You can’t go to Florence without seeing a few frescoes. And with everything from the revolutionary Giotto and Masaccio, to the Renaissance masters, you’ve got a lot to choose from.
Frescoes are a recurring feature of Florentine art and a visit to the city wouldn’t be complete without some fresco spotting. Its unlikely you’ll be able to see them all, so we’ve tried to whittle it down to the most renowned and artistically important.
Why the frescoes?
The frescoes depicting religious stories in Medieval churches were there to educate a largely illiterate population. They became a substitute for mosaics, and flourished between the 12th to 17th century, mainly in Florence. Some of the best examples from the 15th century are right here in Florence.
During the Medieval period and Early Renaissance, most painting was either a church altarpiece or a fresco. Painting for private residences only took off later during the Renaissance with artists like Botticelli.
Top frescoes in Florence
1. The Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine
In the Oltrarno lies one of the most studied fresco cycles in the history of art: the “Life of Saint Peter” in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine Church. It has been called “the Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance”, and it’s probably the best place to see the artistic innovation of the time. The young Masaccio worked at this cycle together with his master Masolino and comparing the two parts it becomes clear how Masaccio was trying something completely new, a realism that was set to surpass the static depictions of Gothic style.
2. San Marco Museum
The Dominican friar Fra Angelico decorated this former convent of San Marco with some of the most sensitive and moving frescoes ever created. His aim was to create a luminosity that would touch the spirit and inspire religious devotion in the friars. Fra Angelico’s frescoes show an idealised reality infused with mysticism. The painter uses new techniques of perspective learned from Masaccio.
3. Santa Maria Novella Church
The Church of Santa Maria Novella contains some of the finest frescoes in Florence, roughly spanning the Medieval period up to 1500. Once you’ve seen the revolutionary “Trinity” by Masaccio right in front of the main entrance, don’t miss the Tornabuoni Chapel where there is a splendid fresco by the society painter Ghirlandaio full of illustrious Florentine in biblical disguise. The Strozzi Chapel by Filippino Lippi creates an imaginative and detail rich version of the Life of Saint John and Saint Philip.
The Spanish Chapel is a Gothic feast of colour and details, painted by Andrea di Bonaiuto. It is perhaps more interesting from an historical point of view than for any artistic value, as they represent the virtues of the Church and in particular of the Dominican order fighting against sin.
4. Church of Santa Croce
Santa Croce frescoes are hard to compete with, even in Florence. The Bardi and Peruzzi Chapel were frescoed by Giotto, the great 14th century painter that inspired both Masaccio and Michelangelo. Unfortunately the Peruzzi isn’t in a great state, but the Bardi Chapel shows some of the master’s greatest scenes. The subject is the “Life of Saint Francis”, the same as the San Francesco church in Assisi. In one of Giotto’s better-known works, “the “Death of St. Francis,” monks weep and wail with convincing pathos. Setting the scene realistically was one of Giotto’s great innovations, and it set painting on course for the Renaissance a century after him.
The other frescoes to look out for are from Giotto’s most eminent pupil – Taddeo Gaddi – who painted the Baroncelli-Giugni Chapel in the transept. The frescoes depict scenes from the “Life of the Virgin,” and include an “Annunciation to the Shepherds” that is the first night scene to be shown in an Italian fresco.
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5. Church of San Miniato al Monte
Off to the right of the raised choir is the sacristy, which Spinello Aretino covered in 1387 with cartoonish yet elegant frescoes depicting the “Life of St. Benedict”. The composition is stylised and is said to lack depth.The no sense of real life or drama to the figures. Rather, the attention is focussed more on colours and the elegance of the poses. In the scene “Saint Benedict revives a monk from under the rubble”, the depiction of the landscape and the spatial composition are in debt to Giotto, though the style lacks the conviction of the master.
Domestic frescoes in Florence:
6. Palazzo Davanzati
For a taste of ‘domestic’ frescoes in a Medieval Florentine home visit the delightful Palazzo Davanzati, where you can get a taste of what a 13th century house would have looked like. The Parrot Room is particularly beautiful and the Bedroom is decorated, aptly, with a story of marital deception.