10 Best Sights in The Oltrarno, Florence

Certosa

This incredible Carthusian complex was largely funded in 1342 by the wealthy Florentine banker Niccolò Acciaiuoli, whose guilt at having amassed so much money must have been at least temporarily assuaged with the creation of such a structure to honor God. In the grand cloister are stunning (but faded) frescoes of Christ's Passion by Pontormo. Though much of the paint is missing, their power is still unmistakable.

Also of great interest are the monks' cells; the monks could spend most of their lives tending their own private gardens without dealing with any other monks. To get here, you must either take Bus 37 to the stop marked "Certosa" or have a car. Tours, which are mandatory, are given only in Italian, but even if you can't understand what's being said, you can still take in the sights.

Giardino Bardini

San Niccolò

Garden lovers, those who crave a view, and those who enjoy a nice hike should visit this lovely villa, whose history spans centuries. It had a walled garden as early as the 14th century; its "Grand Stairs"—a zigzag ascent well worth scaling—have been around since the 16th. The garden is filled with irises, roses, and heirloom flowers. It also has a Japanese garden and statuary.

Via de'Bardini, Florence, Italy
055-263–8599
Sight Details
Rate Includes: €10, Closed Mon. (with occasional exceptions)

Giardino di Boboli

Palazzo Pitti

The main entrance to these gardens is from the right side of the courtyard of Palazzo Pitti. The landscaping began to take shape in 1549, when the Pitti family sold the palazzo to Eleanor of Toledo, wife of the Medici grand duke Cosimo I. A visit here can be disappointing because the gardens are somewhat sparse, but the pleasant walk offers excellent views.

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Museo Bardini

Oltrarno

The 19th-century collector and antiquarian Stefano Bardini turned his palace into his own private museum. Upon his death, the collection was turned over to the state and includes an interesting assortment of Etruscan pieces, sculpture, paintings, and furniture that dates mostly from the Renaissance and the Baroque.

Palazzo Pitti

Palazzo Pitti

This enormous palace is one of Florence's largest architectural set pieces. The original palazzo, built for the Pitti family around 1460, consisted of the main entrance and the sections extending as far as three windows on either side. In 1549, the property was sold to the Medici, and Bartolomeo Ammannati was called in to make substantial additions. Although he apparently operated on the principle that more is better, he succeeded only in producing proof that more is just that: more. Today, the palace houses several museums. The Museo degli Argenti displays a vast collection of Medici treasures, including exquisite antique vases belonging to Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Galleria del Costume showcases fashions from the past 300 years. The Galleria d'Arte Moderna holds a collection of 19th- and 20th-century paintings, mostly Tuscan.

Most famous of the Pitti galleries is the Galleria Palatina, which contains a broad collection of paintings from the 15th to the 17th century. Its rooms remain much as the Lorena, the rulers who took over after the last Medici died in 1737, left them. Their floor-to-ceiling paintings are considered by some to be Italy's most egregious exercise in conspicuous consumption, aesthetic overkill, and trumpery. Still, the collection possesses high points, including a number of paintings by Titian and an unparalleled collection of paintings by Raphael. The price of admission to the Galleria Palatina also allows you to explore the former Appartamenti Reali, containing furnishings from a remodeling done in the 19th century.

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Piazzale Michelangelo

San Niccolò

From this lookout you have a marvelous view of Florence and the hills around it, rivaling the vista from the Forte di Belvedere. A copy of Michelangelo's David overlooks outdoor cafés packed with tourists during the day and with Florentines in the evening. In May, the Giardino dell'Iris (Iris Garden) off the piazza is abloom with more than 2,500 varieties of the flower. The Giardino delle Rose (Rose Garden) on the terraces below the piazza is also in full bloom in May and June.

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San Miniato al Monte

San Niccolò

This abbey, like the Baptistery a fine example of Romanesque architecture, is one of the oldest churches in Florence, dating from the 11th century. A 12th-century mosaic topped by a gilt bronze eagle, emblem of San Miniato's sponsors, the Calimala (cloth merchants' guild), crowns the green-and-white marble facade. Inside are a 13th-century inlaid-marble floor and apse mosaic. Artist Spinello Aretino (1350–1410) covered the walls of the Sagrestia with frescoes of scenes from the life of St. Benedict.

