Florence, Italy: a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting 60 percent of the world’s significant art, by Western standards. In Florence art museums crowd the city and surrounding region, filled with priceless works of art from the Renaissance and before.
It’s hard to know where to begin, or even where to end, a tour of Florence art museums, cathedrals, and galleries. There are several “must-do” attractions, such as Michelangelo’s David or the soaring red dome of Duomo, but while you definitely will (and should!) spend some time in the long lines for Florence’s most popular museums, you can also discover some of Florence’s remarkable hidden gems, from a Medici merchant prince’s map room to 14th-century frescos which inspired later masters.
1. Museo del Opera del Duomo. Perhaps it’s not far off the beaten path, but it would be a shame for anyone to visit the famous dome of Duomo without also exploring the cathedral’s amazing museum. Here, you’ll find more than seven hundred years of history curating the great religious monuments of Florence. Galleries bursting with sculptures compete for your attention alongside exhibits of work by the most familiar Renaissance household names.
You’ll see Michelangelo’s Pieta, an unfinished piece often believed to be designed for the sculptor’s own tomb, and Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene, a wooden sculpture which ducked the traditions of well-fed and young saints in favor of a haggard, realistic depiction of a woman who spent thirty years in the desert.
Another must-see amongst Duomo’s displays are Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. These bronze doors, dubbed the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo, depict the story of the Old Testament in revolutionary relief styles. Like some works on display at the Duomo, they were restored to stunning beauty following a 1966 flood.
Address: Piazza del Duomo 9, Florence. Website
2. Pitti Palace’s Palatine Gallery. At this massive palazzo, which has expanded regularly from 1457 through the early 1700s, plenty of art collections will bid for your time, along with the famous Boboli Gardens. For an incredible collection of works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens and other Renaissance and Baroque Masters, explore the Palatine Gallery, housed in the gilded former residence wing of the Medici Grand Dukes. Take a special look at Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, a gorgeously intimate portrait of the Madonna, Christ child, and Saint John the Baptist.
Address: Piazza Pitti 1, Florence. Website
3. Museum of San Marco. Housed in the 14th-century Convent of San Marco, this museum pays special attention to the convent’s own Fra Angelico. This early Renaissance painter was a member of the religious order, and the walls are covered in his frescoes. But the art-student special here is The Annunciation, a gorgeous piece of work which makes a cameo in every Humanities textbook since forever. What’s truly amazing is, Fra Angelico painted this masterpiece in a private corner: at the top of the stairs leading to the men’s dormitories. To see the grandeur he saved for more visible spaces, don’t miss the San Marco Altarpiece.
Address: Piazza San Marco 3, Florence. Website
4. Room of the Maps, Palazzo Vecchio. In the sixteenth century, the world as the Europeans knew it was beginning to expand in startling new ways. Geography was truly power, especially in a city of wealthy merchants like Florence.
The Room of the Maps is a fascinating look at the Americas, India, and Italy from the eyes of a Dominican friar, Ignazio Danti, who was trained in mathematics and astronomy before being hired as Cosimo I de’Medici’s court mathematician. Together with Stefano Buonsignori, who took over after Danti’s death, they created 53 panels which depict the world as it was known then.
Address: Piazza della Signoria, Florence. Website
5. Basilica of Santa Croce. There are quite a few treasures to be found in Santa Croce, including the Pazzi Chapel, which features two domes well worth seeing, even if you saw Brunelleschi’s dome already and aren’t really a dome fanatic.
The first, in the entry, boasts a fresco painting of the Florence sky on July 4th, 1442. It was a very nice day. After this novel bit of meteorological record-keeping, a beautiful cupola decorated with glazed terracottas sets a colorful tone before you enter the gorgeously symmetric chapel itself, domed and decorated with terracotta images of the Apostles.
Also at Santa Croce, are the soaring chapels painted by Giotto, an early 14th century artist whose frescos were studied by later masters like Michelangelo.
The vaulted ceilings of the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels date back as far as 1318, give art lovers a rare look at the earliest expressions of the Renaissance.
Address: Piazza Santa Croce 16, Florence, Italy. Website
Of course, we’re only scratching the surface of the amazing art on display throughout Florence. For more details on these and some other historically significant works of art in Florence, this fantastic article at Select Study Abroad goes in-depth with context on each artwork, giving you excellent reasons why you should put them on your tour of Florence art museums.
Ready to plan your visit to Florence and Italy? Get started by looking at our amazing itineraries, including the 9-day Enchanting Italy tour, an escorted package which takes you from Venice to Florence to Rome. This tour includes two nights in Florence, complete with visits to Duomo, Michelangelo’s David, and an optional guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery. It’s the perfect introduction to the wonders of Florence!