not very successful with it. The tourists around me were looking at me funny too. That would have been a fantastic video if it turned outright.

Chiostro Verde Frescoes

Uccello's Chiostro Verde Frescoes

Uccello’s Chiostro Verde Frescoes

Recently restored, Uccello’s Chiostro Verde Frescoes were severely damaged during the 1966 flood in Florence. I saw this work, and I got a sense of how late Gothic might have evolved into the early Renaissance. But then I am no art historian. Unlike typical Renaissance painting in all its colors, this work has an almost modern monochromatic feel with its use of mainly greens and browns. It is lovelily restored and rather awe-inspiring.

Santa Croce

The last church I visited is Santa Croce. Among the four, it is perhaps the most historical as many of the Italian past greats were buried here.

The Tombs

Galileo's tomb

Galileo’s tomb

Head towards the front of the church, with all the tourists, to where the tombs are located. Here you find the monuments dedicated to Galileo, Michelangelo and Dante. I find the fact that you find three of them buried here pretty amazing.

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo

Bronzino's Christ Descent into Limbo

Go to the back of the church towards the right where you find a small art collection. Among the art collection is the delectable work by Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo.

Vasari’s The Last Supper

Vasari's The Last Supper

Vasari’s The Last Supper

Vasari’s The Last Supper was severely damaged in the 1966 flood. It was recently restored and placed back in Santa Croce in 2016. There is now in place a winch system. With the press of a button, the painting is lifted 20 meters which is high enough to avoid a similar flooding to that of 1966. 

These four churches in Florence is worth a full day. I have, however, split it up into three short mornings. If you found yourself in Florence and you found that you have a day to spare, go visit these four churches. I found them thoroughly enjoyable, and I have became a real Bronzino fan. Maybe you will too!