- Type: Religious Sights
NileGuide Expert Says:
Don't miss Giotto's chapels: Peruzzi and Bardi!
The center of the Florentine Franciscan universe was begun in 1294 by Gothic master Arnolfo di Cambio in order to rival the huge church of Santa Maria Novella being raised by the Dominicans across the city. The church wasn't completed and consecrated until 1442, and even then it remained faceless until the neo-Gothic facade was added in 1857 (and cleaned in 1998-99). The cloisters are home to Brunelleschi's Cappella de' Pazzi, the convent partially given over to a famous leather school, and the church itself a shrine of 14th-century frescoes and a monument to notable Florentines, whose tombs and memorials litter the place like an Italian Westminster. The best artworks, such as the Giotto frescoes, are guarded by euro-gobbling lightboxes; bring plenty of change.
The Gothic interior -- for which they now charge a premium admission (it was free until recently) -- is wide and gaping, with huge pointed stone arches creating the aisles and an echoing nave trussed with wood beams, in all feeling vaguely barnlike (an analogy the occasional fluttering pigeon only reinforces). The floor is paved with worn tombstones -- because being buried in this hallowed sanctuary got you one step closer to Heaven, the richest families of the day paid big bucks to stake out small rectangles of the floor. On the right aisle is the first tomb of note, a mad Vasari contraption containing the bones of the most venerated of Renaissance masters, Michelangelo Buonarroti, who died of a fever in Rome in 1564 at the ripe age of 89. The pope wanted him buried in the Eternal City, but Florentines managed to sneak his body back to Florence. Past Michelangelo is a pompous 19th-century cenotaph to Florentine Dante Alighieri, one of history's greatest poets, whose Divine Comedy codified the Italian language. He died in 1321 in Ravenna after a long and bitter life in exile from his hometown (on trumped-up embezzlement charges), and that Adriatic city has never seen fit to return the bones to Florence, the city that would never readmit the poet when he was alive.
Against a nave pillar farther up is an elaborate pulpit (1472-76) carved by Benedetto di Maiano with scenes from the life of St. Francis. Next comes a wall monument to Niccolò Machiavelli, the 16th-century Florentine statesman and author whose famous book The Prince was the perfect practical manual for a powerful Renaissance ruler.
Past the next altar is an Annunciation (1433) carved in low relief of pietra serena and gilded by Donatello. Nearby is Antonio Rossellino's 1446 tomb of the great humanist scholar and city chancellor Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444). Beyond this architectural masterpiece of a tomb is a 19th-century knockoff honoring the remains of Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), composer of the Barber of Seville and the William Tell Overture.
Around in the right transept is the Cappella Castellani frescoed by Agnolo Gaddi and assistants, with a tabernacle by Mino da Fiesole and a Crucifix by Niccolò Gerini. Agnolo's father, Taddeo Gaddi, was one of Giotto's closest followers, and the senior Gaddi is the one who undertook painting the Cappella Baroncelli (1332-38) at the transept's end. The frescoes depict scenes from the Life of the Virgin, and to the left of the window is an Angel Appearing to the Shepherds that constitutes the first night scene in Italian fresco. The altarpiece Coronation of the Virgin is by Giotto. To the left of this chapel is a doorway, designed by Michelozzo, leading to the sagrestia (sacristy) past a huge Deposition (1560) by Alessandro Allori that had to be restored after it incurred massive water damage when the church was inundated during the 1966 flood. Past the gift shop is a leather school and store.
In the right transept, Giotto frescoed the two chapels to the right of the high altar. The frescoes were whitewashed over during the 17th century but uncovered from 1841 to 1852 and inexpertly restored. The Cappella Peruzzi, on the right, is a late work and not in the best shape. The many references to antiquity in the styling and architecture of the frescoes reflect Giotto's trip to Rome and its ruins. His assistant Taddeo Gaddi did the altarpiece. Even more famous, if only as the setting for a scene in the film A Room with a View, is the Cappella Bardi immediately to the right of the high altar. The key panels here include the Trial by Fire Before the Sultan of Egypt on the right wall, full of telling subtlety in the expressions and poses of the figures. One of Giotto's most well-known works is the lower panel on the left wall, the Death of St. Francis, where the monks weep and wail with convincing pathos. Alas, big chunks of the scene are missing from when a tomb was stuck on top of it in the 18th century. Most people miss seeing Francis Receiving the Stigmata, which Giotto frescoed above the outside of the entrance arch to the chapel.
Agnolo Gaddi designed the stained-glass windows, painted the saints between them, and frescoed a Legend of the True Cross cycle on the walls of the rounded sanctuary behind the high altar. At the end of the left transept is another Cappella Bardi, this one housing a legendary Crucifix by Donatello. According to Vasari, Donatello excitedly called his friend Filippo Brunelleschi up to his studio to see this Crucifix when he had finished carving it. The famed architect, whose tastes were aligned with the prevailing view of the time that refinement and grace were much more important than realism, criticized the work with the words, "Why Donatello, you've put a peasant on the cross!" Donatello sniffed, "If it was as easy to make something as it is to criticize, my Christ would really look to you like Christ. So you get some wood and try to make one yourself." Secretly, Brunelleschi did just that, and one day he invited Donatello to come over to his studio for lunch. Donatello arrived bearing the food gathered up in his apron. Shocked when he beheld Brunelleschi's elegant Crucifix, he let the lunch drop to the floor, smashing the eggs, and after a few moments turned to Brunelleschi and humbly offered, "Your job is making Christs and mine is making peasants." Tastes change, and to modern eyes this "peasant" stands as the stronger work. If you want to see how Brunelleschi fared with his Christ, visit it at Santa Maria Novella.
Past a door as you head back down the left aisle is a 16th-century Deposition by Bronzino. A bit farther along, against a pier, is the roped-off floor tomb of Lorenzo Ghiberti, sculptor of the baptistery doors. Against the wall is an altarpiece of the Incredulity of St. Thomas by Giorgio Vasari. The last tomb on the right is that of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the preeminent Pisan scientist who figured out everything from the action of pendulums and the famous law of bodies falling at the same rate (regardless of weight) to discovering the moons of Jupiter and asserting that the earth revolved around the sun. This last one got him in trouble with the church, which tried him in the Inquisition and -- when he wouldn't recant -- excommunicated him. At the urging of friends frightened his obstinacy would get him executed as a heretic, Galileo eventually kneeled in front of an altar and "admitted" he'd been wrong. He lived out the rest of his days under house arrest near Florence and wasn't allowed a Christian burial until 1737. Giulio Foggini designed this tomb for him, complete with a relief of the solar system -- the sun, you'll notice, is at the center. The pope finally got around to lifting the excommunication in 1992. Italians still bring him fresh flowers.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Highly Recommended 2010