Poor Badia Fiorentina. She sits smack dab in city center on a major tourist via with her doors open, yet we always pass right on by. She pokes her tower into every cityscape photo taken from Piazzale Michelangelo, yet we somehow see straight past her to Brunelleschi’s dome and Arnolfo’s tower. So, who is this Medieval masterpiece hiding in plain sight?
The Badia Fiorentina is a 10th-century abbey home to over 1,000 years of history. To find her from Piazza della Signoria, head east to Via dei Leoni. Hang a left into Piazza San Firenze. After passing through the piazza, the street becomes Via del Proconsolo, with the Bargello on your right and the entrance to the Badia on your left. Look for the lovely terracotta lunette adorning the entrance. Cross the threshold, and you will find yourself inside the abbey.
Marchioness Willa of Tuscany dedicated the construction of the abbey to her late husband in the year 978. The Badia became the home to the Cassinese Benedictine order, and by 1031, the Badia also housed the sick of the city in its hospital. Aside from aiding the ailing, the monks spent their days doing what monks do best–making books! Hours of parchment-making, binding and illuminating established this side of town as the focal point of the Florentine book-making industry. The final function of the Badia was as a meeting place for the priors and magistrates of the Republic of Florence. That’s right–not even the Palazzo Vecchio was around yet!
After 300 short years, the Badia was in need of a remodel. Arnolfo gave the place a complete facelift and, notably, completed the beautiful bell tower. The campanile not only added a prominent ornament to the Florentine skyline, but it became an important institution in daily life. The bell tolled at the divisions of the Florentine working day. Think of it like your high school class bells, but for a whole city.
Aside from official business, the Badia also hosted some of Florence’s greatest minds. In Dante’s neighborhood, the Badia was part of the poets’ typical stomping grounds. Years later, writer Boccaccio would publicly critique Dante’s Commedia within these walls, and Giotto would practice some of his first brush strokes (the paintings were unfortunately lost). During the Renaissance, Portuguese abbot Ferreira de Silva hosted humanist conversations at the Badia, making it a center for the Humanist movement.
The interior of the church is an absolutely stunning Greek-cross plan that, while antiquated in feel, sports centuries of remodels all the way through the 19th century. The “star” of the Badia can be found to your left immediately upon entrance. Here, Filippinio Lippi’s Virgin Appearing to St. Bernard awaits. The painting, completed between 1482 and 1486, was not originally meant for the Badia, but rather for wealthy politician Piero di Francesco del Pugliese. Lucky for us, the painting was moved in 1530 when its original home was under siege.
After your Filippino fix, head to your right to the tomb of Willa’s son, Ugo. Devout in his Catholic faith, Ugo was compelled to repent for his early life of indulgence in worldly things. He felt absolution for his sins by dedicating his life and his money to taking care of the sick in the Badia hospital. His sponsorship largely funded the abbey. If his beautiful tomb by Mino da Fiesole is not testament enough to this man’s importance, drop by the church on December 21st to witness the yearly mass that is still said in dedication to the repose of his soul.
While this history, art and architecture are all worthy of our wonder, the most beautiful experience you can have at the Badia (and arguably all of Florence) occurs every evening at 6 p.m., when the Fraternity of Jerusalem (the current order inhabiting the abbey) holds vespers. I stumbled upon the ethereal voices coming from the Badia on one of my last evenings in Florence as a student. Perhaps it was the overwhelming emotions about leaving Florence, or a serious lack of sleep from Notte Bianca the night before, but the experience moved me to tears (hard to do). If you happen to be nearby, I highly recommend stopping by to hear it–here’s a sneak peek.
With over 1,000 years of history, stunning architecture and notable art, we certainly hope that next time you zip between the guidebook sites, you take a moment to visit the Badia Fiorentina. And next time you admire the cityscape of Florence from your favorite overlook, you can now properly admire its beauty and explain to your friends what “that other tower” is all about.