It is commonly believed that the most beautiful view of Florence opens up from the Piazzale Michelangelo. But should you deviate from the suggested route and go higher, an even more astounding vista is revealed. From the lookout point on the left bank of the Arno River, the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral with its magnificent Brunelleschi dome – the tallest in Tuscany – is clearly visible. If you turn exactly 180 degrees, you can see one of the oldest structures in Florence – the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, dedicated to the martyr Miniatus of Florence – a saint of the third century born in Armenia.
Constructed in the Romanesque style, the church stands out against the blue sky with its white marble facade interspersed with green marble. The lower tier of the basilica is divided into five identical arches, supported by Corinthian columns. In the arches – the central and two side ones are doorways, and the other two arches are decorated with panels of colored marble.
The upper gable of the central nave is decorated with geometric figures: circles and rectangles. On the slopes of the side naves, oblique hatching is visible, and on the pediment, you can see the inlaid ornament made of two-color marble, if you are not blinded by the reflections playing on the main decoration of the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte – a golden mosaic of the 12th century. Straight from under the pediment, Jesus is looking at us, the Virgin Mary is located on the left, and on the right is the patron of the cathedral – the first Florentine saint of Armenian origin named Minas.
The Mysterious Armenian Prince
According to legend, Minas [also known as Mina, Miniatus, or Miniato. – Ed.] was the son of the king of Armenia, however, the name of the royal parent is omitted in the legend. The young man received a rich inheritance from his parents, but squandered it recklessly, lived prodigally, and was of a rough and insensitive nature. According to his hagiography, the young man witnessed some mysterious events, about which the hagiographers of Mina do not speak, but which made a strong impression on the prince and caused a real revolution in his soul. From his wasteful life, Minas turned towards the Christian faith and took the first step – a pilgrimage to Rome – the center of the catacomb early Christian community of the third century, preserving the direct apostolic legacy.
Having met with other Christians in Rome, Minas was inspired and decided to become a hermit. He chose a cave near Florence, settled in it, and dedicated himself entirely to prayer and a gospel way of life.
Hard trials fell to the lot of the newly minted Christian. Minas remained in hermitage until the pagan Roman Emperor Decius began persecuting Christians. Minas was found praying in the cave, bound, and brought to the emperor. Decius knew about Minas’ connection to the royal lineage, so the emperor was not interested in simply executing the ascetic. Knowing that he was dealing with an Armenian prince, Decius offered him to renounce Christianity in exchange for incalculable wealth and to return to paganism, worshipping the Roman gods. But Minas refused to sacrifice to idols, for which the enraged emperor threw him to be torn apart by wild animals. Imagine Decius’ surprise when the lions did not eat the hermit, but calmly settled around and even seemed to guard the saint. Then the emperor ordered Minas to be burned, but even fire did not take the saint – the fire was rekindled, but the flame still went out. Then Decius ordered Minas to be beheaded. According to legend, after his execution, the saint picked up his severed head, attached it to his body, and took his familiar path straight to his cave on Monte di Firenze, where he finally gave up the ghost.
In the early 4th century, Minas was canonized, and a chapel was built on the site of the cave. Later, in 1018, the construction of a full-fledged church began, which was consecrated in honor of the Armenian from Florence – Saint Minas.
What’s inside the Church of Saint Minas?
Where once Minas had trod, now there is a marble mosaic floor that crowds of tourists roam over. Woven patterns of zodiac signs and an ornament with oriental motifs adorn the floor of the basilica like a white lace carpet. All the main decoration of the church is made of marble. The columns, arches, and vaults are built from this natural stone of white and green colors. The walls inside the church are lined with white marble – their geometric patterns echo the facade of the building.
Directly opposite the entrance to the basilica, at the end of the central nave, in the conch of the apse, there is a large mosaic from 1297 – its plot duplicates the mosaic of the facade. It depicts Christ on the throne, the Virgin Mary, and the king of Armenia [Rex Ermenie. — Ed.], handing over the crown to the only true King – the Lord of Heaven. In return, Christ rewards Minas with heavenly glory.
Almost there, at the lower level of the central nave, there is an altar, under which the relics of the saint are kept. Stairs on the sides lead down to the oldest part of the church – the crypt of the 11th century. It is surrounded by a grid of wrought iron, and on its vaults, remnants of frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi are visible. Many of the frescoes in the basilica belong to this author and date from 1340-1342.
The Basilica of San Miniato al Monte is little known to modern tourists, and even less so to the general public. But in its time, it was considered one of the most beautiful churches in Florence. The stairs on the sides of the altar and the porticos of the crypt were depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in a sketch for the painting “Adoration of the Magi”, only instead of seventeen, he depicted only sixteen steps. The outlines of the stairs the artist transferred to the finished work.
Quite a lot of talented masters worked on the image of the church of San Miniato al Monte. In the central part of the basilica, the Chapel of the Crucifixion was built according to the project of Michelozzo. The vault covered with blue enamel with ceramic medallions was decorated by Luca della Robbia. He also decorated the Chapel of the Portuguese Cardinal, visible in the left nave of the church. It is dedicated to the ambassador of Portugal in Florence and painted by Antonio Manetti, Piero del Pollaiolo, and Alessio Baldovinetti.
The best-preserved frescoes are those of the sacristy [the same as a treasury in an Orthodox church – a special room where the vestments of clergymen and other cult objects are kept. – Ed.], the creation of which in 1388 is attributed to Spinello Aretino. They tell the life of Saint Benedict, known for creating the Rule for monks.
The Basilica of San Miniato al Monte surprises especially attentive visitors not only with the works of many famous masters but also with an unusual combination of frescoes. In the left nave on the wall, the Virgin Mary and the crucifixion of the 13th century are adjacent to the image of a later work – Saint Jerome of the 15th century, who, along with his constant companion, the lion, stopped under the painted stone vault of the arch. At one of the walls of the church, framed, stands the work of Jacopo di Casetino. It is dedicated to the main saint of the basilica – Minas, and tells about his life.
The church has never been rebuilt, even the architects of the Renaissance decided to keep its original appearance – this is written by Vasari in the famous “Lives”.
Gradual changes that the building had to undergo did not affect its basic outlines. Baccio d’Agnolo built a new bell tower to replace the one damaged in 1530 during the siege of the city by the Spaniards. In the same year, Michelangelo erected walls that protected the entire complex of the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte – its territory housed a Benedictine monastery of the 15th century, still located next to the church. In the 16th century, it was adorned with frescoes and mosaics by Paolo Uccello. Behind the walls is a small cemetery with beautiful tombstones and statues. Many famous Tuscan figures of art and science are buried there, but in 1854 it was closed.
In the 19th century, the architect Giuseppe Poggi thought about modern tourists and added a high staircase made of white marble. To this day, you can climb it to the church, and in the evening at its foot admire the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, illuminated by unusual lighting, which makes the marble finish sparkle.
Author: Journalist, art historian Alisa Poplavskaya specially for the Armenian Museum of Moscow
Translation by Vigen Avetisyan.