Discovering Santa Reparata

Exploring a major archaeological treasure

Noelia de la Cruz
November 19, 2009

For some, the stairs down to the crypt extended the visit to Florence's cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore. For others, it led to information about other sites in the city. The low ceiling and musky smell was enough to turn others away. But for Brett Hurley, a tourist, the crypt was the beginning of a learning process.


‘My father had mentioned it,' Hurley said. ‘It's amazing...the general archaeology, the general findings, the mosaics. I didn't expect everything to be mostly intact.'


Hurley is referring to the remains of the cathedral of Santa Reparata. The church was built in Florence between the fourth and fifth centuries, soon after Christianity was accepted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The cathedral underwent several renovations before its destruction in the thirteenth century, when Florence, a rapidly growing city, desired a cathedral that compared to the large and beautiful ones of its neighbors, Siena and Pisa. As a result, Santa Reparata became the foundations of the new cathedral that today still attracts thousands of visitors each year.


For centuries the remnants of the old Santa Reparata basilica were lost. But in 1965, excavations under the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore led to one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Florentine history.

The archaeologists found traces of ancient Florence's second Christian church, which had been built outside the city walls. The Roman architecture, mosaic floors, decorations and artifacts provided a wealth of information, particularly about ancient Roman architecture in Florence.


The cathedral was small and basic. It originally had three naves, three apses (one semicircular in the center and two on the side), and 14 pairs of columns. Santa Reparata, in its nearly 1,000 years, had endured wars and changes of rulers, all of  which resulted in expansion and renovation that changed its appearance over time.


The layers of the old church, dating from Roman Empire through the Renaissance can be identified in the various co-exisiting levels, something few other places in present-day Florence offer scholars and visitors. The mosaic floors are from the fourth century art, while marble intarsia pavements (a mix of marble, brick and stone) indicate features added much later. The artifacts, which range from Constantine coins to medieval buckles, also provide examples of the length of Santa Reparata's existence and its many transformations.


The excavations yielded several tombstones, including those of bishops, members of noble families and Filippo Brunelleschi, the renowned Renaissance architect who designed the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. ‘The Body of a Man of Great Genius,' is inscribed on his tomb. It is placed next to the Santa Reparata excavation site, near the souvenir shop, close to where his tomb was originally found. (Admission to see his tomb is free.)


Who was Santa Reparata? The details of her life and legend, are, as is the case with many saints, a little fuzzy. Before Christianity became an accepted religion in the Roman Empire, most emperors were tolerant of Christians as long as they honored either the emperors themselves or pagan gods. It is believed that Santa Reparata, a young girl, refused to do so and was persecuted, abused and killed for her disobedience. Reparata became a saint, virgin and martyr for Christians. The cathedral was dedicated to her as a token of appreciation for her faith but mainly for a victory won over invading tribes on her feast day.


The labor of the eight-year excavation is apparent, and the site today is beautifully restored. Some of the components of the exhibition, such as the columns and seats by the altar, were added to create a more accurate depiction of what the inside of the basilica looked like. Several pathways and small bridges guide visitors around the site to the mosaics, Roman infrastructure, artifacts and altar. Small-scale architectural models illustrate the old cathedral's original set-up. The dim lights and different smell give the space a bit of an eerie feeling. But as you walk around you will begin to feel, for a few minutes, as if you've been transported back through time.


A few hints of this past appear as you walk around Florence. The downward slope of via Elisabetta near the Piazza della Signoria indicates the presence of a Roman theater below, while gold rings on some streets indicate where Roman bell towers used to stand.


But the extensive collection and range of material in Santa Reparata is incomparable. Because of the Duomo's intricate exterior design, impressive interior design and view from the top, many forget to explore what lies beneath. Yet what's there provides a window into a history that paved the way to the Florence we have today. Santa Reparata becomes another way for anyone, from archaeologists to students and visitors, to use the past to understand what they see in Florence in the present.


Santa Reparata is open Monday to Saturday 9:30 to noon and 1:30 to 5.

Admission: 3 euro.



For a more detailed description of the excavations, read Guido Morozzi's personal account and findings in Santa Reparata: The Ancient Cathedral of Florence.



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