fresco of a monster devouring a woman's head in hell from the Santa Croce museum

Florence: Personal favorites from John & Giny- Part 1 of 3

Friends have asked us to share some of our favorite things to do in and around Florence, Firenze, with the idea that we wouldn’t recite well-known highlights. Guidebooks are best for making strategic use of limited time. Perhaps an idea or two from our experience will grab you.

A couple of the biggies:

Giny’s favorite museum—The Bargello, via del Proconsolo 4, Florence’s oldest public building and with typical medieval features, is filled with sculpture, mainly from the 15th & 16th centuries. Giny doesn’t get too excited about large museums. The family joke is that her memory of the Uffizzi was her tired ooo-feetsy. But she likes the Bargello, maybe because it is laid out rather loosely, not a sequence one must follow. You can simply go this way or that.

John’s museum highlight: Museo dell’Opera del Duomothe Museum of the Works of the Duomo, is at Piazza del Duomo 9. There’s a nice write-up at the VisitFlorence site. Historic elements from the duomo complex—the baptistery, the campanile and the Duomo (cathedral)—are displayed and preserved along with related historical displays. My pick for the most powerful sculpture in Florence is Donatello’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene. Its traditional home has been this museum, and I believe it is back there after some time in the Bargello and in restoration. Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà supposedly features his aged face as Nicodemus. An easy read about the development of the Renaissance is Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. It will enhance your enjoyment of this museum. The operai, the lay institution in charge of everything, is an ongoing group.

Less well-known spots in Florence:

Palazzo Davanzati, Via Porta Rossi 13. This home has been restored to its medieval style—a step further back in time from famously Renaissance Florence. Decorative and colorful, with period furnishings, this will be especially interesting to designers and architects.

“Original language” movies in English are regularly offered at the Odeon, Piazza Strozzi, 2, a classic old theatre/performance hall where a plush if faded seat is always available, along with wine and beer at concessions.

My soul was stirred at the modest Oratorio dei Buonomini di San Martino, located where via de’ Magazzini meets via Dante Alighieri. This is only a single room with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio (or his workshop). The Oratorio is on no one’s list of things to see. It continues its charitable work—buonomini is from buon uomini, good people.


Some folks may only occasionally step into a church, but we advise you get your ass in there! Entry is free (coin boxes are plentiful) and each has something to offer—the architecture, of course, and historical tie-ins, and often a masterpiece or two. A mark of a good guidebook is that the highlights of the churches are covered. When accessible, the interior courtyards offer a bit of greenery. The masterpieces may have coin boxes nearby that trigger a few minutes of illumination, and maybe you’ll get lucky and encounter a tour group receiving a talk.

David Byrne made the point that “Heaven, heaven is a place…where nothing, nothing ever happens.” Whereas depictions of hell, often found in the church frescoes, show bodies consumed in multiple ways and where no human orifice is safe. Hell provided an especially creative spark to many an artist’s imagination.

Grander churches have museums attached with entry fees, and these are not overwhelming and generally terrific. I’ll highlight Santa Croce for over-all grandness. On a more intimate scale, nothing compares with the Fra Angelico frescoes in the small individual monks’ cells at San Marco.

This post was updated in 2017.

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