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Santa Felicita

Palazzo Pitti

This late-Baroque church (its facade was remodeled between 1736 and 1739) contains the Mannerist Jacopo Pontormo's Deposition, the centerpiece of the Cappella Capponi (executed 1525–28) and a masterpiece of 16th-century Florentine art. The granite column in the piazza was erected in 1381 and marks a Christian cemetery.

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Via Guicciardini, Florence, 50122, Italy
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Closed Sun.

Santa Maria del Carmine

Santo Spirito

Fire destroyed most of this church in the 18th century, but, miraculously, the Cappella Brancacci—at the end of the right transept and containing a masterpiece of Renaissance painting—survived almost intact. The fresco cycle here changed the course of Western art and is the work of three artists: Masaccio and Masolino (1383–circa 1447), who began it around 1424, and Filippino Lippi, who finished it some 50 years later, after a long interruption when the sponsoring Brancacci family was exiled. It was, however, Masaccio's work that opened a new frontier for painting, as he was among the first artists to employ single-point perspective; tragically, he died in 1428 at the age of 27, so he didn't live to experience the revolution his innovations caused.

Masaccio collaborated with Masolino on several of the frescoes, but his style predominates in the Tribute Money, on the upper-left wall; St. Peter Baptizing, on the upper altar wall; the Distribution of Goods, on the lower altar wall; and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve, on the chapel's upper-left entrance pier. If you compare the last painting with some of the chapel's other works, you'll see a pronounced difference.

The figures of Adam and Eve possess a startling presence thanks to the dramatic way in which their bodies seem to reflect light. Masaccio shaded his figures consistently, so as to suggest a single, strong source of light within the world of the painting but outside its frame. In so doing, he imitated with paint the real-world effect of light on mass, giving his figures a sculptural reality unprecedented in his day. But his skill went beyond mere technical innovation. In the faces of Adam and Eve, you see more than finely modeled figures; you see terrible shame and suffering depicted with a humanity rarely achieved in art.

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Piazza del Carmine, Florence, 50100, Italy
055-276–8224-reservations
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Rate Includes: €10, Closed Tues. and Thurs., Reservations to visit the Cappella Brancacci are essential

Santo Spirito

Oltrarno

The plain, unfinished facade belies and interior that is one of the most important examples of Renaissance architecture in Italy. It's one of a pair designed in Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early decades of the 15th century (the other is San Lorenzo). It was here that Brunelleschi supplied definitive solutions to the two major problems of interior Renaissance church design: how to build a cross-shape interior using classical architectural elements borrowed from antiquity and how to reflect in that interior the order and regularity that Renaissance scientists (among them Brunelleschi himself) were at the time discovering in the natural world around them.

Brunelleschi's solution to the first problem was brilliantly simple: turn a Greek temple inside out. While ancient Greek temples were walled buildings surrounded by classical colonnades, Brunelleschi's churches were classical arcades surrounded by walled buildings. This brilliant architectural idea overthrew the previous era's religious taboo against pagan architecture once and for all, triumphantly claiming that architecture for Christian use.

Brunelleschi's solution to the second problem—making the entire interior orderly and regular—was mathematically precise: he designed the ground plan of the church so that all its parts were proportionally related. The transepts and nave have exactly the same width; the side aisles are precisely half as wide as the nave; the little chapels off the side aisles are exactly half as deep as the side aisles; the chancel and transepts are exactly one-eighth the depth of the nave; and so on, with dizzying exactitude. For Brunelleschi, such a design technique was a matter of passionate conviction. Like most theoreticians of his day, he believed that mathematical regularity and aesthetic beauty were flip sides of the same coin, that one was not possible without the other. In the refectory, adjacent to the church, you can see Andrea Orcagna's highly damaged fresco of the Crucifixion.

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