Florence's San Miniato al Monte, a Medieval Jewel Worth the Climb
Planning a trip to Florence? Here's my guide to visiting the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, Florence's crowning glory. The ancient church is a unique and harmonious blend of medieval architectural styles, pre-dating Florence's Renaissance treasures. San Miniato is a hidden gem in Florence, perfect for history buffs, and one of the best free things to do in the city.
When people visiting Florence want a panoramic view, they usually head to Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence's famous lookout square. To be sure, Piazzale Michelangelo is nice, with a replica of Michelangelo's David sculpture. But it's also filled with bus loads of tourists and vendors hawking trinkets.
For a far superior experience, don't stop walking. Head 5-10 minutes further uphill to San Miniato al Monte. It's worth the arduous climb, I promise. San Miniato is an oasis of calm away from the hurly burly of Florence with amazing Gothic art and unsurpassed views. The perspective over the city is absolutely extraordinary.
History of San Miniato al Monte: the Tale of Minias of Florence
Building began in 1018, when San Miniato was officially consecrated. With Florence's Baptistry, San Miniato is one of the two oldest structures in Florence. In 2019, San Miniato celebrated its 1000 year old birthday. It houses an eclectic mix of art and has a distinctly mysterious atmosphere.
The church takes its name from Saint Minias. Who was this guy? Saint Minias was an Armenian prince who was making a pilgrimage to Rome in the 3rd century. He decided instead to settle in Florence and live as a Christian hermit. When the Roman Emperor found out that Minias refused to bow down to pagan gods, Minias was tortured.
Minias survived the torture only to lose his head, becoming Florence's first Christian martyr. Legend holds that Minias picked up his disembodied head and flew over the Arno to the church site, just like Saint Denis did in Paris. San Miniato is now dedicated to the saintly saint.
The relics of Minias are often said to be buried in the church crypt. But that's inaccurate. The bones were sold off to raise money for the church. So I'm not sure what's in the crypt besides chicken bones.
To the right of the church is an adjoining monastery, which has passed from the Benedictines, to the Cluniacs, and finally to the Olivetans. The Olivetans still run it, clad in their simple white robes.
In 1530, Michelangelo turned the church's collapsed bell tower into a defensive wall to protect the complex during the Siege of Florence. In 1553, Cosimo I de Medici turned it into a real fortress. Now the fortified ramparts enclose a beautiful monumental cemetery.
Highlights and What to See at San Miniato al Monte
The approach to San Miniato is dramatic. Seated at the top of a long series of steps (a 19th century addition), San Miniato is one of Tuscany's most beautiful churches. Here's a run down of what you should see and admire.
1. San Miniato Marble Facade
San Miniato has Florence's emblematic geometric white and green marble facade. The gorgeous facade gives you a preview of what you'll see inside. You'll see a tall central section, which faces the nave. The two wings of the facade represent the two side aisles of the interior.
There's a series of five blind arches. They house a central turquoise door in the middle arch and two flanking doors. The central door has a marble inscription proclaiming "This is the Gate of Heaven."
On the upper portion of the facade, the tympanum, is a single window. Above that is a Byzantine-style mosaic of Saint Minias, Christ, and Mary. The mosaic represents heaven.
At the apex is a gilded eagle, the symbol of Florence's merchant guild. The guild donated money to build San Miniato.
2. San Miniato Interior
When you walk through the turquoise doors, you'll find a rather dark interior. It's a bit difficult to see inside the church. Let your eyes adjust.
You're greeted by a spectacular interior. Every inch of the church is covered with inlaid marble, mosaics, gold leaf, and depictions of mythical creatures. There's an unusual raised choir above a large crypt. A spectacular mosaic decorates the half dome in the apse.
The church's roof is trussed with painted wooden beams. The marble floor is decorated with a zodiac wheel. This seems like a curious site in a Christian building. But it just shows the influence of Eastern culture at that time.
The polished stone columns appear to be made of marble. But they're not. They're made of scagliola -- marble dust mixed with plaster. It's used to cover a less expensive type of masonry. Because it's so dark in San Miniato, the illusion is pulled off rather well.
Above the columns, colorful stone inlay brightens the surface. Many of the Corinthian capitals are Roman spolia, or spoils, noticeable because they are much narrower than the columns they crown.
On the walls, you'll a series of 13th and 14th century frescos. There's even an unfinished "cartoon," which is a preparatory drawing for a fresco.
3. The Crypt
The arches lead you down underground to the crypt, the realm of the dead. If you descend into the crypt area, perhaps the church's main highlight, you'll find a mystical ancient space.
The crypt has forest-like columns holding up the vaults. You'll find ancient Roman pieces and fragments of ancient frescos.
Designed by Agnolo Gaddi, the altar is reminiscent of the altar in Florence's Baptistery because it's a reliquary altar. You'll see a stone container (a reliquary). One would imagine that it contains the bones of Saint Minias. But as I said mentioned above, they were sold off long ago.
The altar is oriented toward a beautiful apse space with alabaster screen windows. The alabaster is translucent but not transparent, creating a mystical atmosphere. The panels on the altar were begun by Taddeo Gaddi and finished after his death. Saint Minias is presented in colorful Eastern attire.
4. The Presbytery and Apse Mosaic
If you leave the crypt area and make your way up the stairs, you'll land in the Presbytery. That was the choir area reserved for the priests.
