Santa Trinità is one of those places. One of those places you stumble upon just as you think that one more step in the scorching Tuscan sun will knock you into a sweat-induced coma. You push open the heavy wooden door with your last ounce of energy. This place is dark, the air is cool, and you can’t be sure, but it may just be heaven. You collapse on the back pew, pull out your €1 bottle of San Benedetto water and half eaten Ritter bar. You question if you ever really know the meaning of relief until this very moment. As you kick your feet up on the kneeler, you notice an old woman lighting a candle – oh yeah, oops, you’re in a church. Which church though? Who knows. I mean they all kind of become a blur right? In an effort to shake the tourist target you just glued to your back, you decide you’ll try to make this visit look purposeful for about 5 minutes before sneaking out. As you glide from chapel to chapel, however, you see the pages of your survey art history text book from college suddenly brought to life. A few surprise masterpieces later, you realize that bopping into this particular chiesa was a fantastic mistake.
If you don’t want to rely on a chance stumble to find Santa Trinità, orient yourself in Piazza della Signoria. Exit the west side of the Piazza towards Via Por Santa Maria. Take a left and then your second right onto Borgo Sant’ Apostoli. Follow for about 5 minutes until the street empties into Piazza Santa Trinità. If you can keep your eyes off of the Ferragamo store windows, you’ll see the church immediately in front of you.
Time: 6 minutes
To some, Santa Trinità is simply the starting line for the fashionable Via Tornabuoni; however, the history of the basilica dates to a Florence long before its fashion capital status. Santa Trinità was founded in the late 11th century as the mother church of the Vallumbrosian monks (a spin-off of the Benedictines, if you will). The structure we see today was built in the mid 13th century, but remnants of the original Romanesque structure are apparent in the church’s interior.
Like most churches in Florence, the fancy facade wasn’t added until much later. This one was designed by architect Buontalenti in the 16th century (yes, the gelato flavor is named after him). Buontalenti was definitely going for “bigger is better” rather than nailing a perfect fit for the church. Check out the large oculus window up top. Now look past it. Oops! I guess Buontalenti was too busy inventing delicious gelato flavors to worry about the misfit facade.
The large wooden doors on the facade were carved in the 18th century, and they flaunt Vallumbrosians monks who excelled to sainthood. It would be great to make a glorious entrance through the grand wooden doors in the center, but those suckers stay locked. Instead, make your way through the smaller doors on each side.
The interior of Santa Trinità is almost as refreshing as your Ritter bar church snack. The Baroque movement that washed over Italy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries left most Italian churches dripping in fictive green marble drapery and golden ornaments. Santa Trinità did not miss the Baroque bus; however, restorers later stripped out the gaudy ornaments to restore it to a simpler glory.
A saunter around the church is enough for an uplifting, enlightening, peaceful experience. For the art nut, the wannabe art nut, the curious, or those who simply want some bragging fodder at their next pretentious aperitivo, follow our lead to the heavy hitting masterpieces tucked quietly away around the pews.
Bartolini Salimbeni Chapel
From the back of the church, facing the altar, begin your journey exploring the numerous family chapels on the right side of the nave. The fourth chapel is our first stop. The Bartolini Salimeni chapel was painted by Lorenzo Monaco in the 1420s. Lorenzo style epitomizes that of the many artists sandwiched awkwardly between the Gothic and Renaissance periods. We can see poor Lorenzo’s identity crisis by comparing his very Gothic Annunciation altarpiece to his stab at Renaissance realism in the frescos that adorn the walls.
The chapel, however, is much more than a good art history lesson on period transitions, especially to the Salimbeni family and Vallumbrosian monks. The images in the chapel all depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary that specifically support the belief that Mary was not born by a human father but immaculately. Instead of delving into doctrine, just know that at this time a feud was raging between the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and Mary’s Immaculate Conception was just one point of contention. The Vallumbrosians were Team Franciscan and Team Immaculate Conception. The chapel was thus a supportive high-five to their Franciscan brothers and a snub to the testy Dominicans.
The Sassetti Chapel can be found on the far wall of the right transept. You can usually spot it by the classes and tour groups gathered around (who will hopefully keep feeding the coin machine to keep the lights on!). The Sassetti Chapel is the crown jewel of Santa Trinità and often why the church makes the cut in your art history survey text. It is commonly considered Domenico Ghirlandaio’s capolavoro.
Aside from its all-around beauty, the chapel represents everything it meant to be Renaissance. Francesco Sassetti, a banker for the Medici, obviously had a lot of money. And like any good wealthy family of the time, he used it to acquire and decorate a family chapel around the year 1483. Initially he took his soldi to Santa Maria Novella, but was turned down when the Dominicans discovered that Francesco planned on having scenes from the life of the Dominican’s number one nemesis, St. Francis, decorating the walls. The Vallumbrosians of Santa Trinita, on the other hand, gladly welcomed Sassetti’s petition thrilled to have the hand of the most prominent artist in Florence at the time, Dominicao Ghirlandaio, decorating their digs.
The chapel’s primary function is a burial place for Francesco and his wife Nora Orsi (the two are seen kneeling on either side of the altarpiece). The chapel also became a sort of family photo album as all of the Sassetti children are depicted in the piece. Additionally, the chapel served as a humanist who’s who, as it features cameos by Lorenzo de’ Medici, Poliziano, Costanzo, and even Ghirlandaio himself.
Ghirlandaio also used the chapel to reinforce the emerging Renaissance trend that Florence was soooooo the new Rome. He depicts events we know occurred in Rome and sets them in Florence, and in almost every scene we spy notable Florentine landmarks, such as the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio.
My favorite (ok everyone’s favorite) scene is located on the lower level of the center back wall (top panel in the photo above). The Resurrection of the Boy depicts a home-grown miracle thought to have occurred just outside the doors of Santa Trinità. A boy fell out of the window of the Palazzo Spini Feroni in the piazza, died, and then was brought back to life. Many believed it was St. Francis who made the miracle happen; hence, its placement in this chapel and this church is particularly special.
Tomb of the Bishop Benzo Federighi
Head across to the south side of the transept to see our next masterpiece – the Tomb of Bishop Benzo Federighi by Lucca della Robbia. The go-to sculptor of the early Renaissance chiseled this lovely tomb in a perfectly Robbian way by adorning the border with glazed terracotta foliage. This simple work is often overlooked, but now you know better, so please don’t miss it!
Now we move from pretty and heartwarming to “oh boy, what happened here?!” As you head back down the nave towards the door, stop at your first chapel on your right. The Capella Spini houses this 1450 wooden statue of Mary Magdalene by Desiderio da Settignano. To put it nicely, her not-so-hot look could be considered a nice break from the perfectly sculpted bods of the Renaissance. If you are wondering when I am going to mention how much it looks like Dontello’s Mary Magdalene in the Bargello – well that’s now. Most likely, Desiderio was inspired by the master. I would say he gives Donatello a nice run for his money and yours as well as viewing this Magdalene, as opposed to Donatello’s, is free!
Santa Trinità perfectly represents one of my favorite parts about Florence: while not typically lauded as one of the city’s can’t-miss attractions, those of us that do take the time to visit get to become familiar some of the area’s most remarkable treasures.
And one last surprise for the road…
The Column of Justice located just outside of Santa Trinita in the piazza, is straight from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Whoever started this “Florence is the new Rome” thing was really onto something!