As we can gather from its name, the church was built atop a hill. The location was not entirely incidental if we go by the stories. St. Minias (or St. Miniatus) was executed in 250 AD by command of Roman emperor Decius. His saintly head rolled from his shoulders, but lo and behold: Minias simply gathered up his own head and walked up the Mons Florentinus. This is where he uttered the memorable words: this is where I want to be buried. A church was built around his grave in the third or fourth century. In 1018, bishop Hildebrand ordered to have the church rebuilt. The bones of Minias (or Miniatus) lie beneath the altar in the crypts.
Facade of the San Miniato al Monte
The facade of the San Miniato, like the back wall at the apse, has five blind arches with similar panels.
The facade, too, like in the church, makes heavy use of multi-coloured marble. Not entirely unsurprising given how the city has many marble quarries nearby. The high centre-piece of the facade reflects the high nave and covers three blind arches. Behind the two outer most arches are the aisles. The bottom part of the facade has a clear horizontal accent and is closed off with an entablature.
Above it, in the centre, a square rises up showing an aedicula around a window. Above this window is a mosaic. Naturally, this mosaic from circa 1260 depicts St. Minias next to Mary and Christ. The facade is crowned with an eagle. It was the guild’s symbol, the Calimala, which since 1228 supervised the construction of this church.
Triangles with coloured marble mark the transition from the low aisles to the higher centre-part. This is akin to what Alberti would later apply to the Santa Maria Novella, namely volutes. The centre has a triangular closure: a pediment divided into planes and with different colour marble inlays. The part in the middle of the facade above the three blind arches is an interpretation of a classic temple pediment. Like the interior, the facade has a rather classic look to it. But at closer inspection you will see a number of statues at the facade, including gargoyles, that reveal the Roman nature of this church. In addition, there are a number of mistakes that a classical architect would never make. For instance, as with the Baptistery, the architrave has been curved to the left and right of the mosaic. Moreover, the recesses at the lower part of the fluting in the pilasters have been filled up. In Antiquity, this was only done on the ground floor to protect the vulnerable area where the two recesses convene. The height at which it is applied in the facade of the San Miniato makes it a meaningless endeavour.
Despite these shortcomings, Vasari speaks positively about the San Miniato al Monte in his preface of The Lives. After the decline of the Roman empire and the rise of the dark ages, art became a derelict pastime, but this church was a positive development.
“Subsequently, in 1013, when the Florentine Alibrando was bishop of Florence, it was evident by the restoration of the splendid San Miniato that art had regained some of its former glory; after all, aside from the marble ornaments, both inside and outside the church, it is evident by the facade that Tuscan architects made all the effort to keep the doors, windows, columns, arches and cornices in line with classical building, which they had partially recognised in the very old house of god of San Giovanni [Baptistery] in their own city.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel I blz. 43 (original edition 1568).
Paolo Schiavo, ‘Madonna enthroned the Saints Francis, Mark, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, James and Anthony Abbot‘
Opus sectile zodiacs 1207
Cappella del Crocifisso Michelozzo and Luca della Robbia
Agnolo Gaddi Alterpiece
Chapel Cardinal of Portugal; frescos busts saints Taddeo Gaddi
Arriving inside the church, you can tell by the layout that it is very orderly with all bays in the nave (and the aisles) being completely equal to each other.
Division according to fixed dimensional ratios, which can for example be deduced from the floor pattern. The bay of the aisle is exactly half that of the one in the nave. In the Renaissance, other architects like Brunelleschi will implement this too, as can be seen in the San Lorenzo or the Santo Spirito. The columns at the arcades are not all equal. Some of them are re-used classical columns known as spolia. It has Corinthian but also Byzantine capitals. The columns and pillars alternate in a fixed rhythm: pillar, column, column and pillar.
Aside from the open timber roof truss, the church uses a lot of marble. The marble in the clerestory was painted in the nineteenth century. It also shows marble in different colours. The inlays of the floor from 1207 include patterns with zodiac signs.
The five blind arches underneath the conch in the apse appear again in the facade. The church is home to many frescos, including from the thirteenth and fourteenth century by painters like Taddeo Gaddi, but we keep our focus on the architecture.
We then make our way to the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral of Florence