The Basilica di Santo Spirito, the heart of the Florentine Oltrarno
The Basilica di Santo Spirito is one of the most important churches in the whole city of Florence. Overlooking the Piazza Santo Spirito of the same name, this church is the symbol of a neighborhood, that of Santo Spirito, very tied to traditions and with a very strong sense of belonging to the Florentine. Santo Spirito is also the symbol of the Bianchi, one of the four teams of the Calcio Storico Fiorentino.
The church of Santo Spirito is located in the Oltrarno, a very beautiful area and particularly loved by Florentines who love to experience it even in the evening and Piazza di Santo Spirito is one of the main meeting points for an aperitif or a beer with friends.
On one of the short sides of the square stands out with its unmistakable profile the beautiful Basilica of Santo Spirito which was thus designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the great architect famous in the world for the dome of the Florence Cathedral.
History of the church
The current church is the result of a fifteenth-century reconstruction that replaced a previous church. The original one dates back to the mid-thirteenth century and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit and all the saints. At that time, the monks of the Augustinian order were in the church and its convent. These made their headquarters an important artistic, theological and cultural center that was frequented by numerous illustrious personalities. Among these we find Francesco Petrarca, Giovanni Boccaccio and Poggio Bracciolini.
Starting from the second half of the thirteenth century, Florence experienced a strong demographic increase and a notable urban development so, a century later, it was decided to build a new basilica much larger than the thirteenth century one. The works were slow to start and had to wait until 1434 when the assignment was finally given to Brunelleschi. This was the last work of the great master who worked on it until 1446, the year of his death. Unfortunately Brunelleschi was unable to attend the end of the works that were completed by his pupils Antonio Manetti, Giovanni da Gaiole and Salvi d’Andrea. The latter took care of the dome which was completed in 1481.
Despite a serious fire, which destroyed many works of art and much of the library in 1471, the church was completed in 1487. Two years later Giuliano da Sangallo built the sacristy. The bell tower, begun in 1503 and finished in 1570, is the work of Baccio d’Agnolo. Bartolomeo Ammannati is instead the creator of the second cloister. Other additions to the church date back to the seventeenth century when, for example, the sumptuous baroque canopy made by Giovanni Caccini and Gherardo Silvani was added.
In 1620 Giulio and Alfonso Parigi the younger built the Cloister of the Dead following the sixteenth-century project by Ammannati. The facade of the church remained with the exposed stones until the eighteenth century, when it was plastered as we still see it today.
During the Napoleonic era, the church was looted by the French who took away several works of art which unfortunately have never been returned; among these are Angelo Bronzino’s Jesus Appearing to the Magdalene and The Calvary of Christ painted by Benedetto Ghirlandaio which are now in the Louvre Museum.
Description of the Basilica di Santo Spirito
The project for the Basilica of Santo Spirito highlights, if it were needed, how great was the vision he was capable of and what the cultural depth of Filippo Brunelleschi was. For this basilica, Brunelleschi managed to put together numerous elements taken from other churches, such as the loggia of San Lorenzo or the profiles of the side chapels taken from the Cathedral of Orvieto, with new and revolutionary ideas and perspective views. Unfortunately, not all of the solutions studied by Brunelleschi were carried out by his followers and certain intuitions, which at that time were really something new and never seen before, remained only on paper.
Despite this, we certainly cannot say that the Church of the Holy Spirit is not beautiful, indeed it is really wonderful and I absolutely recommend that you visit it. The facade, all plastered and relatively bare, has a unique and unmistakable profile made of mixed lines, straight and curved.
Interior of Santo Spirito
The interior, with three naves, denotes an extremely rational layout of the spaces, as envisaged in Brunelleschi’s original project. The plant is a Latin cross and develops over a length of 97 meters and a width of 32 which become 58 at the cross.
The three naves are separated by two series of columns with Corinthian capitals supporting round arches and ribbed vaults. The central nave is covered by an admirable 19th century painted coffered ceiling.
On the counter-façade you can admire an extraordinary stained glass window with the Pentecost made in the 1400s based on a design by Perugino. As soon as you enter, one of the elements that steals the eye is the complex and majestic ciborium with a dome that covers the main altar. This ciborium was built between 1599 and 1607 by Giovanni Caccini and other artists. Rich in semiprecious stones and decorative elements, sculptures and bronzes, the ciborium of the Basilica of Santo Spirito is a real baroque masterpiece.
In addition to the main altar, in the church of Santo Spirito there are 38 other altars placed in the side chapels along the aisles, the transept and the head cross. It is worthwhile to stop in front of each of these altars to admire an artistic heritage of the highest level.
The most famous work of the church, the Pala Nerli by Filippino Lippi, is located inside the chapel of the same name in the left transept. Observing it you will notice in the background a view of the San Frediano district with the Porta di San Frediano in its fifteenth-century guise.
In the capocroce, the Vettori Chapel preserves the polyptych of the Madonna with Child and four saints by Maso di Banco which comes directly from the old Augustinian church.
In the Corbinelli Chapel (left transept), there is instead the extraordinary Altar of the Sacrament by Andrea Sansovino, a work that is both sculptural and architectural.
Also not to be missed is the sacristy which is accessed from the left aisle by crossing an apse. Here is one of the most important works of the whole church: the Crucifix of the Holy Spirit, made by Michelangelo around 1493, when he was only 18 years old.
Michelangelo had arrived in the convent of Santo Spirito a year earlier, in 1492. Having obtained permission from the monks to study the corpses from the convent hospital, Michelangelo learned to know all the details of the human body and then succeeded in reproducing it in his works with a mastery and unrivaled precision.
Santo Spirito timetables and tickets
The Basilica of Santo is open every day, except Wednesdays, from 10 to 13 and from 15 to 18 on weekdays, while on Sundays and public holidays the church can be visited from 11.30 to 13.30 and from 15 to 18. Access to the basilica is free but if you also want to visit the sacristy, the refectory and the cloister you have to buy a ticket which costs 2 euros (and it’s worth it all!).