One venture up to the monastery on the hill and I guarantee that this little slice of heaven will appear on your list of happy places too. But first you gotta get there.
Meg’s got that covered. Check out her hike up to San Miniato that will take you to more postcard perfect views and even a rose garden on the way.
If your knees aren’t up for the trek, no worries, bus #12 from the Santa MariaNovella train station, will tote you to the top. From the bus stop, the destination presents one last daunting staircase.
Now that Meg got you to the top, allow me to make my case for why San Miniato al Monte is more than a must-see. In fact, we demand it.
St. Minias (San Minato), the man and the myth himself is where the story begins. In the year 250 AD the Armenian prince found himself in Florence while en route to Rome. Naturally, Minias was taken by the lush Tuscan countryside and became a hermit in the hills outside of Florence, dedicating his life to prayer and the new religion – Christianity. Rumors spread among the Roman-ruled, and presently pagan, Florence, that a Christian was lurking in the hills. Roman soldiers brought him to the city and demanded he make sacrifices to the pagan gods. Good ol’ Minias didn’t budge. The soldiers pulled out their most cringe-worthy torture techniques, but much to the chagrin of the Romans, Minias didn’t even flinch. Finally, the Emperor Decius said, “Whatever, just kill him.” Or something like that I imagine. One lion attack, furnace burning, and beheading later, Minias still wasn’t dead. After the beheading the Romans accepted the futility of their efforts and called it quits. So Minias did what any disembodied man would. He picked up his head, and with it tucked snug under his arm, crossed the Arno and wandered up to the most beautiful hilltop outside of Florence. As the sun set, he thought to himself, “I think I could spend forever here.” And that’s just what he did. He placed his head on the ground, laid down, and died. Now that’s how to go out with a bang.
By the year 400, Christianity was legalized and Minias’ headless hike was still fresh in the minds of Florentines. Moreover, he was Florence’s only Christian martyr. So they went to the hilltop and built Minias a small shrine to honor the saint. In the year 800, a larger church was built on this spot, also in the name of St. Minias. The structure we see today wasn’t constructed until the year 1013 when the Countess of Tuscany decided that the calm collina would be an ideal place for a monastery – and I couldn’t agree more. If being a monk means having this view for the rest of my life, sign me up!
The bones of St.Minias still rest in the crypt of the church, the 1.000-year-old walls still stand, and the monks still sell their wares in a small shop adjacent to the church. Life is slow at San Miniato, perfectly slow.
From high on its hill, the church watched Florence churn through plagues, family feuds, wars and the Renaissance, all from a seemingly safe distance. While the monastery managed to stay out of most trouble, it was inadvertently thrown into the chaotic throngs of the re-institution of the Medici in 1530. Florence’s prized Republic was being threatened from both the Holy Roman Emperor as well as the Pope. Soldiers utilzed the idealy located monestery on the hill as an artilery post during the siege. But how would the old (even at the time) monastery stand against the canons of the enemy? So they asked themselves what any Italian would – what would Michelangelo do? In a stroke of genius, Michelangelo himself crafted a less-than-sophisticated, but totally practical, plan to cover the walls with the monks’ mattresses to absorb the blows of the cannons and save the ancient walls of the monastery.
Before heading inside, go to the left side of the church to find the entrance of the cemetery. As cemetery hours are more restricted, you’ll want to make sure you see this before checking out the church which stays open later. I know, I know, Meg and I are the weirdos with the thing for cemeteries. But I promise, it would be truly remiss to pass this one up. Elaborate tombs modeled after cathedrals create a neighborhood of sorts for those who, like St. Minias, have made San Miniato their eternal home.
Statues teeter the fine line between life and death themselves as emotional depictions of young lovers reuniting, sobbing mothers, and praying children live among the tombs. As most tours don’t make it up to San Miniato, let alone the cemetery, you will find a calm in this place offered no where else in fantastic, but frenetic Florence.
Bells ringing at 5 PM will remind you that the cemetery is closing and encourage you to head back to the front of the church and check out San Miniato itself. Walk in the doors of the dark, damp church for instant relief from the Tuscan sun. As your body temperature drops and your eyes adjust, find out what 1,000 years old smells like – it’s wonderful. You might be surprised by the rather “roomie” sanctuary that is purposefully dwarfed by the proportions of its marble facade. The split-level plan offers three layers of fun: the crypt, the nave, and the choir. Romanesque churches found this set-up convenient as pilgrims could bop in, cruise down to the crypt (lowest level), say hi to St. Minias, and leave, all without disturbing the mass occurign in the top two levels. Before heading down to say hi to St.Minias yourself, check out some of San Miniato’s secrets revealed on this main level.
