Florence day 1

The San Miniato al Monte and the Duomo, or, the Santa Maria del Fiore


Florence Giovanni Stradano Sala di Clemente VII Palazzo Vecchio 1558 and the La Veduta della Catena large size
Siege of Florence google art project     Youtube  La Veduta della Catena  (5.22 minutes)
Florence Giorgio Vasari Siege of Florence Sala di Clemente VII Palazzo Vecchio 1558
San Miniato all Monte
La Veduta della Catena
San Miniato all Monte La Veduta della Catena

As we can gather from its name, the church was built atop a hill. 1 The location was not entirely incidental if we go by the stories. St. Minias (or St. Miniatus)  was executed in 250 AD by command of Roman emperor Decius. His saintly head rolled from his shoulders, but lo and behold: Minias simply gathered up his own head and walked up the Mons Florentinus.

Antonio Verico after Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen c. 1785-1875 etching h. 106mm x w. 177mm  large       Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Antonio Verico after Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen c. 1785-1875 etching h. 106mm x w. 177mm    Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
San Miniato al Monte from afar and up close
San Miniato al Monte Florence

This is where he uttered the memorable words: this is where I want to be buried. A church was built around his grave in the third or fourth century. In 1018, bishop Hildebrand ordered to have the church rebuilt. The bones of Minias or Miniatus lie beneath the altar in the crypts. 

St. Miniatus large size
Meester van de Madonna van Barmhartigheid  'St. Miniatus' Tempera and gold on wooden plate, 1360-1365, h. 90,7  x w.37,5 cm, Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht

Meester van de Madonna van Barmhartigheid  ‘St. Miniatus’ Tempera and gold on wooden plate, 1360-1365, h. 90,7  x w. 37,5 cm, Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht

It would take another two centuries for the church to be completed. Although the church is of Roman design, many in the Renaissance believed it to be a truly classic building. This applied similarly to the Baptistery.

The San Miniato al Monte and a view from the stairs towards  Florence        Entrance to the San Miniato al Monte
San Miniato al Monte stairs and church

1   Paolo Schiavo, ‘Madonna enthroned the Saints Francis, Mark, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, James and Anthony Abbot’
2   Opus sectile zodiacs
3   Cappella del Crocifisso Michelozzo and Luca della Robbia         Altarpiece Agnolo Gaddi
4   Pulpit   choir
6   Sacristy
7   Apse mosaic
9   Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal; frescos of prophets and busts of saints Taddeo Gaddi ca. 1340
10 Mariotto di Nardo ‘Crucifixion and Coronation of Mary’ 1400

Arriving inside the church, you can tell by the layout that it is very orderly with all bays in the nave (and the aisles) being completely equal to each other. Division according to fixed dimensional ratios, which can for example be deduced from the floor pattern. The bay of the aisle is exactly half that of the one in the nave. In the Renaissance, other architects like Brunelleschi will implement this too, as can be seen in the San Lorenzo or the Santo Spirito. The columns at the arcades are not all equal. Some of them are re-used classical columns known as spolia. It has Corinthian but also Byzantine capitals. The columns and pillars alternate in a fixed rhythm: pillar, column, column and pillar.

Nave and choir large size            Choir large size        Main altar
San Miniato al Monte nave and choir


Open timber roof large size
San Miniato al Monte open timber roof Florence

photo: Sarmale/Olga

Aside from the open timber roof truss, the church uses a lot of marble. The marble in the clerestory was painted in the nineteenth century. It also shows marble in different colours. The inlays of the floor from 1207 include patterns with zodiac signs,

San Miniato al Monte large size      Interior large size
San Miniato al Monte nave


Interior large size      Side
San Miniato al Monte interior

For the altar, Michelozzo designed a ciborium for Piero de Medici in the fifteenth century. Michelozzo used four different columns. Something that fits the tradition of this church.


San Miniato al Monte and the Ciborium large size
San Miniato al Monte interior
San Miniato al Monte interior large size
San Miniato al Monte interior
Ciborium and backside
San Miniato al Monte Florence Ciborium Michelozzo

The five blind arches underneath the conch in the apse appear again in the facade. The church is home to many frescos, including from the thirteenth and fourteenth century by painters like Taddeo Gaddi, but we keep our focus on the architecture.

The crypt with altar and the remains of St. Minias
San Miniato al Monte crypt with altar and the remains of St. Minias

picture: 1982Chris911

Facade of the San Miniato al Monte

The facade of the San Miniato, like the back wall at the apse, has five blind arches with similar panels. The facade, too, like in the church, makes heavy use of multi-coloured marble. Not entirely unsurprising given how the city has many marble quarries nearby. The high centre-piece of the facade reflects the high nave and covers three blind arches. Behind the two outer most arches are the aisles. The bottom part of the facade has a clear horizontal accent and is closed off with an entablature.

