It was about time I wrote a post about the San Miniato al Monte, one of my favourite churches in Florence. The church is located on the other side of the river Arno, and as the name suggests, it was built on hill overlooking the city. It is quite a steep climb to get there, but it is definitely worth the effort. When you approach the San Miniato, you may notice that the church and adjoining buildings are surrounded by defensive walls. These were originally built by Michelangelo to defend the complex during the Siege of Florence (1529-1530) and can be seen in Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Stradano’s famous fresco of the siege. Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici later had a proper fortress constructed. The fortress walls nowadays enclose the peaceful and serene Cimitero Delle Porte Sante, a cemetery where one can find the grave of Carlo Collodi, the man who wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio.
The church is named after Saint Minias – San Miniato in Italian – who was martyred in Florence in the year 250. According to tradition, he was an Armenian soldier who served in the Roman army. In other versions of the story, he was a merchant. When it became known that he was a Christian, he was brought before the emperor Decius (249-251) and condemned to death. When the attempt to throw him to the beasts (damnatio ad bestias) failed, the emperor ordered his soldiers to decapitate the Armenian on the banks of the Arno. Minias, however, simply picked up his severed head, tucked it under his arm, crossed the river and climbed up the hill. There he collapsed and was buried where he had died. Of course this is the realm of religion, where fact and fiction are often intertwined. It is possible that Minias was a real person and Decius certainly persecuted Christians (and others who refused to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods), but the rest of the story is pious nonsense.
Nevertheless, a shrine or chapel dedicated to Saint Minias was present on the hill since the late eighth century. In 1018, Ildebrando or Hildebrand, bishop of Florence, decided to construct a proper church on this site, a glorious new basilica in the Tuscan-Romanesque style. Construction took some two centuries and the church was not completed until the early thirteenth century. The San Miniato has been administered by a community of Benedictine monks of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto (“Olivetans”) since the fourteenth century, and there has been a monastic community here since 1018. Thanks to the efforts of the Olivetans, monastic life is still very much alive in this part of Florence, even in the twenty-first century. You can hear their Gregorian chants every day when they celebrate the Eucharist and at Vespers.
The church has the form of a classical Roman basilica. It has just one apse and there is no transept. The San Miniato has a sixteenth century campanile that replaced an earlier bell tower that collapsed in 1499. During the 1529-1530 Siege of Florence, the unfinished campanile was used as an artillery platform. It was never actually completed and looks a bit like a stub. The building next door is the monastery, and one can also find the Palazzo dei Vescovi here, the old summer residence of the bishops of Florence.
The church is built of simple stone, but its facade, constructed between the late eleventh and thirteenth century, is deservedly famous. The combination of alternating white and green marble and the decorative geometric patterns are truly magnificent. In the lower part of the facade, we see six columns made of green serpentine rock supporting five arches, which cover three real and two fake entrances. The upper part has more geometric patterns, two small round windows and one larger rectangular window. The latter window is flanked by two columns with lion’s heads. Above it is a tympanum with two doves. The facade itself has a tympanum as well, with nine arches and several decorative elements, including dragons, candlesticks and a cross.
The facade is topped by a bronze eagle, the symbol of the Arte di Calimala, the wool merchants guild. This guild financed part of the facade and its members were patrons of the church. The most conspicuous part of the facade is obviously the small mosaic above the rectangular window. It was made in the thirteenth century in the late Byzantine style and shows Christ the Pantokrator on his throne between the Virgin Mary and Saint Minias. In case you were wondering, the object in Minias’ hands is a martyr’s crown. The facade mosaic has been heavily restored in the nineteenth century.
Interior and chapels
It can be quite dark inside the church, and it is certainly nice and cool in here on a hot summer day. Do not forget to admire the beautiful marble floor which dates back to 1207. It is obviously quite vulnerable and was roped off when I last visited the San Miniato in June 2016. Like the facade outside, the floor is adorned with intricate and intriguing geometric patterns, as well as symbols of the zodiac. The San Miniato has an open roof, i.e. there is no vault. Note that the wooden beams and rafters are actually decorated: eagles and other animals were painted in colourful red and blue boxes.
The San Miniato has just two chapels. In the left aisle we find the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal. It was built to accommodate the tomb of cardinal Giacomo di Coimbra, who had died in Florence in 1459. At the time of his death, the cardinal was still very young, just 25 or 26 years old. For some reason, the young Portuguese cardinal was given a grandiose tomb in a splendid chapel in one of the most beautiful churches in Florence. The chapel itself is the work of Antonio Manetti (1423-1497). Antonio Rossellino (1427-1479) and his older brother Bernardo (1409-1464) worked on the cardinal’s magnificent tomb, while Luca della Robbia (ca. 1400-1482) was responsible for the glazed terracotta decorations on the ceiling (see the image below). Other artists involved in the decoration of the chapel were the painter Alesso Baldovinetti (1425-1499) and the brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo. When I last visited the San Miniato, the gates to the chapel were locked and it was only possible to take a look inside from a distance.
