Basilica di Santo Spirito ☆☆

This Filippo Brunelleschi–designed church was called the most beautiful church in the world by Bernini, Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy (Photo by Randy Connolly)
This Filippo Brunelleschi–designed church was called the most beautiful church in the world by Bernini

The church of Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno: Brunelleschi at his best

The blank plaster non-facade of the church of Santo Spirito hides a perfection of Brunelleschian architecture inside, along with some fine altarpieces.

The interior architecture

Santo Spirito is perhaps the single best example of what Brunelleschi would design if allowed free reign over the plans for an entire church—as opposed to just a chapel, as at Santa Croce, or (ahem) a dome on the Cathedral.

Admittedly, it was built mostly after the architect's death, and slightly altered to accommodate the changing tastes of the late 15th century.

But on the whole, Santo Spirito is classic Brunelleschian: a cavernous but harmonious space, the architecture emphasized by leaving the walls blank and creamy while the architectural lines are all accented in dark gray pietra serena stonework.

The only thing out of place is the fanciful carved, inlaid, and statue-studded high altar baldacchino, a baroque work which dates from the early 17th century—nice enough on its own, but out of place plopped down amid all this High Renaissance architecture.

The altarpieces

The wide aisles are lined by chapels, each containing a fairly notable altarpiece—none true masterpieces, but altogether impressive for the sheer number of excellent works of art they collectively represent.

Most churches have one chapel with a stunner or a painting by some big name, but the rest usually contain a bunch of also-ran baroque fussiness.

By contrast, almost every one of Santo Spirito's chapels has a painting worth spending a few minutes on—even the ones that are unattributed (the unknown artists usually called "Master of the [painting title] of Santo Spirito").

Good late-Renaissance and baroque paintings are scattered throughout, but the best stuff lies up in the transepts and in the east end, surrounding the extravagant baroque altar with a ciborium inlaid in pietre dure around 1607.

The right transept begins with a Crucifixion by Francesco Curradi.

Against the back wall of the transept, the first chapel holds an early-15th-century Madonna del Soccorso of uncertain authorship.

Two chapels down is one of Filippino Lippi's best works, a Madonna and Child with Saints and Donors. The background seen through the classical arches was painted with an almost Flemish exacting detail.

In the east end of the church, the center two chapels against the back wall contain Alessandro Allori altarpieces: The Martyred Saints (1574) on the right has a predella view of what the Palazzo Pitti looked like before its enlargement; and the Christ and the Adulteress on the left is extremely advanced in style, already almost a work of the late baroque.

In the left transept, the first chapel on the right side is a late-15th-century Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints.

Next to this is the highly skilled St. Monica and Augustinian Nuns, an almost monochrome work of black and pale yellow, faintly disturbing in its eerie monotony and perfection of composition. It's now usually attributed to the enigmatic Andrea del Verrocchio, one-time master of Leonardo da Vinci.

In the octagonal Sacristy is a wooden Crucifix of a slender Christ carved by Michelangelo when he was just 17.

Piazza Santo Spirito

The famed piazza outside is one of the focal points of the Oltrarno, shaded by trees and lined with trendy cafes that see some bar action in the evenings.

It's not quite the pleasant hangout it once was, however—especially since the heroin set moved in a few years ago, making it a less than desirable place to be after midnight (though early evening is still fine).

Stop by Bar Ricci at no. 9r, where more than 300 facade designs for faceless Santo Spirito line the walls, the product of a fun-loving contest the bar held in 1980.

Photo gallery
  • This Filippo Brunelleschi–designed church was called the most beautiful church in the world by Bernini, Santo Spirito, Italy (Photo by Randy Connolly)
  • , Santo Spirito, Italy (Photo by Lucarelli)
  • The main altar, Santo Spirito, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Altare del Sacramento (1490) by Andrea Sansovino, Santo Spirito, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The Chiostro dei Morti cloister, Santo Spirito, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The Chiostro Grande cloister by Ammannati, Santo Spirito, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Piazza Santo Spirito, Santo Spirito, Italy (Photo by Дмитрий Мозжухин)
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How long does Chiesa di Santo Spirito take?

This church surprised me the first time I went in by gobbling up an hour. You might be so taken with all the works of art as I was, so figure on 30 minutes, plus another 15 to visit the neighboring museum.

The ticket office closes 15 minutes before the church.

Piazza Santo Spirito

Piazza Santo Spirito is the heart of the Oltrarno, tree-shaded and lined by ancient buildings, many of which now contain cafes or restaurants, most of them quite good.

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.).



"Crucifixion and Last Supper" (1360–65) by Andrea Orcagna (Photo by Sailko)
Fondazione Salvatore Romano
Florence: Oltrarno

Orcagna's "Last Supper" fresco in the old refectory of Santo Spirito