From Michelangelo to Giotto, the exquisite art in one of the world’s most beautiful cities costs nothing – if you know where to look. Our writer goes on a church crawl.

20 September 2012

Late afternoon in Florence and suddenly the sky veers from luminous blue to blushing orange. The light on the Duomo changes in an instant. Brunelleschi’s iconic dome burns a deep terracotta. The white, green and pink marble of Giotto’s bell tower is incandescent. An Italian sign on the steps of the cathedral says, rather dryly, that “this is a work of art and everyone has the right to admire it”. Not to stand and stare would be rude.

I have visited Florence on more than a dozen occasions. This time I am determined to spend a long weekend seeing art for free in churches that don’t charge an entry fee. So I find myself standing outside the Duomo, remembering that for centuries people have talked about it being turned inside out, with the exterior a bold statement of Florentine power and the interior spare and minimal. Turn around and in front of you is a copy of Ghiberti’s gilded bronze Gates of Paradise on the baptistery doors. The originals are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, but why pay when you can enjoy Renaissance art as it’s supposed to be seen, outside or inside the buildings that actually commissioned it – thus allowing it a context denied by galleries?

Intoxicated by the city once more, I plot a vaguely circular church crawl around its centre from our modern, affordable apartment overlooking the Piazza della Signoria. Peering from the terrace, I can’t quite see the copy of Michelangelo’s statue of David, but I can see Neptune standing proud and I can certainly hear the bells of the crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio ringing out through the night.

The apartment is adjacent to the Uffizi (not going – it costs), whose snaking queue I wander past on my way to San Miniato al Monte. I avoid the Ponte Vecchio, which is packed with dawdling tourists, yet the Ponte alle Grazie, just to the east, is full of Fiorentini going about their daily business. Away from the crowds – and it really is possible to find yourself alone in the narrow, shaded streets – you have the space to feel the ghosts of the city’s 15th-century artists and of a murdered Medici or two.

Up on the hill, overlooking the city from south of the River Arno, San Miniato is one of the few churches to have survived virtually intact. During the siege of Florence in 1530, Michelangelo had the bright idea of protecting its defensive walls by wrapping them in mattresses to absorb the shock of cannonballs. Today, in the sweltering heat of early September, its façade is a glossy vision of green and white marble, its interior a stunning collection of frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi and a crucifix attributed to Luca della Robbia. In the apse is a perfectly restored 13th-century mosaic of Christ, by an unknown artist, and to his right, San Miniato. The martyred saint is said to have picked up his decapitated head, trudged across the river and walked up to this spot. I can see why he made the effort – the views of the city shimmering in the heat are gorgeous.

It’s only a short walk, past the Piazzale Michelangelo with its bronze copy of David, to Santa Felicita (Piazza di Santa Felicita, 3). An unpretentious church, it’s thought to be the second oldest in the city after San Lorenzo. Here, where the smooth marble floors are being mopped by an old lady, are paintings by the Mannerist painter and portraitist Pontormo. The Deposition, a vivid and oddly contemporary painting completed in 1528, is widely regarded to be his surviving masterpiece. Even more thrilling is the private viewing gallery above the painting where the Grand Dukes of the Medici family used to attend mass in secret. It’s a little odd to stand in Santa Felicita alone when just across the river tourists jostle to see Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi.

A few streets west of Santa Felicita stands Santo Spirito (Piazza Santo Spirito). If the Duomo is inside out, then this is outside in. The 15th-century exterior has no façade; it’s just smooth stone. And yet it manages to stand both majestically and humbly at one end of this bustling little square. Inside and out, this is a Brunelleschi masterpiece of architecture. Santo Spirito’s own guidebook lists 41 works of art, but the main attraction has to be a wooden crucifix of a naked Christ carved in 1493. Even with crucifix fatigue this can’t fail to stun; there’s something about the anatomical detail that suggests a master at work. It was only a decade ago that historians finally concluded the 18-year-old Michelangelo was indeed the sculptor.

On the opposite side of the river, just a few streets away from our apartment, the church of Santa Trinita (Piazza Santa Trinita) doesn’t look hugely promising from the outside. It’s neither ornate nor plain, and as one becomes increasingly blasé about the living museum that is Florence it would be easy to wander past. Of course there are fantastic frescoes, fading finally with age – there are frescoes everywhere in this city, and in any building you must always remember to look up at the ceiling just in case. Yet the frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita are something else. Here, almost unexpectedly, is a series of intricately painted frescoes by Ghirlandaio, who boasted Michelangelo as one of his many apprentices. The Adoration of the Shepherds, showing the birth of Jesus, is surrounded by scenes from the life of St Francis.

After an exhausting day of this church crawl (which could easily be completed in two or three days allowing pauses for food, drink and window shopping), I’m surprised to find myself as excited as I was when I set out.

Yet finally the heat and the crowds defeat me. I return to the simple luxury of the apartment and flop on to a chair on the terrace. Drinking ice-cold prosecco, I stare idly at the Palazzo Vecchio as the sky darkens and luxuriate in a day spent seeing some of the most incredible art in the world for free.


The Relais Piazza Signoria apartments (relaispiazza start at around €190 a night in high season for two to four people. Head for the mercato centrale, just north of the San Lorenzo church, to haggle for fresh food