The area is closed off by a wall. But if you climb up the stairs, you can see the fine inlaid wooden choir seats. There's a stone throne, representing the bishop. And a magnificent Romanesque pulpit made in 1207.
Above the throne in the conch area is a stunning and renowned mosaic, reminiscent of the one in Pisa Cathedral that was created around the same time. Dating from 1297, the mosaic depicts an enthroned Jesus looking omnipotent. Greek letters on either side suggest he was both the beginning and the end.
Under his right hand, extended in a peace sign, stands a hooded female figure who's the Virgin Mary. On the other side of Jesus is Saint Minias, his crown a symbol of martyrdom.
There are weird symbols below Jesus -- a winged lion, an eagle, an angel, and a winged ox. If you know your Christian iconography, you'll recognize these as the symbols of the four evangelists. The eagle is the most unique.
5. The Sacristy
Another door leads into San Marco's acclaimed sacristy. A sacristy is a room off the main space of the church that was essentially the priest's locker room. There, the priests dressed and prepared for mass.
The sacristy houses the Chapel of the Crucifix, commissioned by Piero de Medici. It was designed by famed early Renaissance architect Michelozzo, who also designed Florence's beautiful San Marco Monastery.
The chapel was intended as a shrine for the crucifixion painting of Saint Giovani Gualberto, which was believed to be miraculous. The painting is now at the Church of Santa Trinita.
The sacristy was wonderfully decorated by the painter Spinello Aretino around 1378. You'll find scenes from the life of Saint Benedict, which are astonishingly well preserved because they weren't exposed to humidity (like, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper fresco).
The frescos depict the saint performing miracles, including revivifying a dead man and fighting off the devil. The figures are portrayed in their identifiable robes of white. The most famous fresco is St. Bennedict Resurrects, a Fellow Monk Buried Alive.
6. Renaissance Chapel of the Crucifix
As you exit the sacristy, you go back down into the church. There, at the end of the central nave, you'll find a freestanding tabernacle, the Renaissance era Chapel of the Crucifix. It has little to do with San Miniato; it's a much later addition.
The chapel was likely a flexing of Medici family power, as San Miniato was one of the few churches in Florence that they had nothing to do with. Thankfully, it's well incorporated into the Romanesque architecture. You'll be remind about who paid for it by the "balls" or coat of arms of the Medici in the circular curves of the barrel vaults. The tile work is by Luca della Robbia.
The chapel is decorated with frescos by Florentine painter Agnoli Gaddi. They were begun in 1394 and remained unfinished upon his death in 1396. Once again, Saint Minias is in colorful attire. On the side are scenes from the Passion of Christ.
7. Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal
Off to the left hand side, there's another chapel. It's the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal. Legend holds that the cardinal died unexpectedly in 1459 while in Portugal and the Medici had a chapel built as a funerary space for him.
The chapel reflects the collaboration between Florentine Renaissance artists, sculptors, and architects. It was designed and built by one of Brunelleschi's students and successors, Antonio Manetti. There's a beautiful Annunciation fresco painted by Alesso Baldovinetti.
The cardinal's tomb has a life size effigy of the cardinal, sculpted by Antonio Rossellino. Above it, on the ceiling, is a symbol of the Holy Ghost surrounded by four angels.
8. Chants at Vespers
The monks of San Miniato still sing Gregorian chants at Vespers, in a small chapel at the back of the church. Anyone can go and listen. They usually chant at 5:30 pm in the summer and 4:30 pm in the winter.
9. Porte Sante Cemetery | Cimitero delle Porte Sante
Right behind the basilica is the beautiful Sacred Door Cemetery. Built in the 19th century, the cemetery was designed by Niccolo Matas, who was also the architect for the facade of the Basilica of Santa Croce. The graveyard is an open air museum, stuffed with beautiful funeral art, mausoleums, and memorials of illustrious Florentine Catholics.
The private temples and tombs are in varying architectural styles, from Renaissance to Art Deco. Many of them are inspired by Florence's churches. Some are decorated with symbols, allegorical figures, and sentimental portraits. The most famous effigy (shown above) depicts the Mazzone siblings dancing together, fully united in the after life.
Of note, Carlo Collidi, the creator of Pinocchio, has a tomb here. He rests in his family's Neo-Classical chapel.
10. Stunning Views of Florence
The best reward for trekking to San Minato, after the basilica itself? The incredible views of Florence and its storied architecture -- the Palazzo Vecchio, the Duomo, the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Giotto's Bell Tower, the Basilica of Santa Croce -- are all before you.
This is a better view of the Duomo than that at Piazzale Michelangelo. And you can take photos with the cemetery in the foreground. Go at sunset for extra gorgeousness.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting San Miniato al Monte
Address: Via delle Porte Sante 34
Hours: Sunday 8:15 am to 78:00 pm. Weekdays 9:30 am to 1:00 pm & 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Open until 8:00 pm in the summer. The cemetery is open daily until 5:00 pm.
Entry fee: free
Pro tip: There is a gift shop operated by the monks who live in the monastery. They sell honey, soaps, liqueurs and other items made by the monks. Modest dress is required to enter the church.
Getting there: If you don't want to hoof it, take Bus 12 from Lungarno di Santa Rosa. It's a 20-30 minute walk back down to the Ponte Vecchio.
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