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  • Writer's pictureJoe Nickols, MA

A Brief History of Santo Spirito in Florence

What is Santo Spirito?

Santo Spirito is minimalist 15th-century church that uses proportion to replicate the beauty of heaven and houses a rare Michelangelo treasure.


Santo Spirito

Santo Spirito History

The church of Santo Spirito, designed by the renowned architect Filippo Brunelleschi, is a minimalist masterpiece. Brunelleschi’s design replaced an earlier, more conventionally designed church. He was an exponent of the style that would come to define the Renaissance approach to architecture, spending countless hours studying classical Roman architecture and transposing many ancient architectural motifs into his work. This resulted in buildings that consistently employed a stylised code of architecture in order to produce a harmonious whole. Brunelleschi was extremely interested in optical effects, using linear perspective and geometry to great effect. Through the success of his commissions, he was able to bring the previously elitist and scholarly interest in ancient Roman and Greek culture to the masses, furthering its popular appeal.


The renovation of Santo Spirito was spearheaded by the Florentine government. This quarter was becoming increasingly powerful, and the state decided that funding the expansion of the church would help it accrue more political and religious influence in the area. Brunelleschi had dynamic and revolutionary visions for the site, many of which were included in the final design, but others were too expensive or required large amounts of rebuilding. Initially, the church and its accompanying piazza were meant to command a vista over the Arno, but many local residents refused to sell river-facing land, leading to a reversal in the church’s orientation. Brunelleschi died two years into the project, leaving assistants to execute his plans for the church. This may account for further alterations being made – including the unusual, blank façade – though many of his key design principles remain.


Inside, you’re welcomed by the sight of graceful arches leading to the High Altar. The interior of Santo Spirito is characterised by these serene grey columns carved from pietra serena stone, a Brunelleschi favourite. The quality of calm within the space results from the architect’s use of mathematics to create a symmetrical and perfectly proportioned structure, the harmonious earthly geometry designed to echo the perfection of heaven above. The coffered ceiling was added later and is at odds with Brunelleschi’s plan for the columns to hold up white walls that would seemingly rise into an infinity of divine white light.


A hidden gem of Santo Spirito is the wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ housed in the sacristy. This delicately carved icon was produced by a young Michelangelo in the 1490s. He lived in the Santo Spirito complex after the death of his Medici patron, Lorenzo the Magnificent. It was in the convent’s hospital that Michelangelo was able to study human anatomy. In gratitude, he gifted the church this sculpture, which originally hung above the main altar.


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