Three Swiss in Florence – enjoying some of the Gothic churches

To recapitulate – Here is the architecture timeline of Florence:

churches and palaces

After having shared some impressions about Proto-Renaissance, I will now continue with some churches from Florentine Gothic.


Santa Maria Novella and the Spanish Chapel built by the watchdogs of the Lord

Santa Maria Novella is the first gothic church in Florence. The Dominicans started the construction in 1246. Here is a foto taken from the cupola of the Duomo. The railway station is just across.


This is the nave. There are ogives, but less pronounced than in central Europe. The wooden cross of Giotto (1290) is one of the highlights.


Masaccio was an outstanding artist at the transition between Gothic and Renaissance who died at the age of 27. His “Santa Trinitá” (ca 1428) is famous for the perspective that was innovative  at that time and helped pave the way for Renaissance paintings.


In the attached  Spanish Chapel we come across the watchdogs of the Lord. They are black and white. I learn that “Dominicans” stands for “Canes Domini” or watchdogs of the Lord. The Spanish Chapel tells the history of the Dominicans that have built Santa Maria Novella.



Monastery and Campanile of Badia – a quick glance in the cloister

Badia means “monastery” and today belongs to the Fratenernity of Jerusalem. We just visit the cloister with the view of the gothic Campanile. The nuns are inventive and sell unusual souvenirs. I buy soap made from the milk of donkeys and some honeydrops.



More Florentine Gothic: Sant’Ambrogio

Sant’Ambrogio is located east of the city center. Very easy to reach from our hotel near Santa Maria Novella: We just have to follow the streets aligned along the old Roman Decumanus. I like this church with its open roof framework and beautiful frescos such as the “Maria Lactans” by Orcagna. My fotos of the frescos are blurred, as the church is rather dark inside.



In a way the heart of Florence Gothic: The Duomo and the Campanile

The full name of the Duomo is “Santa Maria del Fiore” and this name is related to the lilly flower that is the symbol of Florence. We loved to come back to the Duomo again and again. The gothic construction plan was followed by the architects until the Cupola and the Lantern were completed in the 15th century. The names of the architects included Cambio (1296), Talenti (1350) and above all Brunelleschi who after 1418 was the genius implementing the cupola based on the original plans. His breakthrough was the idea to avoid using a huge scaffold from the ground, but a hanging scaffold that would grow with the cupola. He meticulously planned the construction and checked the progress every day. Vasari and his successor later completed the paintings in the cupola.


On a sunny day, I climbed Brunelleschi’s Cupola and enjoyed the magnificent view of the town.


The Campanile (around 1340) was Giotto’s masterpiece that his successors completed, among them Andrea Pisano and Talenti.


And more Gothic: Santa Croce and the attached Pazzi Chapel, the last Renaissance masterpiece of Brunelleschi

Santa Croce is the church of the Franciscans. Like San Miniato and Santa Maria Novella, the facade is adorned with white marble and grey Pietra serena, but this facade was completed only around 1860 – it is assumed that the facade is based on the orignal plans.


The woodwork of the ceiling is open, reflecting the modesty of the Franciscans. The nave gives the impression of a uniform entity, as the woodwork of the central nave is repeated in the aisles and the floor tiles are also the same.


Only the choir reminds a bit of central European Gothic. Beautiful chapels are on the side, with frescos from the first half of the 14th century (many by Giotto and his workshop).


Santa Croce is rich of artwork. Leni loves this vivid painting of the “Deposition from the Cross” by Francesco Salviati.


Leni and I spend so  much time in the main church that we miss the attached Pazzi Chapel on our first visit. The guardian watching over Santa Croce feels sorry for us: “You HAVE to see the Pazzi Chapel”, he says, “you HAVE to come back”, and he writes on our ticket that we are allowed to enter a second time, adding his personal signature. Great that the guard working here loves his church.

When we come back later, Ursula shows us her favorite artwork, Donatello’s “Annunciation”.


And we visit Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel. The chapel was his last Renaissance master piece. We just sit inside and meditate in this unostentatious hall full of harmony.


Later we enjoy the treasures in the attached museum. I particularly like the crucification on the tree that adorns the backwall of the former refectorium.



Let me continue later with some more Gothic and with some Renaissance churches – again following the achitecture time line of Florence.


Three Swiss in Florence – overwhelmed by so much culture and history

My old dream – Florence – a mysterious town full of culture and history

Florence has always made me dream, in particular the Uffizi – one of the greatest museums in Europe. Then the Ponte Vecchio has always impressed me – topped with houses and crossing the Arno.


I knew about three Renaissance artists that worked in Florence – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raffael. I knew that Catharina de Medici had married the French king Henry II and later, Maria married Henry IV – they became the grand-parents of Louis XIV. Here is a painting showing Maria (Uffizi).


Obviously, Florence played an important role in European history. Yes, it was an old dream of mine to visit Florence. But I have never made it there so far.


Ursula organizes a trip to Florence for us three Swiss ladies

Ursula has spent many weeks in Florence before. I had told her about my dream. Now she makes it come true: For December 2014 she organizes a trip to Florence for her, for me and for her mum. Zurich – Milano using the Swiss Railway SBB and Milano – Florence in the high speed train Frecciarossa. She reserves rooms in the hotel Minerva at Piazza Santa Maria Novella, close to the main railway station.

