High atop its monumental steps, San Miniato’s distinctive and beautiful façade can be seen from almost anywhere in Florence, although relatively few visitors take the time to visit one of the finest Romanesque churches in Italy. San Miniato was built in 1015, over an earlier church that marked the spot where the head of St Minias, a 3rd-century Roman soldier, bounced when the Romans axed it off.
The church has always been one of the dearest to Florentine hearts. The remarkable geometric pattern of green, black and white marble that adorns its façade was begun in 1090, although funds only permitted the embellishment of the lower, simpler half of the front.
The upper half, full of curious astrological symbolism (someone has just written a whole book about it), was added in the 12th century, paid for by the Arte di Calimala, the guild that made a fortune buying bolts of fine wool, dyeing them a deep red that no one else in Europe could imitate, then selling them back for twice the price; their proud gold eagle stands at the top of the roof. The glittering mosaic of Christ, the Virgin and St Minias came slightly later.
The Calimala was also responsible for decorating the interior; as in many Romanesque churches with an important martyr’s tomb, the crypt gets centre stage, and the presbytery is raised above it. As the Calimala became richer, so did the fittings; the delicate intarsia marble floor of animals and zodiac symbols dates from 1207.
The lower walls were frescoed in the 14th and 15th centuries, and include an enormous St Christopher. At the end of the nave stands Michelozzo’s unique, free-standing Cappella del Crocifisso (1448) magnificently carved and adorned with terracottas by Luca della Robbia, built to hold the crucifix that spoke to St John Gualberto (now in Santa Trínita).
Off the left nave is one of Florence’s Renaissance showcases, the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal (1461–6). The 25-year-old cardinal, a member of the Portuguese royal family, happened to die in Florence at an auspicious moment, when the Medici couldn’t spend enough on publicly prominent art, and when some of the greatest artists of the quattrocento were at the height of their careers.
The chapel was designed by Manetti, Brunelleschi’s pupil; the ceiling was exquisitely decorated with enamelled terracotta and medallions by Luca della Robbia and the tomb of the Cardinal was beautifully carved by Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino; the fresco of the Annunciation was charmingly painted by Alesso Baldovinetti; the altar-piece Three Saints is a copy of the original (now in the Uffizi) by Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo.
Up the steps of the choir more treasures await. The marble transenna and pulpit were carved in 1207, with art and a touch of medieval humour. Playful geometric patterns frame the mosaic in the apse, Christ between the Virgin and St Minias, made in 1297 by artists imported from Ravenna, and later restored by Baldovinetti.
The colourful Sacristy on the right was frescoed by Spinello Aretino in 1387, but made rather flat by subsequent restoration.
In the Crypt an 11th-century altar holds the relics of St Minias; the columns are topped by ancient capitals.
The cloister has frescoes of the Holy Fathers by Paolo Uccello, sadly faded but remarkable works in painstaking and fantastical perspective, rediscovered in 1925. The fading is particularly sad in this case as the story goes that to protest the miserable lunches of cheese pies and soups served by the abbot, Uccello painted his figures and buildings in outlandish colours, and eventually became so fed up he ran away until the abbot lured him back with better food.
One of the famous dead in the cemetery behind the church is Carlo Lorenzini (aka Collodi), the author of Pinocchio.
Via delle Porte Sante 34. Walk up the stepped Via di San Salvatore al Monte from Porta San Miniato, or take bus nos. 13 or 14 up the scenic Viale dei Colli from the station or Piazza del Duomo.
Hours Open Mon-Sat 9.30am–1apm and 3-7pm, in summer until 8pm. Come at 4.30pm (winter) or 5.30pm (summer) to hear the Gregorian chant. On Sundays, they sing in the crypt at 10am and 5.30pm.
Images by: Luca Aless, Creative Commons License, Goldmund100, Creative Commons License