Churches in Tuscany are home to some of the finest art and architecture in western Europe. These aren’t just places for art enthusiasts. Their appeal is universal. But these awe-inspiring facades, beautiful stone details and atmospheric frescoes aren’t only to be found in Florence. Here’s a list of churches to put on your not-to-miss list.
1. Pisa Cathedral Complex
Pisa’s cathedral sits bang in the middle of one of the most famous squares in the world – the aptly named Square of Miracles. It’s one of the symbol of Italy and Tuscany. Here there is a striking collection of buildings: the Romanesque Cathedral, the gravity-defying Leaning Tower and the Gothic Baptistry. It takes a bit of time to take in all the exuberant detail of the facade and apse, and inside there’s no shortage of sights either. A mixture of Byzantine and Islamic motifs, mosaics in the apse, and a marble pulpit by Giovanni Pisano. A name often associated with this church is Galileo Galilei. Legend has it that he discovered the law of perpetual motion during Mass, by watching the swing of a bronze chandelier now known as the “Lamp of Galileo”. The one we see today is a copy.
2. Siena Cathedral
In a word: spectacular. This black-and-white marble masterpiece is one of the greatest Gothic churches in Tuscany and in Italy. The grand and lavishly decorated exterior of Siena Cathedral is just a prelude to what you’ll find inside. In fact you’ll need at least a couple of hours to explore it. The soaring striped pillars and the decorated ceiling set the atmosphere. The magnificent pulpit by Nicola Pisano and the elegant frescoes in the Piccolomini Library are only two examples of rich art works to be found here. The gorgeous inlaid marble pavement is fully uncovered for a period of a couple of months once a year.
3. Lucca Cathedral of San Martino
Lucca is called “the city of a hundred churches”, being famous for the number and the beauty of its religious monuments. But the Cathedral has a special place in the hearts of the Lucchesi. It devotedly guards the Volto Santo, the Holy Countenance, a legendary wooden crucifix that was venerated all around Europe in the early Middle Ages and still today has a festival dedicated to it. The Cathedral does justice to the importance of this holy artefact, displaying sculpted reliefs of men and beasts on its facade, and a mysterious labyrinth. Inside you’ll find one of the finest funeral monuments of the 1400’s, the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Iacopo della Quercia, where cold marble has been skilfully turned into pure emotion.
3. Lucca, Church of San Michele in Foro
The facade of this church rivals the Cathedral for beauty, and its arguably the most impressive of all Lucca’s churches. Layers of “loggette” (small loggias) and columns decorated in multicoloured marble rise above the square, and right on the top, an elegant winged figure seems ready to take flight. This is Saint Michael the Archangel, to whom San Michele Church is dedicated; the same figure who’s slaying the dragon above the main portal. If you have a pair of binoculars, bring them along, they’ll help appreciate the fine detailing higher up the facade. Inside, the most notable work of art is a painting by Filippino Lippi, “Pala Magrini” with the portraits of Four Saints ( Roch, Sebastian, Jerome, and Helen) done during his apprenticeship in Botticelli’s workshop. Look for the resemblance between Saint Helen and Botticelli’s Primavera.
4. Arezzo, Church of San Francesco
This church has to be mentioned because it contains one the most famous fresco cycles of all time, and one of the best frescoes in Tuscany, The Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca. One of the most original and gifted artists of the Early Renaissance, his frescoes really do need to be seen to be appreciated. If you only see one fresco while in Tuscany, it should probably be this one.
5. San Gimignano Cathedral, Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta
If you’re into frescoes, plan a visit to San Gimignano’s Cathedral. Here, everywhere you look you’re surrounded by high drama. The walls are covered in colourful scenes from the Old and New Testament, a way to remind the devoted about the dangers and delights narrated in the Bible. Be sure to visit the Saint Fina Chapel too, elegantly frescoed by one of the greatest Renaissance masters, Domenico Ghirlandaio.
6. Prato’s Cathedral of Santo Stefano
Prato is not an obvious holiday destination but if you venture to Piazza Duomo you’ll be surprised by the beauty of its Cathedral. What stands out in the white and green facade is the artfully sculpted exterior pulpit which is the result of joint work between two Renaissance masters, Michelozzo and Donatello. It’s from here that the famous relic, the Virgin Mary’s Girdle is shown once a year. Inside there are a variety of Renaissance paintings, statues and frescoes which can be enjoyed free from the usual crowds. Filippo Lippi, Agnolo Gaddi, Giovanni Pisano all make an appearance.
7. Pistoia’s Cathedral of San Zeno
A town that is usually not on tourist maps, Pistoia puts its best foot forward in the main square: Piazza Duomo. Here the Cathedral with its bulky bell tower and the Baptistry create a very attractive, but unlikely ensemble. Don’t miss Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit and the silver altar dedicated to Saint James, a masterpiece of silversmithing that for centuries attracted Medieval pilgrims to the town.
8. Massa Marittima Cathedal of Saint Cerbonius
One of the most interesting churches in Tuscany is to be found in the Maremma. It’s a grand church in a splendid square which gives away Massa Marittima’s wealthy past. There’s a superb mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, an impressive facade and plenty of marble creations inside. These include a splendid 13th century baptismal font and, behind the altar, the sarcophagus of Saint Cerbonius, a masterpiece of 14th century Sienese sculptural art.