First, look around at the architecture. Although subtle, everything about this church’s design was tediously planned out and represents a much greater meaning. For example, the groups of three arches represent the concept of the Holy Trinity in Christianity, and likewise a perfect harmony that the architects of San Miniato found in the religion of Christianity. Speaking of harmony, the brothers of San Miniato, and Christians at the time, were very much in tune with astrology and believed strongly that their faith was tied closely with the movement and patterns of the stars. Together, they represented Divine universal order. With that understanding we should not be surprised to see the large zodiac floor mosaic in the central aisle.
The zodiac theme is not just found on the floor though. Like I said, the design of San Miniato is entirely inter-related. As you explore the church you will find rogue zodiacs on walls, pulpits and even the ceiling. In particular, you’ll notice San Miniato’s own personal zodiac – the Taurus. San Miniato adopted the Taurus for a few good reasons. First and foremost, the bull (a common sacrificial animal) was seen as a symbol of God’s manifestation of Christ on earth. Next, on May28th, 1207, a rare (as in only once every 2,000 years) astrological pattern occurred. Astronomers foresaw the event and chose the date to install the elaborate floor mosaic – a date which fell under the sign of the Taurus.
*Off the record, this mosaic calendar rotates around the image of a sun. Galileo wouldn’t come out with his scandalous revelation that the planets revolved around the sun for another 400 years. Some speculate that these nameless artists, architects and astrologers were quite ahead of their time. Ok I feel myself spiraling into conspiracy theory mode. Back to business.
While Taurus is top zodiac here, the Pisces (fish) comes in as a close second. The fish was, and is, a common symbol of Christianity – a logical explanation for tiny fish all over the walls. Take a closer look though. These fish aren’t just swimming arbitrarily on the surfaces of the church. Rather, they all point in one direction –to the mosaic of Christ in the apse. Mind wandering during mass? These little guys are here to help you refocus!
And now, the trump card to the architects’ grand design. Did you notice how the church’s orientation is a bit off? Well probably not because that’s an odd thing to notice. However, if you happened to take note, all of the churches in Florence proper are situated on a very strict east/west axis. San Miniato however, breaks convention as it faces the northwest. Either the architect lost his compass, or he knew exactly what he was doing. I vote for the latter. The church is situated at such a precise angle that every September, toward the end of the month, the sun enters the church in such a way that a beam of light moves along the back wall, pauses on Christ’s foot (which is purposefully decorated with extra sharp pieces of mosaic to intensify the shine) that points down directly at the tomb of St. Minias. The architects’ understanding of the movement of the earth and geometry lends to plenty of other tricks with lighting in the space. Geometry was never my strong suit though, so I’ll leave those discussions up to the pros.
Before heading down to the crypt, look up. The ceiling is made of wood, which is a surprising contrast to the heavy stone church. I love it. That’s all I have to say about that.
After a good look up, it’s time to head down to the crypt. The austere space is decorated only with modest columns to support the choir above. The tops of these columns curiously don’t seem to match though. That’s because the capitals were actually taken from various Roman ruins creating the mismatched look. Recycling! I guess San Miniato was going green before all of us. Of course don’t miss the highlight of the holy hill, the relics of St. Minias himself.
If you plan your visit around 5:30 PM you will be treated to the beautiful voices of the monks chanting their nightly vespers in the crypt. Whether you want to take part in the worship, or would just like an enchanting soundtrack to your experience in the basilica, I would definitely recommend a visit during this hour. Finally, check out the third level – the choir loft. Here is where all the main action of the mass takes place, readings are read and hymns are sung. The overwhelming decoration of the choir loft is the larger-than-life mosaic of Christ, his mother Mary and St. Minias. Look familiar? That’s because it is. The mosaic on the facade of the church that you saw outside is the exact same subject matter and a small preview, if you will, of what awaits you inside.
Although the mosaic is certainly the most mesmerizing of the features in the choir loft, the intricate marble choir screen and pulpit are also worth a look. Keep your eyes open for more zodiacs as well!
Before heading down, bop into the sacristy which is a separate room to the right of the mosaic. The room is dedicated to St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order (the monks at San Miniato were originally of this order, however today the Olivetan Order occupies the monastery). Scenes from the Saint’s life embellish the walls – an exemplar for the monks.
The Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal is also a notable must-see, especially for the Renaissance Art History buffs out there.
On your way out, take in one last breath of that intoxicating scent of old, wet stone, of perfect peace and harmony, of history. In an ideal trip to San Miniato you’ll emerge just as the sun is setting over Florence. And there it is, meet your new happy place.