Whatever your faith, the churches of Tuscany will awe you. Their architectural splendor, their interior majesty, and their works of art—from Piero Della Francesca’s serene frescoes to Della Robbia’s often-humorous bas-reliefs—are bound to stay with you for life.
The most imposing structures are, of course, in the cities—Florence, Pisa, Siena. But perhaps the most spiritual, the most emotionally touching, are the ones you’ll find in the Tuscan countryside. The tranquil settings of these churches are often as captivating as the structures themselves. And their architecture, which covers more than a thousand years, ranges from the simplicity of chapels built by Charlemagne to the raucous Baroque interiors where saints fly and angels tumble. While the major works of architecture are clearly impressive, the more humble, unadorned ones, with their (to quote Oliver Goldsmith) “unaffected grace,” seem to be places where “fools who came to scoff, remain to pray.”
An absolute must. This magnificent, much-photographed cathedral complex includes a majestic dome, a freestanding graceful bell tower and a spectacularly proportioned octagonal baptistery with bronze doors. It’s all best looked at from one of the various cafes around the piazza. I once gazed at it from a window half the night, while it snowed. Thank you, life.
This is a twofer. Not only does a visit here let you see the enormous cathedral, made from slabs of sensuously pale marble set in an open green field—but right next to it is the world’s favorite provocatively askew bell tower. Where would we all be if Galileo hadn’t had it to perform his study of falling bodies?
A marvel of alternating layers of pale and dark green marble, this cathedral has a façade—covered with opulent carvings and figures—that is worth its own half-hour sit and stare. Inside are the carved wooden stalls, the pulpit, and the frescoes, but the most breathtaking of all are the 56 marble floor panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament.
Abbazia di Sant’Antimo
In absolute contrast to the elaborate three cathedrals above, this serene Romanesque church of travertine and alabaster—set below hills of olive trees and grapevines near Montalcino—is amazing to behold. The interior is ascetic, calming, and spiritual. The acoustics are sublime for the Gregorian chants intoned at mass and prayers held throughout the day.
Abbazia di Monte Oliveto
Guarded by vast sandstone cliffs and groves of dark cypresses, this monumental monastic complex, built all of brick, is one of the world’s most serene places.. The grounds are a sanctuary, the magnificent courtyard has 36 superb frescoes, and the choir stalls are masterpieces of inlaid wood. Amen.