When we are about to leave for Florence, I hear news about “scioperi”. The Italian railways on strike? No problem for us. SBB takes us to Milano without hesitating. And Frecciarossa is a private railway organization that does not participate in the strikes. We arrive in Florence on time, more precisely than on “normal” days, when our trains would have competed for track capacity with the public trains. After having arrived in Florence, we reach our hotel within five minutes.

Here is the view from the roof of our hotel to the Dome with the Campanile and Palazzo Vecchio.


And this is view of the tower of Santa Maria Novella taken from one of the balconies – we are close.


When we leave the front door of the hotel we stand in front of the renaissance facade of Santa Maria Novella.



Trying to get an overview of all this culture – my simplified map of Florence

Ursula enthusiastically tells me about San Lorenzo, the Baptisterium, the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, San Miniate al Monte, the Palazzo Pitti and… and… I feel overwhelmed. There is much, much more to be seen than just the Uffizi and the Ponte Vecchio. I hear that sometimes tourists end up in the emergency department of the local hospital, and the diagnosis is “overload with culture” – it is said to be a well-known phenomenon. I believe, if it is not true, it is well invented (or in Italian: si non è vero, è ben trovato).

I try to get some order into my head and draw a simplified map of the town with their places of interest. Except Fiesole, they are all within walking distance.


The center of medieval Florence is the area around the Dome square (with the Dome, the Baptisterium and the Campanile). The Roman Decumanus and the Cardo  can still be noticed in the rectangular street pattern (they cross at today’s Piazza della Repubblica). Grouped in the center are the Palazzo Vecchio (the old townhall in Piazza della Signoria), the Bargello Palace (formerly the residence of the “Bargello”, the head of the police), Badia (a monastery, Brothers of Jerusalem), Orsanmichele (the center and curch of the trade- and craft guilds) and the Uffizi (the administrative center of the dukes of Medici, now THE museum). The center ends with Ponte Vecchio that connects to “Oltrarno” (the area “beyond” the Arno).

To the west/north west are Santa Maria Novella (belonging to the Dominicans), San Lorenzo (where the Medici dukes are buried), the nearby Mercato Centrale and the Palace of Medici-Ricasoli (with the chapel hosting gorgeous frescos of the kings traveling to adore Jesus).

To the north there are the monastery of San Marco (each cell decorated with a fresco), the Accademia (highlight: David by Michelangelo) and the Ospedale degli Innocenti (forming the harmony of Piazza SS Annunziata with the namesake church).

On a hill farther away to the north, the town of Fiesole can be reached using bus number 7 (archaeological center with Roman ruins).

To the east we find the beautiful church Santa Croce and – still farther more to the east – Sant’Ambrogio with its markets.

Beyond (or south of) the Arno (Oltrarno) is Santo Spirito (the small streets are the scene of Magdalen Nabb’s detective stories). Nearby is Santa Maria del Carmine with the Branccacci chapel (highlight: the fresco “expulsion from the paradise”). The Palazzo Pitti was home of the dukes of Medici (“hidden” in the Gallery they walked to the Uffizi, sometimes stopping by behind Santa Felicitá to attend the service; today the Palazzo is another art museum). Behind the Palazzo Pitti are the Boboli gardens (climbing uphill) and the Bardini gardens (with a wonderful view of the city). San Miniato al Monte on top of another hill is the oldest church in Florence  (church and monastery belong to the Benedictines).

These are the cultural highlights that we visited. We also spent wonderful hours eating in exellent and friendly restaurants, shopping in the markets or leather -, dress -, gem – and book stores (Florence is famous for its design culture) or just enjoying the atmosphere in the small streets where each individual house/palace has a story to tell (such as Palazzo Strozzi, Davanzati or Antinori). It is good to be in Florence in December: There are less tourists now and the temperatures seem moderate to us (15 degrees during the day) – even if some dog owners would not agree, as this snapshot taken hastily illustrates.


The shining nose of the Porcellino indicates that most tourists want to come back to Florence.


I feel the same – After having spent a week here, I would like to come back. However, I do not touch this nose that so many people have touched before.


This is the literature that I used to understand more of Florence

  • Loney Planet: “Pocket Florence & Tuscany”, Feb 2014
  • ADAC Reiseführer: “Florenz” (extremely practical guide with a pull out map that my eyes could read – each place of interest has a number that allows to find the related explanations quickly and the depth of the explanations is exactly right, when walking around)
  • DuMont Kunstreiseführer: “Florenz”, 1988 and 2012 (in depth information to  dig deeper)
  • DuMont Reisetaschenbücher: “Florenz”, 1996
  • Merian Porträts: “Florenz, eine Stadt in Biographien”, 2014 (Franz Kotteder explores the biographies of 20 celebrities, including Dante, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Guccio Gucci or Magdalen Nabb)
  • Magdalen Nabb: “Death of an Englishman” and “Death of a Dutchman”, A Marshal Guarnaccia Investigation, Diogenes, 1992 and 1999 and Soho 2007 and 2001
  • Various information sources on the Internet, in particular the useful official website of the museums in Florence.


Let me pick out some memories of this rich and enticing trip to Florence

Thank you, Ursula, for organizing and guiding us and thank you, Leni, for the great company.  It was good to travel with you, as all three of us loved to stop, watch and take our time to think and digest, when visiting the churches and museums of Florence. And we all enjoyed to do shopping and recover in comfy coffee houses or restaurants.

I want to pick out some memories and think about the history of Florence that played an important part in the European history.