San Miniato al Monte ☆☆

San Miniato al Monte, Florence, Italy (Photo by Mac9)

A gem of a Romanesque church perched atop a hill overlooking Florence

High atop a hill, its gleaming white-and-green facade visible from the valley below, San Miniato is one of the few ancient churches of Florence to survive the centuries virtually intact. San Miniato was an eastern Christian who settled in Florence and was martyred during Emperor Decius's persecutions in a.d. 250.

The legend goes that the decapitated saint picked up his head, walked across the river, climbed up the hillside, and didn't lie down to die until he reached this spot. He and other Christians were buried here, and a shrine was raised on the site as early as the 4th century.

The current building began to take shape in 1013, under the auspices of the powerful Arte di Calimala guild, whose symbol, a bronze eagle clutching a bale of wool, perches atop the facade. The Romanesque facade is a particularly gorgeous bit of white Carrara and green Prato marble inlay.

Above the central window is a 13th-century mosaic of Christ Between the Madonna and St. Miniato (a theme repeated in a slightly later mosaic filling the apse inside).

The interior has a few Renaissance additions, but they blend in well with the overall medieval aspect—an airy, stony space with a raised choir at one end, painted wooden trusses on the ceiling, and tombs interspersed with inlaid marble symbols of the zodiac paving the floor. 

Below the choir is an 11th-century crypt with small frescoes by Taddo Gaddi. Off to the right of the raised choir is the sacristy, which Spinello Aretino covered in 1387 with cartoonish yet elegant frescoes depicting the Life of St. Benedict. 

Off the left aisle of the nave is 15th-century Cappella del Cardinale del Portogallo, a brilliant collaborative effort by Renaissance artists built to honor young Portuguese humanist Cardinal Jacopo di Lusitania, who was sent to study in Perugia but died an untimely death at 25 in Florence. Brunelleschi's student Antonio Manetti started the chapel in 1460 but soon died, and Antonio Rossellino finished the architecture and carving by 1466. Luca della Robbia provided the glazed terra-cotta dome, a cubic landscape set with tondi of the four Virtues surrounding the Holy Spirit to symbolize the young scholar's devotion to the church and to humanist philosophy. It stands as one of della Robbia's masterpieces of color and classical ideals.

Michelangelo defends the city with the help of San Miniato, Lapo, and some spare bedding

Back outside the church, peek around the left side of the church (the flank facing Florence) to see the unfinished bell tower, raised in 1523 by Baccio d'Agnolo to replace the original, which had collapsed.

The tower itself is no great shakes, but it did play a role in Florentine history. First a bit of simplified background. In 1527, following Charles V's infamous Sack of Rome (during which Medici Pope Clement VII was chased from the Vatican and, briefly, from power), Florence took the opportunity to chase the pope's cousin Ippolito de' Medici from the city and set up a Florentine Republic.

By 1529 Clement VII and Charles V had reconciled, and the Medici returned with the Spanish army at its back to retake the city, leading to the 10-month Siege of Florence. Michelangelo—who had deftly switched from a lifetime of Medici patronage to Republican city patronage—was made Governor of Fortifications, and he viewed San Miniato as a key link in the city defenses.

He placed two cannon atop the bell tower, manned by an artilleryman named Lapo. Of course, placing heavy artillery in such a prominent and deadly spot made the bell tower the first target for the encroaching army to take out, but Michelangelo, as usual, had an ingenious solution.

He hung mattresses down the sides of the bell tower which effectively absorbed the impact on incoming cannonballs. Lapo, undoubtedly, was grateful, as both his position and the tower held together during the entire 10-month siege.

Republican forces, however, did not, and in 1530 another cousin, Alessandro de' Medici, triumphantly rode into the city to take control back for the family. Medici rule over Florence would continue uninterrupted until their line petered out in 1737 (at which point power passed to the Austrian Dukes of Lorraine, into whose house the Medici had long before intermarried).

Photo gallery
  • , San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Mac9)
  • , San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Bradley Griffin)
  • The crypt, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by John Menard)
  • The Sacristy, frescoed with a cycle on
  • Detail of the intarsia stone floor, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The nave, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Kucharek)
  • The intarsia stone floor, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Cappella del Cardinale di Portogallo, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The Sacristy, frescoed with a cycle on
  • Taddeo Gaddi fresco in the crypt, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Rufus46)
  • Taddeo Gaddi frescoes in the crypt, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Rufus46)
  • , San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • , San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Rufus46)
  • View over Florence from the church, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Rufus46)
  • The bell tower, San Miniato al Monte, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
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How long does San Miniato al Monte take?

The church really only takes 20 minutes to see, but budget at least an hour to get up here and back down (or slightly more to make a stop at the nearby Piazzale Michelangiolo for the best views over Florence).

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).