What if you could spend time with virtually every famous Italian who lived over the last 600 years, and do so in one place? Well, now you can!
Welcome to the Basilica of Santa Croce, the principal Franciscan church in Florence. Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, Ghiberti, and Galilieo are buried here, which is why it is also known as the Temple of the Italian Glories. (Look closely, and you’ll find monuments to Dante, Guglielmo Marconi, and Enrico Fermi.)
The church is decorated by stunning works of art created by many of the greats, including Gaddi, Giotto, and Donatello. The first tomb you see when walking into the building is that of Michelangelo. He asked for his sarcophagus to be placed in that spot because one can see Brunelleschi’s Dome when the church doors are open. A guide told me that, when asked why he wished to be placed here, Michelangelo said something like, “On Judgement Day, when the church doors are flung open, I wish to see the magnificent Duomo once more before ascending to Heaven.”
Here’s another interesting fact about this church: Niccolo Matas, a Jewish architect, designed the church’s 19th-century neo-Gothic facade, working a prominent Star of David into the composition. Matas wanted to be buried with his peers, but because he was Jewish, he was buried under the porch and not within the walls. Shalom!
In front of the church is a rather old and large plaza, lined with stores – most of which sell leather goods. In fact, the entire area is surrounded by leather stores, many of which now cater to specific clienteles, such as Japanese tourists. This is the leather capital of Florence. A giveaway is the street named Corso dei Tintori (Course of the Tinters), which is located very close to the Arno River (see the map below): Leather dying required vast amounts of water, both for production and (very toxic) disposal.
One of the most fascinating places to tour, very near the church, is the Scuola di Cuoio, or School of Leather. Top craftspeople are trained here, and go on to work for some of the top names in the business, such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes. The school has its own shop, filled with the beautiful work of its artists and craftspeople. (I’m sure Paige will be happy to show you some of their work, as we used to import handbags and purses from the School.)
You’re probably hungry after touring the church and shopping for leather. We recommend the Osteria del Caffè Italiano for lunch (or dinner). It’s typical (and delicious) Tuscan cuisine – charcuterie of salamis, cheese, olives, and prosciutto; steak, sausage, pizza, and pasta. The decor is decidedly Old World – it’s on the ground floor of the 14th-century Palazzo Salviati. Kid friendly. Open every day. Note: You can tell this is a local hangout, because things don’t really start hopping until 9 pm or so.
Save room for dessert, because just around the corner is Vivoli, one of Florence’s best known and respected gelaterias. Vivoli prides itself on selling only flavors they have made that day, so everything is fresh and flavors change frequently. It’s open virtually all day, from morning til midnight, but closed on Mondays. (Given its reputation, it’s also a bit pricey. The kids won’t mind.)
If you’re up for a bit of a walk after all of that eating, you will enjoy visiting the Great Synagogue of Florence (see my photo at the top of this post). The design integrated Italian architectural tradition with the Moorish style used for the decoration. During World War II, Nazi soldiers occupied the synagogue, using it as a storehouse. In August 1944, retreating German troops and Italian Fascists tried to destroy it. However, Italian resistance fighters defused most of the explosives. Only limited damage was done, and later repaired.
Tired and need one more nearby drink or snack? We really like the lobby bar at the Villa Lucchesi, one of our favorite hotels in the city. The bar is very kid-friendly, and provides lots of munchies that all will enjoy. The staff is warm and responsive. It’s a great location from which to base a stay in Florence. (Also, if you happen to be in town over New Year’s, you can see the fireworks from the roof.)
Speaking of the roof – if you have the time and inclination to wander up to the patio, this is the view. Go ahead, click on it!
Masthead: The Old Synagogue (Bob)
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