The Basilica of San Miniato al Monte is famous for its elegant Romanesque architecture and splendid interior. And the views aren’t bad either.
San Miniato al Monte guards the city from up a hill, a few steps up from Piazzale Michelangelo, the terrace with the best view over Florence. There’s a steep flight of stairs to reach the church, but it’s definitely worth the climb.
One of the most scenic churches in Tuscany, San Miniato al Monte rewards the visitors with an enchanted atmosphere. The facade is elegant and harmonious, in the typical Florentine Romanesque style that alternates green and white marble, and has a golden mosaic that seems to light up with the sun. It’s a place where spirituality and beauty go hand in hand.
What to see in San Miniato al Monte:
The interior is dark and mainly Medieval, with a raised choir, a lovely Romanesque pulpit and a 11th century crypt with 38 columns and frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi. The apse is dominated by a great mosaic dating from 1297, which has the same subject as the façade, “Christ with the Virgin and Saint Minias”.
The sacristy is frescoed by Aretino with the life of Saint Benedict, used as an example for all the monks. Just off the left aisle of the nave there’s a splendid Renaissance addition: the 15th century Cardinal of Portugal Chapel, a work by Rossellino with decorations by Luca de La Robbia.
To better soak up the medieval atmosphere you can attend the Mass in Latin and hear Gregorian chants every day at 5:30pm. Entrance to visit the church is free.
Next to the church, there’s the ‘Cimitero Monumentale’ (19th century), an atmospheric place that deserves a visit. Carlo Collodi, the writer that gave life to Pinocchio, is buried here in his family’s Lorenzini Chapel.
On a more prosaic note, the monks have a shop next to the church, where they sell liqueurs, honey and delicious biscuits.
A bit of history: the prodigious Saint Minias
San Miniato al Monte is one of Florence’s most ancient shrines, and it was very influential in Medieval time. It has plenty of legends related to it. First of all, the one about the very first “climber” to this spot, the Christian martyr Minias (Miniato). It was the 3rd century AD, and Minias walked up the hill after being tortured and decapitated by the pagan Romans that were ruling Florence at the time. The legend has it that he picked up his head and crossed the river Arno to reach this spot, where he finally could rest in peace.
The bishop Alibrando used this story to revitalise the cult for this almost forgotten saint and decided the construction of a monastic complex in 1018, that will take two centuries to be built. It became a very influential religious centre, much loved by the Florentines, and it’s still active today.
Did you know? Some curiosities about San Miniato al Monte
The eagle with the bale of cloth on the façade is the symbol of the ‘Arte della Lana‘ (Wool Guild of Florence) that financed the decoration of the church between the 12th and 13th centuries. They also donated money to build the Baptistry.
During Charles V’s siege two cannons were put on the bell tower, and the great Michelangelo himself protected it with some mattresses.
Esoteric studies have linked this church with the Holy Grail and believed it to be a “porta del cielo” (a mystical door). The 12th century marble pavement representing the Zodiac has got an interesting peculiarity: the astrological sign of Cancer gets illuminated by the sun during the summer solstice.
How to get there:
Bus Line 12 and 13 (less frequent) from Florence city centre stop at Piazza Michelangelo, and from there it’s a short walk to San Miniato. You can also walk from Florence in about half an hour: from San Niccolò in the Oltrarno you’ll find the long staircase that climbs to Piazzale Michelangelo.