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The traditional subdivision of Florence into four sectors—Santa Maria Novella, San Giovanni, Santa Croce, and Santo Spirito—dates to the 14th century, with each quarter presided over by its own major church. Centuries later, the churches remain, the chiming of their bells coexisting with the rumbling of the ubiquitous motorbikes, the intermittent cacophony epitomizing the mostly peaceful coexistence of the old with the new, the practical with the sacred.
Santa Maria Novella
With only a day to explore, I manage to fit in all four of what I’ve come to think of as The Big Four of Florentine churches. Santa Maria Novella, my first stop, is within footsteps of both the train station and my hotel. The line snaking along the interior courtyard confirms that visiting the church is not just my good idea; still I buy my ticket and settle into waiting. Fortunately the wait goes much faster than expected. Before I know it, I’m stepping inside the softly lit sanctuary. This Gothic style church with its traditional Florentine marble façade is home to several great works of art, many of them conceived specifically for the church, including the Crucifix painted by Giotto and the Crèche by Botticelli.
The Church and Convent of San Marco
In the northeast sector of the city, and a short (less than ten minutes’ walk from Santa Maria Novella) are The Church and Convent of San Marco. I take a truly fascinating self-guided tour, which includes stepping inside several former monks’ cells, rooms so small that my Manhattan apartment seems suddenly spacious. More so than the sparseness of square footage, the contrast to my very postmodern, very hectic, and at times cluttered life jars me. Could I possibly ever live so very simply? Would I even want to? The latter introspection brings a quick and emphatic “No!” That said, as I take time afterward to stroll the lovely garden with its frescoed portico, I concede that perhaps modern life need not always be quite so fast-driven as we make it.
Exiting the church museum, I cross the street to Orto Botanico, the botanical gardens. Sadly it is a Wednesday, the one day the gardens are closed. I make a mental note to visit the gardens on my next trip to Florence—and by now I’ve resolved there will most definitely be a next time.
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Whether standing in its shadow or peering back from across the river, The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, literally “Saint Mary of the Flower,” dominates the city both visually and spiritually. Its red dome, an architectural feat for its time, was completed by Brunelleschi in 1436. The façade, however, remained unfinished until the 19th century. Today it is impossible to imagine the Florentine skyline without it. My first view of the cathedral and adjacent baptistery takes place at night. I am overwhelmed by its sheer vastness, situated as it is in the heart of the historic city centre. At the same time, the latticework of green and white marble lends the edifice a lacey if not precisely fragile feel. It is no less impressive when I return by day. Dwarfed by its exquisite grandeur, I feel as though I’ve walked inside the world of a child’s popup picture book.
The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore Museum stands behind the cathedral’s apse in the ancient palazzo that once housed the Opera, or Cathedral Works. The works spread across the museum’s interior include multiple masterpieces and unlike the Uffizi and Accademia, if you go at the end of the day (around 4PM), there’s likely to be little or no line. Make a point of pausing before the wooden statue of Mary Magdalene by Donatello. The sensibility of the piece is astonishingly modern as well as wrenching in a very tangible, very personal way. And of course don’t leave without seeing the more celebrated Pieta, Michelangelo’s unfinished marble group originally intended for his funeral monument.
The day is as yet young. For someone who typically attends church once or twice a year, seeing three churches (and counting!) in a single day is a personal record, to say the least. Still, I make a point of going to Santa Croce. As a novelist, I don’t so much visit Santa Croce as make a pilgrimage there. Interred here are some of the Renaissance’s greatest artists and humanist minds—Michelangelo (his memorial is much more lavish than his unfinished Pieta), Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli and Rossini. Here’s hoping some of those lingering creative vibes rub off.
Church of San Spirito
Set on Florence’s left bank not far from the Pitti Palace is the Church of San Spirito. I cross the Arno by way of the Ponte Santa Trinita, my favorite Florentine bridge (See my last article in this series, Day #3: Loving Florence for details on why), meandering my way through the hip artsy neighborhood of Oltrarno. By the time I reach Santo Spirito, the market is winding down to close. Unfortunately by this point, my camera phone has also run out of juice. Merde! I manage to buy a postcard of the church and take a quick self-guided tour of the sanctuary. Afterward I stroll through the market, in which everything from antique furnishings to bric-a-brac and jewelry and festival food are displayed for sale. The piazza itself is bordered by hip restaurants and shops all of which beckon me to linger.
San Miniato al Monte
But I have a mission to complete! While I’m on the left bank, I decide to stretch my itinerary, and my legs, even further. San Miniato al Monte is a bit of a trek, much of it uphill, but my Florentine friend assures me it’s a must see, and if I can do so at sunset, all the better.
Since 1018, the monks of San Miniato al Monte have lived on and off this hill. The cool, frescoed interior of this Romanesque to Renaissance basilica exudes tranquility and the promise of eternal peace. Vespers with Gregorian chants is held every evening starting at 5:30PM, however the spectacular view of Florence, including the domed Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known simply as The Duomo, is available anytime.
Tramping down the hill from San Miniato Al Monte, Fuori Porta offers a refreshing midday pause and a pleasant spot to plant myself at no seating fee. Three Euros buys me a good glass of chianti and the better part of an hour to watch the world go by—the fifty-something American couple seated at the table next to me enjoying their anniversary holiday, the queue of nuns hiking up the hill from whence I’d come…
And of course the ubiquitous motorbikes.
Written by Hope Tarr for EuropeUpClose.com