The other chapel in the church is not really a chapel. I am referring to the so-called Chapel of the Crucifix. It is basically just an ornate roof or canopy over a fifteenth century marble altar, and the crucifix is missing altogether. The “chapel” was designed by the sculptor and architect Michelozzo (1396-1472) while Luca della Robbia made the rosettes on the ceiling. The altarpiece at the back of the chapel is attributed to the Florentine painter Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1350-1396). The panel features Saint John Gualbert (San Giovanni Gualberto in Italian; died 1073) on the left and Saint Minias on the right. Minias is dressed in bright blue and pink robes, while Gualbert is wearing the black habit of the Vallumbrosan Order, a branch of the Benedictines that he himself founded. Because much of the nave was off limits in order to protect the floor, I could only take a photo from the side, but the two saints should still be visible.
So what about the crucifix, where did it go? The story of the crucifix is closely connected to John Gualbert. When Gualbert entered Florence around the year 1030, accompanied by armed men, he suddenly encountered the man who had murdered his brother. Gualbert was about to kill the man in revenge, but the murderer fell to his knees and begged for forgiveness. He reminded Gualbert that it was Good Friday and that Christ had been crucified on that same day. After some hesitation, Gualbert decided to forgive the man. Later the future saint entered the San Miniato to pray, where he saw the figure of Jesus on the crucifix bowing his head in approval of Gualbert’s previous actions. The crucifix was venerated for centuries in Michelozzo’s chapel, but it has apparently been moved to the Santa Trinita in Florence long ago. This makes sense, as the Santa Trinita is the mother church of the Vallumbrosans.
Crypt, choir and apse
In both of the aisles there are stairs that lead to the crypt and stairs that lead to the raised choir. The crypt is the oldest part of the basilica, but it is mostly interesting for those who want to pray in the vicinity of Saint Minias’ relics, which are supposedly kept here. There are a few frescoes in the crypt by Taddeo Gaddi (died 1366), Agnolo Gaddi’s father.
The stairs that lead to the choir give access to the church’s sanctuary, apse and high altar as well. Above the high altar is a crucifix attributed to, again, Luca della Robbia. Near the choir is a beautiful thirteenth century ambo or pulpit, created by an unknown artist. The front of the ambo is decorated with the symbols of three of the four evangelists. We see, from top to bottom, an eagle, a man and a lion, so John, Matthew and Mark are present. I do not know why the ox representing Luke was omitted.
The highlight of the church is the huge apse mosaic, which basically repeats the scene of the smaller mosaic on the facade outside. Again we see Christ Pantokrator flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint Minias. Minias is labelled “Rex Erminie”, “King of Armenia”. The symbols of the four evangelists are also included in the scene, this time including Luke’s ox.
There is a date in Roman numerals below the mosaic, indicating that it was made (or at least completed) in 1297. I could not find a light switch or a machine for illuminating the mosaic, which is a pity, as the church can be very dark.
I have visited the San Miniato al Monte twice. The first time was in April 2010, the second time in June 2016. I cannot recall having seen the sacristy on my first visit. It may have been locked at that time (sacristies often are off limits to visitors). However, it was open in 2016 and could be visited. Visitors were asked a small donation, but there was no guard to make sure they paid. Of course I happily donated a few coins and took with me one of the brochures about the church, written by the Olivetans themselves.
The sacristy was frescoed by Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410), an artist who – as his name suggests – was mostly active in Arezzo. Aretino executed the sacristy frescoes when he was in his late thirties, between 1387 and 1388. The wall frescoes are all about the life of Saint Benedictus of Nursia (ca. 480-547). The choice for Benedictus is hardly surprising, because the San Miniato has always been administered by monks following the Benedictine rule (the Olivetans were preceded by other monks following the Rule of Saint Benedict). One of the scenes shows the Ostrogothic king Totila paying homage to Saint Benedictus, another depicts the death of Benedictus at his monastery of Monte Cassino. The vault was also frescoed by Aretino and features the four evangelists and their respective symbols. All of the frescoes have been heavily restored.
A church with a view
Even if you dislike visiting churches, there is still an excellent reason to climb up the hill and go to the San Miniato: it offers one of the best views of Florence. The view from the more famous Piazzale Michelangelo, a bit further down the hill, is quite good, but San Miniato’s view is much, much better, and it is also much more quiet up here, as the church does not draw hordes of tourists. It is truly wonderful to see all of Florence’s landmarks against a background of gently rolling Tuscan hills. Highly recommended!
 I have to admit that I could not find it there. I later found out it is supposed to be to the left of the famous Sassetti Chapel.
Sources: for this post I have used a variety of sources. I have made use of two travel guides, one by Dorling Kindersley about Florence & Tuscany and one by the Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) about Florence. Another source was the Italian Wikipedia entry about the church and the website The Churches of Florence was very helpful as well.