The Basilica di Santa Maria Del Fiore is the principal church in Florence, a neo-Gothic testament to both faith and physics that has dominated the Florentine skyline for nearly 600 years. Indeed, it seems that all roads in the city lead to the Duomo and the surrounding piazza. However, you would be remiss in your tour of Italy not to take a detour to explore the many other churches, cathedrals and monasteries that enrich the cityscape in their own way. The Santissima Annunziata church and the Convent of San Marco are two such holy sites, reminding visitors that there is no one pinnacle of Florentine artistic achievement.
In the shadows
Buildings in Florence’s city center are not allowed to surpass the Duomo in height, meaning that Brunelleschi’s dome casts a long shadow. However, the Santissima Annunziata Church, located just north of the Duomo, seems to embrace its place in shade – the interior of this church is a spectacular ornament of black stone filamented with gold. Pillars and arches are a brilliant display in contrast, from the dark and brooding stonework to the shining, burnished metal that weaves in and around the entire interior.
Upon entering, visitors will find the entrance to the Cloister of the Dead on the left, rows of naves down the length of the church, and before them, just beyond a grand two-story archway, the altar. Candles and incense-holders hang at various heights across the room, large black basins and candelabras stoically dangling off of black chains. Naves lining either side of the church are home to arrays of candles and holy figures to whom people pray. Above the archways into those alcoves are round paintings framed in baroque gold that spill out into flowery decorations toward one another. This baroque ornament is an exercise in the macabre.
Another must-see addition to Italy tours is the convent of San Marco, which once served as a monastery and is now a museum for those who want a glimpse into the daily lives of previous centuries’ holy men. Once inside, visitors are greeted with a simple but beautiful open-air cloister, lined by walkways with shaded terra cotta roofs. Shooting off from the cloister are a number of gems, namely, the library and the monk’s cells. The library is home to number of fascinating, massive ledgers of a thick and ornamented binding. Within their pages are the music for hymns and chants, spelled out along crude but mesmerizing music staffs.
The sleeping cells, however, are the bigger draw. These rooms were designed for rest, prayer, meditation and little else. Yet, despite their miniscule size, comparable to some modern-day closets, they have their own charm. Broad ceilings arch over wooden floors and a small window with a wooden shutter overlooking the cloister. In each room there is also an unexpected treasure – beautiful frescoes by the Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico, depicting various Biblical scenes on which monks are supposed to reflect. For a slightly different view, monks could walk out of their rooms and down the main hallway to a window which provides a stark view of the Duomo against the sky.