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Florence, Tuscany, Italy

The Santo Spirito Neighborhood

A walk through the highlights of this quarter, characteristic of Florence

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Length: 0.7 miles / 1.1 km
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Overview: Florence is an open museum, which is its beauty and its curse at the same time. People looking for a "typical" corner of Florence may find themselves among a crush of tourists if they only follow the well-traveled routes. But a walk through the Oltrarno's (the "other side of the Arno River") Santo Spirito Quarter will bring you to a part of Florence that still belongs to the Florentines. Follow its lanes filled with artisan studios to the leafy green piazza of Santo Spirito with its cafes and restaurants to the elegant boutiques of Via Santo Spirito to the enormous Pitti Palace filled with Renaissance treasures.

Tips: On Sundays when the daily market in Piazza Santo Spirito is closed (the second and third Sundays of the month, excluding August), the square hosts an all-day market of antiques, food and handmade objects.

Florence has an unusual address system, with the use of two types of numbers, red or black/blue. So when looking for an address you may notice businesses generally are marked by a red number, residences by a black/blue number.

Points of Interest


Piazza Santo Spirito

The characteristic square of Florence's Oltrarno Quarter is Piazza Santo Spirito. It's a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of Florence's historical center and the perfect place to sit on a park bench under the trees, or grab a coffee or a gelato and people watch.

The piazza is one of Florence's true local piazzas, a place where the residents still come to buy a newspaper at the newstand in the corner of the piazza or perhaps pick up some fruit and vegetables in the daily morning market (Monday to Saturday, 8am to 2pm). In the evenings, the place is buzzing with young arty types who frequent the little bars and cafes for an aperitivo (after-dinner drink), such as Volume (No. 5 red, open until 1am).

Come here for dinner, too, at Trattoria Casalinga, just off the piazza on Via dei Michelozzi, 9 red (closed Sundays). It serves up one of the best traditional meals in Florence. Next door is another cheap and cheerful spot, Gustapizza.

The unusual facade of the basilica of Santo Spirito is the overwhelming symbol of this artistic quarter of Florence. It was the last great masterpiece of architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who died in 1446 before it was finished. The facade itself is still unfinished.

Legend has it that the young Michelangelo used to come to the monastery of the basilica here to persuade the monks to let him use the cadavers in the monastery's morgue to study anatomy. You can see the young artist's wooden crucifix inside the church's sacristy. The public hours tend to change but are usually from 9am-noon and 4-6pm.

Via Santo Spirito

Wander behind the Basilica of Santo Spirito, down a winding back alley lined with medieval buildings to get to Via Santo Spirito, one of Florence's most elegant artisan shopping streets.

Boutique stores such as Quelle Tre (No. 42 red, artisan women and children's clothing and accessories) and Angela Caputi (No. 58 red, bold, handmade costume jewelry) mingle with antiques, florists and trattorias.

It's worth a stroll just to take in the beautiful buildings, built by Florence's wealthy Renaissance families.

Piazza della Passera

This is more of an intersection of streets as opposed to a piazza, but it does have an intimate atmosphere that many other piazzas in Florence do not have.

Surrounded by quality food shops, cafes and restaurants on every corner, this is a wonderful piazza to come to for a snack, a gelato, a drink or even breakfast, lunch or dinner with the locals.

The Caffe degli Artigiani is named after the traditional artisan quarter of this area (see the artisans of Florence guide) who inhabit the streets coming off this piazza. It is a spot that is open from breakfast (grab a pastry and a coffee and in nice weather, perch yourself on the tables in Via Toscanella) until the evening, when the regulars come out for an aperitivo, or after-dinner drink.

Cinque e Cinque is a little cafe run by a couple serving simple organic food and wine, appropriate for a snack or lunch. The name of the cafe refers to a specialty from Livorno, a sort of chickpea pancake served in a focaccia-delicious!

Osteria Il Magazzino specializes in Florence's comfort food: offal. Come here for tongue carpaccio, tripe alla Fiorentina and other such delights. Meanwhile 4 Leoni is a trattoria that caters to everyone's tastes.

The piazza is known for its little festivals. In September, keep your eye out for the Piazza della Passera Jazz Festival.

Chiesa di Santa Felicita

The church of Santa Felicita is one of the oldest churches in Florence, with foundations that go back to the city's beginnings. There are two things that make this lovely little church stand out. One is its facade, which may take some a few moments to notice that it has a corridor running across it. This is part of the Vasari Corridor, which was the Medici grand duke's exclusive walkway to get them from the residence at the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio--all without having to mingle with the commoners.

The section of the corridor that becomes the facade of the church actually is a private box seat for the Medici, who could take mass, unseen and separate from the regular mass-goers. From the inside of the church, turn around and look up to see it, it's still there today.

The second little treasure that this church holds is to your right as you come in the door. This corner holds the Capponi family chapel. Decorated by the brilliant Mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo in 1528, the chapel features the surreal painting of the "Deposition of Christ" (look for the self-portait of the bearded artist in the background on the right side). The Virgin Mary swoons in grief, while the other figures seem to float.

On the adjacent wall is the artist's frescoes of the Annunciation, one of the most poignant and beautiful in the city. Look up and you can see the roundels in each corner of the chapel featuring portraits of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Not all of them are by Pontormo, however. Many think that the portrait of Matthew was done by his favorite student, the young Bronzino.

You will need to donate 1 euro to the light box to light up the chapel. It is worth it, however.

Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti)

A visit to the quarter of Santo Spirito would not be complete without a mention of the Pitti Palace, even if it is perhaps the one thing that does not "fit in" with the rest of this quarter, known for its artisans, its little back streets, its local residents.

The Pitti Palace dominates and essentially separates the Santo Spirito Quarter from the other "oltrarno" quarter of San Niccolò.

The palace became the Medici grand duke's residence in the mid-16th century; the family continued to use it as their residence until the last Medici died in 1737. Afterward, all of Florence's royalty lived here at some point up until 1919 when it became a museum, preserving the rooms and collections passed on to the city by its ruling families.

A visit to the palace, in particular the Palatina Gallery, is a glance into the life of Florentine royalty. The rooms are still decorated with much of the original furniture and decorations, including frescoes, sculptures and all the original works of art--from Botticelli to Raphael to Titian to Caravaggio.

The Boboli gardens of the palace are a worthwhile visit too, offering lovely views across Florence and the surrounding countryside. Be sure to take advantage of the fact that palace admission allows entry into the beautiful Bardini Gardens, nearby, as well.

Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine

If you're still hungry for more, head down to the Brancacci Chapel in the unassuming church of Santa Maria del Carmine. The chapel has a separate entrance through the convent from that of the church itself. Reservations are advised as only a small number of people for a short time can visit the chapel. Why so special? This chapel is where the Renaissance was born.

The frescoed walls were decorated by the young Masaccio, (who died mysteriously at the age of 26) and his associate, Masolino, between 1425-1427. The frescoes are considered some of the most influential art in history. Scenes such as "The Tribute Money" and "The Expulsion of Adam and Eve" were visionary, expressive and mastered the new art of one-point perspective, essentially bringing the images to life.

There is a wonderful video that runs on a loop that explains the history of the church and the significance of the frescoes. It is about a half-hour long and is worth watching. Even if you don't understand art, you can see why these images were studied and copied by Michelangelo and practically every other artist of the Renaissance.
Pictures in this guide taken by: Emiko Davies, quelle tre, wikipedia, Emiko

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