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Florence, Italy: 4 breathtaking cathedrals to visit

By Kelly Eng 21 March 2022

Header image courtesy of Ray Harrington (via Unsplash)

The mystical and spiritual elements of cathedrals easily make them a great location for filming horror scenes, just like the ones in The Nun (although this may seem ironic since the purpose of religious sites is for people to worship gods and cleanse their souls). In the past, cathedrals were often also symbols of wealth and prestige, acting as a city pride for civilians. 

Inside, you will often find many exquisite masterpieces by famous artists, too. When travelling to Florence, you will soon notice the sophisticated and grand cathedrals scattered here and there. Each of them is delicately constructed and decorated, and all of them convey different stories and histories. Here are four cathedrals you must visit during your trip to Florence.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Basilica di San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo is one of the largest churches in Florence. Constructed in the 1400s, its original design is credited to Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the founding fathers of Renaissance architecture, with artists like Michelangelo and Donatello contributing their touches.

Divided into three distinct areas, the Basilica includes the cloister, the church, and the Medici Chapels. When you enter, you will first see the Cannon’s Cloister situated in the centre of a double loggia, a green space that contributes to the atmosphere of the area, while the round arches and columns, which support the top floor, fully exhibit Renaissance elements.

You can also visit a small museum from the main cloister, where valuable reliquaries and liturgical props are displayed for visitors to admire.

Afterwards, it is a must to visit the Medicea Laurenziana Library, which stores over 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 printed books from the olden days. Its distribution of windows and the construction of the ceiling were considered revolutionary architectural innovations at the time, as well as the vestibule with a three-flight staircase. 

Once you enter the main church, the rounded arches, columns, proportioned space, and perfect symmetries would immediately remind you of classical Roman architecture, while the tall, vaulted ceiling creates a spacious central area with natural lights flowing in. Remember to visit the Old Sacristy to appreciate its geometric harmony, too.

Lastly, resting behind San Lorenzo are the Medici Chapels, where Cosimo de’ Medici and other principal members from his family are buried, as they were the main source of funding during the construction of the church. If you are travelling to Florence and would love to understand its history, the Basilica di San Lorenzo is a great place to start.

Basilica di San Lorenzo, Piazza di San Lorenzo, 9, 50123 Florence, Italy | (+39) 055 216634

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Photo: Giuseppe Mondì (via Unsplash)
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Duomo di Firenze (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore)

If you have seen the movie 6 Underground, then you might remember the character Four, a free runner played by Ben Hardy. Apparently, despite his fear of heights, the actor still had to climb to the top of the Duomo for one of his scenes.

Nonetheless, this spot remains to be one of the biggest tourist attractions, as Florence’s iconic cathedral offers breathtaking views of the city. Constructed around 1296, the Santa Maria del Fiore not only had the largest dome in the world for centuries, but is also known as the most beautiful building in Florence. Indeed, one should not miss this Gothic masterpiece when roaming around the city.

Unsurprisingly, this complex architecture took over 70 years to build under the design of Arnolfo di Cambio, whose work reflects the transition from late Gothic to Renaissance elements. Additionally, the Duomo would not have been completed without Filippo Brunelleschi, who implemented classical methods of proportion and structure into the construction of the famed dome. 

A mix of artistic elements from both periods dominates the cathedral; its pointed arches and stained glass windows are both Gothic characteristics, but the dome and Tuscan-style Romanesque patterns on the outer walls are more classical.

Entry is free, and with a tour guide, you will get a chance to visit Giotto’s Bell Tower, too. When you walk into the Duomo, you will immediately see stunning mosaic pavements, as well as the fresco painting of The Last Judgment by Giorgio Vasari. 

However, if visitors want to climb 463 steps up the dome for the city view or visit the other monuments in Piazza del Duomo, they will have to purchase a pass. It is also worth touring the Baptistery and the Museo dell Opera del Duomo for some statues and artistic elements of the cathedral.

Duomo di Firenze, Piazza del Duomo, 50122 Florence, Italy | (+39) 055 230 2885

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte

Here, we have a Tuscan Romanesque church with the longest history in Florence. Constructed between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte stands on one of Florence’s highest points, with its façade decorated in green and white marble in geometric patterns.

The ancient building exhibits harmonious intersections between medieval architectural styles, from Byzantine mosaic to Gothic paintings to ornate Romanesque pulpit. If you are down for a hike, try walking up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a complete experience and enjoy the gorgeous Florence skyline. Once you arrive at the panoramic terrace, climb another five to 10 minutes to reach the church door. From this level, you can get a better bird’s-eye view of the city and spot the Duomo and San Lorenzo!

Before entering the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte, take some time to appreciate the beauty of its exterior designs. Above the door are figures of Saint Minias, Christ, and Mary, while a marble inscription indicates that “this is the Gate of Heaven.” 

When you have stepped into the church, the grim yet striking interior will immediately catch your attention. Its zodiac floor, depictions of mythical creatures, colourful stone decoration, and other artistic inlays significantly contribute to the overall atmosphere of the church. 

Afterwards, we would suggest to visit the crypt as well, where some Roman antiques and ancient frescoes are stored. In addition, there is also an apse mosaic with Saint Minias dressed in Eastern attire positioned in the centre of the artwork.

Afterwards, visitors usually continue their tour in the Presbytery, the Sacristy, Renaissance Chapel of the Crucifix, and Porte Sante Cemetery. Every section of this marvellous structure is full of its own stories and history, all of which are fascinating to learn about.

Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte, Via delle Porte Sante, 34, 50125 Florence, Italy | (+39) 055 234 2731

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Basilica di Santa Croce

As the largest Franciscan church in the world, Santa Croce also acts as the “Temple of the Italian Glories,” as many notable Italians like Michelangelo and Galileo are buried here. The building was rebuilt in 1294 by Arnolfo di Cambio, but over 50 floods since then have left plenty of damage on this age-old relic.

However, the last yet most devastating one was in 1966, which destroyed a lot of sculptures and paintings. The complex continues to undergo intense restoration, and many precious artworks and heritages remain heavily protected.

The basilica is composed of 16 family chapels, including Bardi di “Mangona,” the Baroncelli chapel, and Chancel, which were built to honour the families and served as a place for them to worship saints. Once you have entered the church, you will find many Tuscan Gothic or Proto-Renaissance paintings, such as frescoes by Giotto and a polyptych by Agnolo Gaddi. 

There are also three cloisters within Santa Croce, allowing visitors a few silent areas for meditation and prayers. One of the cloisters, Arnolfo’s, also serves as a cemetery since it holds several tombs. You will also find another few tombs at the front entrance, and these burial sites are what makes Santa Croce valuable and unique to other churches in Florence.

Established in 1959, the Opera di Santa Croce Museum stores many artworks from the Florentine School and a collection of glazed terracotta by the Della Robbia School. You would need to pay to enter the church and museum, but once you are there, take your time to appreciate their beauty and take a picture with the Basilica di Santa Croce Belltower, too.

Basilica di Santa Croce, Piazza di Santa Croce, 16, 50122 Florence, Italy | (+39) 055 246 6105

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Kelly Eng

Writer

From dipping hot Cheetos in birthday cake ice cream to scuba-diving despite being ocean-phobic, Kelly loves exploring new and weird things with her family and friends. While her talents are eating and napping, she enjoys dancing, writing, and socialising as well. As an advocate of pineapple pizzas and durian tofu pudding, Kelly is also a passionate fan of K-pop, romance fiction, and sea otters.

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