Piazza del Duomo in Florence is one of the world’s magic places, with the Cathedral, Baptistry and Giotto’s Campanile. Tourists might miss Santa Reparata.
It will take you a while to reach the Crypt of Santa Reparata and appreciate it to the full. The pink, white and pale green marble facades of the Cathedral (Duomo), the Baptistry and the Campanile (bell-tower) make Piazza del Duomo in Florence a special, joyful place, always thronged by people, tourists or Florentines. First, enjoy the square for itself, walk round it, look upwards, steep yourself in the impression of beauty, richness, gaiety, piety, admiration, lightness of heart, that this place will inspire.
Then start to look at the details, walk round the Baptistry and admire the famous doors:
- The south doors by Andrea Pisano with scenes from the life of John the Baptist and panels depicting the virtues: Hope, Faith, Charity, Humility, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Prudence;
- The north doors, made by a young Lorenzo Ghiberti, with scenes from the life of Christ and the saints; li>
- The east doors, the “Gates of Paradise”, work of the mature Ghiberti, with Old Testament themes (Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; Noah; Abraham; Isaac, Esau and Jacob; Joseph; Moses; Joshua; David; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba).
Climb the Campanile, enter the cathedral and wander through the throng of visitors, gazing upwards at Brunelleschi’s magnificent cupola until your neck hurts and you have to look down and around, and explore every corner.
Then, replete with colours, splendour, crowds, slip through the right-hand nave of the cathedral and descend into the hidden Church of Santa Reparata. Here you find peace, silence, subdued lighting, reminders of early, more iconoclastic Christianity. Here you leave the world outside.
Church of Santa Reparata
The Church of Santa Reparata dates back almost a thousand years before the present Cathedral. It lies literally underneath the Cathedral, but is very much smaller, fitting underneath like a child’s hand just peeping into an adult-size glove. Santa Reparata is of about the same age as the original Baptistry. The distance between Santa Reparata and the Baptistry is 8 metres less than the distance between the Baptistry and the “new” Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flower).
Tradition tells that the Church of Santa Reparata was built at the beginning of the fifth century to celebrate and give thanks for the defeat of the Gothic King Radagaisus (who was sonorously beaten while blockading Florence by a Roman army under Stilicho, regent for the young Emperor Honorius, and then executed in 406). At that time Christianity had only recently become a free and accepted religion, and after centuries of hidden worship and persecution, these paleo-Christian communities could finally erect churches.
Who was Santa Reparata?
It comes as a surprise to know that Santa Reparata has no connection with Florence. Reparata of Cesarea (Palestine) was mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his 8th century Martyrology. Santa Reparata, Virgin and Martyr, was a Christian girl of twelve, tortured and executed in the year 250 for refusing to make sacrifice to pagan gods in accordance with the edicts of the emperor Decius, who attempted to stamp out Christianity.This little-known saint is the patron saint of Nice and is venerated in Florence and some other Italian cities, particularly Atri and Casoli. The legend is that she appeared miraculously on the anniversary of her martyrdom, and caused the defeat of Radagaisus.
The Bishop of Florence at the time of the victory over Radagaisus was St. Zenobius, who chose to dedicate the cathedral to Santa Reparata.
Remains visible in the church of Santa Reparata
The area was excavated in the 1960’s and 1970’s and opened to the public in 1974, after centuries of darkness.
This church was modified and rebuilt several times, up till the final destruction in 1375, when the nave of Santa Maria del Fiore was completed and the old cathedral remained shut off underground, used only as a burial crypt. The first paleo-Christian church was built some 30 cm. above the remains of some old Roman houses built within metres of the north-eastern city wall. The Gothic-Byzantine wars of 535-553 went badly for Florence, and the city wall had to be drawn back leaving the basilica unprotected, where it must have been ransacked. It was rebuilt later under the Carolingians, following the plan of the original church but adding two chapels and a small crypt. Further works were made in the latter part of the eleventh century, during which this cathedral was used for parliamentary meetings and ecumenical councils.
Two popes connected with Florence were buried here (Stefano IX and Niccolò II). The spoils of St. Zenobius were also brought into the Santa Reparata Cathedral where they remained until 1439 when they were moved to the new Cathedral. The tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi was found during the excavation in the 1970’s, but other tombs of famous artists such as Giotto have not yet been found. Items found during the excavation are on display, including some dating from the late Roman period.
Of course this crypt cannot compare with the magnificence visible above ground, but it is really worth visiting both for its particular fascination and for adding a thousand years of history to your visit.
Good value for money: where to stay and where to eat near Piazza del Duomo in Florence
Florence has so much to see that for most people a five star hotel is not necessary! A very satisfactory small and economical hotel literally a few metres from Piazza del Duomo is the Hotel Costantini where you can find a double room for somewhere between 70 € and 100 € depending on the season. They also have cheaper-priced single rooms, which is not the case everywhere. There is not a fancy entrance or lounge bar, but the rooms and ensuite bathrooms are a very decent size, clean and cool, and a simple continental breakfast is included in the room price. When you step out of the hotel doorway you are amazed to be so close to the Cathedral and Baptistry.
For very good food in a restaurant that still gives honest portions and home cooking, you should try Acquacotta in Via dei Pilastri (tel. 055 242907); also worth visiting is the Padellaccia in Via S. Antonino (they specialize in meat from their own butchery, but also do a vegetarian menu) (tel. 055 288158). Their dining room is usually full of interesting paintings and they advertize some evenings with local artists. For a quick tasty lunch, try ZaZa in Piazza del Mercato Centrale.