8 Renaissance Masterpieces To See In Florence That Aren’t "David"
Birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has artistic and architectural masterpieces at nearly every turn. Some, such as Michelangelo’s statue of David, gazing naked towards Rome from the Galleria dell'Accademia, are so famous they hardly need introductions. Others, such as Domenico del Ghirlandaio’s frescoes, tucked away in the Sassetti Chapel, can surprise visitors with unexpected beauty.
But each one helps tell the story of the city’s golden era, when wealthy merchant families, led by the dynastic Medici, patronized some of the most remarkable artists and architects Italy has ever known. Behold David in his glory—we don’t suggest skipping it—but don’t miss these other period masterpieces for a full picture of Florence and the Renaissance either.
“The Birth of Venus”
The Ufizzi Galleries (Gallerie degli Ufizzi)
Sandro Botticelli's painting shows the newly-born (and fully-grown) Roman goddess Venus emerging from the sea. Covering herself in forced modesty, she’s carried by seafoam and Zephyr-blown winds towards the island of Cythera on a seashell. One of the most famous Renaissance-era paintings, it pairs with Boticelli’s lesser-known Primavera, also in the Ufizzi. While you’re there, look out for Titian’s Venus of Urbino, too, which contrasts Botticelli’s modesty with eroticism.
Florence Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria dei Fiori)
Florence’s cathedral actually has two domes, one built inside the other. Filippo Brunelleschi laid out designs to build the dome—the largest in the world at the time—without traditional supporting structures, a feat of engineering not accomplished since antiquity. His vision “kicked off” the architectural Renaissance, inspiring cathedral domes as far away as Milan and the U.S. Capitol. See the dome’s frescoes depicting The Last Judgement and climb a narrow passageway to the lantern for panoramic views of Piazza del Duomo and the city beyond.
“The Story of Saint Francis of Assisi”
Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trìnita Church (Basilica di Santa Trìnita)
Domenico Ghirlandaio’s frescoes extend over three walls of the Sassetti Chapel, depicting six scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. One of the city’s most famous painters, Ghirlandaio transposed traditional story elements from Francis’ life with Florentine settings and people. In the second scene, called The Confirmation of the Rule, the Pope receives Saint Francis in Florence instead of Rome, with Lorenzo de’ Medici and his family in attendance. (Keep in mind that Lorenzo was born more than 200 years after the saint’s death.)
“The Gates of Paradise”
Opera del Duomo Museum (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo)
Some say that the Renaissance began when Florentine merchants commissioned Lorenzo Ghiberti to design new bronze doors for the city baptistery. Ghiberti labored for nearly 30 years, adorning the doors with 10 scenes from the Old Testament in gold-leaf reliefs, demonstrating new mastery of linear perspective. The original doors are in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo; replicas adorn the entrance to the baptistery across the street from the Florence Duomo.
The Medici Chapels
Basilica of San Lorenzo (Basilica di San Lorenzo)
David gets all the glory, but the sculptures in the Medici Chapels are much more fun. Michelangelo’s figures of Dawn, Day, Dusk, and Night lay in sensuous poses atop burial tombs designed for the Medici family. Legend has it that during a conflict between Florentines and the Medici—including the Pope, a Medici himself—Michelangelo took the losing side and hid out in a secret room underneath the chapel, sketching graffiti to pass the time until tensions cooled. The secret room with priceless drawings is sometimes open to the public.
“The Battle of San Romano”
The Ufizzi Galleries (Gallerie degli Ufizzi)
Paolo Uccello’s three paintings (called a “triptych”) depict the Battle of San Romano, a Tuscan turf war between Florence and Siena fought over control of the port of Lucca, among other things. The central painting, Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Carda, shows the middle portion of the battle in dreamy perspectives, and sits in the Uffizi Gallery today. (The first and third paintings in the series are in London and Paris.) Lorenzo de’ Medici fancied the paintings so much he bought one and secured the others in the family palace.
Ponte Santa Trinita
While the medieval Old Bridge (Ponte Vecchio) is Florence’s most famous, the Renaissance-built Ponte Santa Trinita—with its three oval-shaped arches over the Arno River—is the most graceful. During World War II, German troops destroyed the original stone bridge, which itself had replaced a 5-arched wooden version that was carried away by floods. During the reconstruction of war-damaged Italy, the stone bridge was rebuilt using archival plans and original stones raised from the Arno.
Laurentian Medici Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)
Piazza San Lorenzo
Michelangelo designed this undersung library holding thousands of rare books collected by Cosimo (the Elder) and Lorenzo (the Magnificent) Medici, including manuscripts by Boccaccio, Dante, and Virgil. Located above the cloister garden of the Basilica of San Lorenzo (Basilica di San Lorenzo), the library features late-Renaissance architecture that plays with tradition: an extraordinary staircase is constructed in several jarring styles, and columns are set within walls next to decorative arches. While most of the building is open to the public, visiting the reading room—a light-filled sight to behold—requires reservations.