Florence: Santa Reparata

Altar in the crypt.

Altar in the crypt.

The Santa Reparata is not a church in Florence: it was a church in Florence. It was in fact the cathedral of the city before the Santa Maria del Fiore (better known as the Duomo) was built at the end of the thirteenth century. Remains of the Santa Reparata can be admired by descending into the crypt of the current cathedral. Entrance to the crypt is included in the ticket for the Duomo complex (Baptistery, Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s campanile, museum), but it is also possible to buy a separate ticket down below (entrance to the Duomo itself is free).

Saint Reparata is a somewhat obscure female saint, who is one of the patron saints of Florence. Saint John the Baptist and Saint Zenobius (the traditional first bishop of the city) seem to take precedence today, but Reparata may have been more important in the early Middle Ages, as can be concluded from the fact that the city’s previous cathedral was dedicated to her. Nevertheless, her historicity can be doubted. Tradition dictates that she was a young virgin from Caesarea during the reign of the emperor Decius (249-251). Reparata was persecuted, arrested and thrown into a furnace, but she miraculously survived. The Romans then had her decapitated because she still refused to sacrifice to the traditional gods. Florentines credit her with saving the city in 406 when it was under siege by the Gothic king Radagaisus.

Late Antique mosaic floor in the Santa Reparata.

Impression of the crypt.

It seems that there were several versions of the Santa Reparata, the oldest perhaps dating back to the fourth century. The church was apparently rebuilt on more than one occasion. The website of the Duomo claims that “beneath our present cathedral it is no exaggeration to state that we have the remains of fully four ancient churches: the original basilica and three rebuilds”. Another website has a pretty good image of what the Santa Reparata may have looked like in Late Antiquity. As you can see, the church was much closer to the Baptistery than the present cathedral. It was situated in the northern part of the then much, much smaller city of Florence and built directly behind the city walls. The Santa Reparata seems to have been part of a religious complex, which included the bishop’s palace, the Baptistery and two other churches.

Fresco by a follower of Giotto.

Slab for the tomb of Giovanni Di Alamanno de’ Medici.

Florence’s first cathedral was actually the San Lorenzo, a little bit further to the northwest. It is not entirely clear when the Santa Reparata became the new cathedral, but possibly in the ninth century, when the relics of Saint Zenobius (died between 417 and 429) were reportedly translated from the former church to the latter. Although construction of the Duomo commenced in 1296, the Santa Reparata continued to be used until well into the 1370s. By that time, the walls of the new cathedral would have been finished already and would have completely enclosed the smaller old cathedral. Only then was the Santa Reparata finally demolished. Solid evidence of continued use of the old cathedral is a fresco of a Pietà in one of the apses. It was executed in the middle of the fourteenth century and is attributed to a follower of Giotto (ca. 1266-1337). It is quite sad to see that the installation of a floor above quite brutally knocked Christ’s head off (see the image above).

The area beneath the Duomo was excavated between 1965 and 1974 and has been open to the public since then. The undisputed highlights down here are the fragments of the original mosaic floor from Late Antiquity. The best part shows a very colourful peacock with the name OBSEQVENTIVS below it (see the image below). He presumably sponsored the floor. Many important Florentines were buried in the crypt, or so tradition claims. Among them were the aforementioned Giotto and the architects Arnolfo di Cambio and Filippo Brunelleschi. However, only the latter’s tomb has actually been found. Visitors can admire a great many slabs that covered the tombs of lesser known Florentines. Among them is the ornate slab for the tomb of Giovanni Di Alamanno de’ Medici, a scion of the de’ Medici family who died in 1352 (image above). This Giovanni was obviously important, but he was not a direct ancestor of the de’ Medicis who ruled Florence from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century (his great-grandfather Filippo was).

Mosaic with a peacock and the name Obsequentius.

Updated 6 May 2023.


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