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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Florence: Churches

Christopher Wren noted that the term "Gothic," when applied to architecture, was used first by Italians disparaging Northern Europe's cathedral builders.  The Italians of course preferred to work in their own, deep-rooted style.

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San Miniato al Monte is Florence's oldest church, begun just after 1000 A.D.  It's named for Florence's one-and-only martyr, St. Miniato.  His bones were probably taken long ago to Metz, but a bishop of Florence named Hildebrand said no, he had found them here, atop this hilltop south of the Arno.  A church went up, along with a monastery whose abbot, Drogo, explained that, having been beheaded, Miniato picked up his head and flew to this hilltop, where he wished to be buried.

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Apart from such hagiographical fantasy, San Miniato is stalwartly rational, not only in its evocation of classical moderation but in the geometer's delight of its trim.  Call it a north Italian specialty: serpentine from Prato and white marble from Carrara were laid out in patterns based not on nature but on reason. The building is classical even in a literal sense, because its Corinthian capitals are recycled from demolished Roman buildings.  There is no transept, no evocation of the cross: instead, the derivation is from the early Christian basilica.

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The green-on-white inlay continues inside the church, which has a very simple floor plan, with a nave unusually open to the aisles. Unlike Chartres, conceived as a space to please the Virgin, this church, like most in Florence, was built as a hall for sermons.

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Several centuries later, the inlaid and two-storied facade still seemed appropriate.  The base of the immense Santa Maria Novella was built about 1360 for the Dominicans; unlike St. Miniato it has a T-shaped floor plan.  In the next century Alberti added the top, whose bracketing scrolls conceal the roofs over the aisles.  Alberti added the lower columns, too, which appear to support the new upper story.  This church was another hall for sermons, but it was also a vehicle for the display of family power.  The name of Giovanni (here Latinized to "Johannes") Rucellai appears up top, in the grand banner acknowledging the Rucellais for having footed the cost of the improvements; lower on the facade there's a line of sailing ships, the emblem of the family whose fortune came from trade. The modern donor wall is nothing new.

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This is Santa Croce, an immense Franciscan church, laid out like Maria Novella on a T-plan.  It's a bit earlier, begun just before 1300, but the facade is extremely late: until the mid-19th century, in fact, the front was simply brick.  To much controversy, an Englishman named Francis Sloane paid Nicolas Matas to design a 14th century facade, which was duly completed at Sloane's expense in 1863. Such was the British infatuation with Florence.

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The nave.

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Tombs line the nave, in this case for Galileo.

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And the villain everyone likes to hate for daring to speak the truth about the choice political leaders face: success or honesty.

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Stepping outside to the cloister and the Pozzi Chapel.

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The Pazzi Chapel, straight on. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, it was paid for by the Pazzi family in exchange for the never-exercised right to be buried in the church. Kenneth Clarke calls it an exercise in architectural humanism, a building that neither dwarfs nor confines the person within.

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Dome of the portico.

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The chapel was commissioned in 1429 and finished in 1472.  It's square but extended on two sides by two barrel-vaulted wings to form a rectangle whose long sides are opened on one side by the entrance and on the opposite side by a room with a sacristy.

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Dome of the chapel.

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Dome and its support, with images of John and Mark, identified by the eagle and winged lion.

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St. Luke and his winged ox.

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The chapel in context.

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The cloister.

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This is Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence's cathedral.  It was begun in 1296 and has a Latin-cross design laid out by Arnolfo de Cambio.  The dome over the crossing was completed by Brunelleschi in 1436.  In 1587 the facade was redesigned; then, in 1887, about the time of the completion of the facade of Santa Croce, it was restored to its original appearance. To its right is the bell tower completed in 1359 but still respecting Giotto's design.

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The interior, though big and nominally Gothic, seems almost intentionally dull.  Call it a reaction to the passions raised here when Savonarola preached.

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The painted dome, on the other hand, compensates with its intense colors and pictures that must have terrified faithful sinners.

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Demons at work.

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The work was carefully distorted to appear in scale to viewers below.

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There's no end to the terrors envisioned.

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Looking down from the base of the dome to the nave.

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This is an interior walkway at the base of the dome, which begins rising on the left.

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Stairs march straight up the shell of the inner dome, which covers an octagon 43 meters in diameter.  The dome was too high to be supported by scaffolding, and so Brunelleschi built a self-supporting inner and outer dome--the two bonded together with ribs like the ones shown here on the right and left.  The design obviated the need for flying buttresses, which would have been needed to resist lateral thrusting in a single dome. Still, the design forced Brunelleschi to abandon the geometrically preferred hemispherical dome and to substitute a slightly pointed or ogival one.

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The Medici Chapel (1602-48), built by Matteo Nigetti and others.  It obviously imitates--almost copies--Brunelleschi's cathedral dome.

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This is the courtyard of Santa Maria del Carmine.  It's attached to a church that is mostly very recent, completed in 1782.  The church does have the older and famous Brancacci Chapel, where Masaccio's frescoes brought a still-arresting realism and emotional intensity to sacred painting. It also has this courtyard, which may be nothing special but which is welcome after the pyrotechnics and egotism of the city's more famous churches.


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The churches today are besieged not by the faithful but by tourists and street merchants waiting for their day to begin.

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