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  • Writer's pictureJoe Nickols, MA

A Brief History of San Miniato al Monte in Florence

What is San Miniato al Monte?

San Miniato al Monte is a 13th-century church that crowns the Florence skyline with its Romanesque beauty and saintly association.

San Miniato al Monte

San Miniato al Monte History

The beauty and splendour of the Romanesque façade of San Miniato al Monte is visible across the whole of Florence. The basilica sits above the Piazzale Michelangelo at one of the highest points of the city, commanding enviable views. It houses relics of Saint Minias, the first Christian to be martyred in Florence.

According to legend, the saint was Armenian royalty, part of the Roman army, and came to Florence while on a pilgrimage to Rome. In AD 250, after refusing to make offerings to the Roman gods, he was sentenced to multiple tortures by Emperor Decius. These included being thrown to wild beasts in an amphitheatre, placed in a furnace, and being stoned… but the animals refused to devour him, the flames did not burn him, and the stones left him unharmed. Ultimately, Minias was beheaded near the site of the Piazza della Signoria, though was miraculously still able to get up and carry his head across the River Arno in order to return to his hermitage, upon which the current church is said to stand. (The veracity of all this is of course in doubt; some, for instance, believe that Minias was simply a soldier persecuted for spreading Christianity within the Roman army.)

The current church was commissioned by Bishop Ildebrando in 1013 to replace a small 8th-century chapel. The project was funded by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, which explains the fine materials that are used and its elegant design. The eagle that tops the pediment is the symbol of the cloth importers’ guild, who funded and managed the church from 1288. The mosaic on the façade depicts Christ between the Virgin Mary and Saint Minias, and dates from the early 13th century. This mosaic gives a small foretaste of the magnificence that lies within. Complex frescoes, mosaics and inlaid marble embellish the interior. The central apse is dominated by a larger and more intricate mosaic depicting the same three figures.

In the marble floor is a representation of the zodiac, a pagan symbol that was reclaimed by early Christians and used to represent the twelve Apostles. The frescoes in the sacristy depict episodes from the life of Saint Benedict as the church was dedicated to the Benedictine order before Olivetan monks took it over in 14th century. Whilst the church ceiling, decorated with glazed terracotta, that depicts the Cardinal Virtues is by Luca della Robbia, a close collaborator of Filippo Brunelleschi.

Just off the left aisle, you’ll find the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal, a perfectly preserved example of Renaissance architectural design, complete with the original paintings and sculpture. The tomb of the Cardinal of Portugal, James of Lusitania, is surrounded by works created by Florentine masters.

Next to the church is an Olivetan monastery that’s still operational. These monks produce the famed liqueurs, honey, tea and other delicacies on sale in the shop near the church. These cannot be recommended more highly; the chocolate is especially good and the soaps rival those to be found at Santa Maria Novella.

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