San Miniato al Monte and  the bottom facade        Facades and Campanile      Mosaic and window       Side facade     Detail of the facade
San Miniato al Monte facade

pictures: Ron Menting and jean louis maziers

Above it, in the centre, a square rises up showing an aedicula around a window. Above this window is a mosaic. Naturally, this mosaic from circa 1260 depicts St. Minias next to Mary and Christ. The facade is crowned with an eagle. It was the guild’s symbol, the Calimala, which since 1228 supervised the construction of this church.


Mosaic          San Miniato al Monte mosaic large size
San Miniato al Monte mosaic facade

Triangles with coloured marble mark the transition from the low aisles to the higher centre-part. This is akin to what Alberti would later apply to the Santa Maria Novella, namely volutes. The centre has a triangular closure: a pediment divided into planes and with different colour marble inlays. The part in the middle of the facade above the three blind arches is an interpretation of a classic temple pediment. Like the interior, the facade has a rather classic look to it. But at closer inspection you will see a number of statues at the facade, including gargoyles, that reveal the Roman nature of this church. In addition, there are a number of mistakes that a classical architect would never make. For instance, as with the Baptistery, the architrave has been curved to the left and right of the mosaic. Moreover, the recesses at the lower part of the fluting in the pilasters have been filled up. In Antiquity, this was only done on the ground floor to protect the vulnerable area where the two recesses convene. The height at which it is applied in the facade of the San Miniato makes it a meaningless endeavour.

Mosaic and window 
San Miniato al Monte aedicule window facade Florence

picture: Sarah Wilkins

Despite these shortcomings, Vasari speaks positively about the San Miniato al Monte in his preface of The Lives. After the decline of the Roman empire and the rise of the dark ages, art became a derelict pastime, but this church was a positive development.

‘Subsequently, in 1013, when the Florentine Alibrando was bishop of Florence, it was evident by the restoration of the splendid San Miniato that art had regained some of its former glory; after all, aside from the marble ornaments, both inside and outside the church, it is evident by the facade that Tuscan architects made all the effort to keep the doors, windows, columns, arches and cornices in line with classical building, which they had partially recognised in the very old house of god of San Giovanni [Teg: Baptistery]  in their own city.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I p. 43 (original edition 1568).

The Santa Maria del Fiore or the Duomo

The Duomo, or as the cathedral is actually the called, the Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the flowers) was constructed to replace the much smaller and worn Santa Reparata, as you can see on this layout.2


Santa Maria del Fiore and the  Santa Reparata       Youtube Duomo google 3     Aerial picture      Aerial rear picture
Santa Maria del Fiore Baptistery aerial picture

You can still see remnants of this old church in the Duomo if you descend down the stairs at the front of the nave. The architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio made a design for a new cathedral. What’s more, Cambio also sculpted sculptures for the facade (click here to see them) that we will discuss on the day we visit the Opera del Duomo museum. It speaks for itself that this church was to be as beautiful as possible (più bello che si può). That is according to a document from 1294, the same year the first stones of the Santa Maria del Fiore were placed, which said the following:

‘[…] one must not endeavour in public works (cose del Commune) if the plan does not match a desire fueled by the zeal of its many citizens that are united by a common cause.’

Cited from: Eva Borsook, Stergids Florence, Agon, Amsterdam 1988 p. 83 [Dutch].

The construction firm tasked with the construction, the Opera del Duomo, prioritised the Palazzo Vecchio instead. Another factor is that Arnolfo di Cambio died pretty quickly. It was not until 1334 that the new master builder, Giotto, got the project going again, but his main focus was on building the campanile, the clocktower next to the Santa Maria del Fiore.3 In 1357, master builder Francesco Talenti appears who changes Cambio’s original design.4 Originally, the design included rectangular bays, but Talenti turned them into square bays, which significantly increased the size of the church (see layouts at Wikipedia). He also raised the walls of the aisles. This created a problem with the already constructed part in the aisle, which had two windows in the bay. The new construction part was only to be given one window per bay. In the old part of Arnolfo di Cambio, the windows no longer match the interior and eventually they were made into blind windows. This can still be seen on the exterior of the aisles today.

The spacious room covered by the high arches gives the interior a completely new look than gothic churches north of the Alpes. The aisles and the nave appear to be one large space to the naked eye. Master builder Giovanni di Lapo Ghini finalised the Duomo and in 1367 the cathedral was completed (the walls and vaults), save for the dome and the tholobate. For more info about the Duomo click here for Wikipedia.


Santa Maria del Fiore and choir      The nave
Santa Maria del Fiore nave


Santa Maria del Fiore
Santa Maria del Fiore nave
Santa Maria del Fiore nave large size
Santa Maria del Fiore nave


Day one continuation-1