Meg and I have laundry list of dreamy descriptors for our favorite city. Yet, as it’s summer, “oppressive heat” and “suffocating crowds” are the only adjectives currently coming to mind. Well, there’s nothing to be done about the sun, and I can’t blame people for wanting to visit Florence. So how do we handle the summers? In addition to following a few self-made rules to beat the heat, we explore a new Florence–a city of dark, cool, Romanesque churches, shaded side streets and freshly shaved granite. In fact, we discovered some of our favorite spots in the city while taking shelter from the sun or seeking shortcuts to avoid tourist traffic. Today, we find refuge in my favorite summer salvation, Santi Apostoli.
As crowds bleed out of the north side of the Ponte Vecchio onto the busy Via Por Santa Maria, outsmart the mob and dart left onto Borgo Santi Apostoli (second left). Without the threat of being trampled by tourists, enjoy your stroll to the church (only about 100 meters). Peace, quiet, shade and elbow room–have you died and gone to heaven? Well, not quite heaven, but you are about to arrive in limbo.
Piazza del Limbo is the small, sunken piazza just to the left of the Borgo, situated directly in front of the church. The piazza takes its name from the cemetery which once stood in this place, an eternal resting spot for babies who died before baptism. The medieval church believed that souls who died without receiving the rite could not fully unite with God’s love in heaven and were therefore condemned to life in limbo (dogma no longer held by the church). Although you may not mind spending an eternity here, let’s turn our attention to the church itself.
Florentine legend often designates Santi Apostoli as the oldest church in Florence, founded by Charlemagne in the year 800 (a white stone plaque to the left of the door will tell you everything you need to know, as long as you can read Latin). Due to Florence’s proclivity to brag about its impressive ancestry, I imagine the plaque was placed a few centuries after the founding (hey, I like to remind people I’m related to Hilary Duff, I get it). Despite the questionable authenticity of the Charlemagne claim, this Santi Apostoli is still old– 11th-century old. A date that does in fact place it among the oldest churches in Florence.
But enough about foundation legends, we’re all sweating in this summer sun. Head inside and grab a seat in the back pew. Breathe in that cool, millennium-old air and listen to the silence. The small Romanesque church is supported by columns whose shafts are made of memorable green marble from Prato, and the capitals are taken from the ancient Roman baths of Via dei Terme, just a few blocks away. Look up to the decorated wooden ceiling above you, added two centuries later in 1333. The side chapels were included in a remodel several hundred years later, in the 15th and 16th centuries, when such sanctuaries were in vogue. Inspired by the sweeping, symmetrical arches? So was Florence’s most famous architect, Filippo Brunelleschi. Visit Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo to see Santi Apostoli on a basilica-grand scale.
Wander to the third altar of the right aisle to find one of Giorgio Vasari’s greatest works, The Immaculate Conception. Need more art? To the left of the high altar is Andrea della Robbia’s magnificent terracotta tomb of Donato Acciaiolo.While Santi Apostoli still functions as a parish church, this little guy sees the most action each year on Easter Sunday. Before the Pazzi family was the most maligned in Florence, they returned to their family church of Santi Apostoli with the stones from the Holy Sepulchre they had acquired while crusading in the Holy Land. The stones remain in Santi Apostoli to this day. Every Easter morning, the stones are picked up by a mob of white oxen, drummers, trumpeters and men in tights to be paraded to the Duomo. There, they are used to spark the fire which ignites one of Florence’s most explosive traditions, the Scoppio del Carro.
But the rest of the year they sit quietly in this small church few think to visit. Luckily, now you know better than to simply pass by. Slip into the church between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. or 3:30 to 7 p.m. for relief from the heat, a millennium of history and your very own vacation sanctuary.