The center of the Florentine Franciscan universe was begun in 1294 by Gothic master Arnolfo di Cambio in order to rival the church of Santa Maria Novella being raised by the Dominicans across the city. The church wasn’t consecrated until 1442, and even then it remained faceless until the neo-Gothic facade was added in 1857. It’s an art-stuffed complex that demands 2 hours of your time to see properly.
The Gothic interior is vast, and populated with the tombs of rich and famous Florentines. Starting from the main door, immediately on the right is the first tomb of note containing the bones of the most venerated Renaissance master, Michelangelo Buonarroti, who died in Rome in 1564 at the ripe age of 89. The pope wanted him buried in the Eternal City, but Florentines managed to sneak his body back to Florence. Two berths along from Michelangelo’s monument is a pompous 19th-century cenotaph to Dante Alighieri, one of history’s great poets, whose “Divine Comedy” codified the Italian language. Elsewhere, seek out monuments to philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, Gioacchino Rossini (1792–1868), composer of “The Barber of Seville,” sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, and scientist Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).
The right transept is richly decorated with frescoes. The Cappella Castellani was frescoed with stories of saints’ lives by Agnolo Gaddi, with a tabernacle by Mino da Fiesole and a Crucifix by Niccolò Gerini. Agnolo’s father, Taddeo Gaddi, was one of Giotto’s closest followers, and the senior Gaddi is the one who undertook painting the Cappella Baroncelli ★ (1328–38) at the transept’s end. The frescoes depict scenes from the “Life of the Virgin,” and include an “Annunciation to the Shepherds” that constitutes the first night scene in Italian fresco painting.
Giotto himself frescoed the two chapels to the right of the high altar. The frescoes were whitewashed over during the 17th century but uncovered from 1841 to 1852 and inexpertly restored. The Cappella Peruzzi, on the right, is a late work and not in the best shape. The many references to antiquity in the styling and architecture of the frescoes reflect Giotto’s trip to Rome and its ruins. Even more famous, including its setting for a scene in “A Room with a View,” is the Cappella Bardi. Key panels here include the “Trial by Fire Before the Sultan of Egypt” on the right wall, full of telling subtlety in the expressions and poses of the figures. In one of Giotto’s most well-known works, the “Death of St. Francis,” monks weep and wail with convincing pathos. Realistic scene-setting was one of Giotto’s great innovations, and it set painting on course for the Renaissance a century after him. Before you head outside into the cloister, pause by Donatello’s “Cavalcanti Annunciation Tabernacle” (1435), an intricate relief.
Outside in the cloister is the Cappella Pazzi, one of Filippo Brunelleschi’s architectural masterpieces (faithfully finished after his death in 1446). Giuliano da Maiano probably designed the porch that now precedes the chapel, set with glazed terra cottas by Luca della Robbia. The rectangular chapel is one of Brunelleschi’s signature pieces, decorated with his trademark pietra serena gray stone. It is the defining example of (and model for) early Renaissance architecture. Curiously, the ceiling of the smaller dome depicts the night sky at the same moment as the Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo.
From the cloister enter the Museo dell’Opera. Displayed here is the Cimabue “Crucifix” ★ that was almost destroyed by the Arno Flood of 1966, and became an international symbol of the ruination wreaked by the river that November day. Taddeo Gaddi also frescoed a whole wall with a “Tree of Life” and a “Last Supper.”