Tuscany is home to some unique sacred art museums, each home to incredibly important collections. Here are a few of our top picks for learning about the region’s centuries-long religious history.
The Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence, reopened to the public in 2015 after an extensive restoration. With its 750-plus works, narrating 720 years of history, the museum boasts the greatest concentration of Florentine monumental sculpture, home to medieval and Renaissance statues and reliefs in marble, bronze and silver by leading artists of the Renaissance.
In most cases, these masterpieces were created for the exteriors and interiors of the religious buildings that can still be found in front of the museum today: the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s Bell Tower, collectively known as the “Grande Museo del Duomo”. The Opera del Duomo Museum contextualizes these works but placing them in settings that recall their original locations.
Another internationally renowned cathedral museum can be found in Siena, whose exhibition space is located inside what was designed to be the right-hand nave of the “new cathedral,” though the project was never finished. In the rooms on the ground floor there’s an important collection of 14th-century Sienese statues that were originally on the cathedral’s facade. You can also the extraordinary marble statues depicting the Sibyls, Prophets and Philosophers, carved by Nicola Pisano during his time as master mason (1285-1297). The room also contains a bas-relief depicting the Madonna Enthroned with Child and Cardinal Casini by Jacopo della Quercia (1437-38), and the famous Tondo by Donatello with the Madonna and Child, known as ‘del Perdono’ (1458).
At the back of the room, there’s the majestic window by Duccio di Buoninsegna, which was made for the apse of Siena’s Cathedral. The first floor houses the magnificent altarpiece with the Maestà, also by Duccio, the crowning jewel of the entire collection.
We move to Lucca, where the cathedral’s sacristy is a must see, home to the funerary monument to Ilaria del Carretto, which her husband Paolo Guinigi commissioned from Jacopo della Quercia in 1405, crafting an absolute masterpieces of Italian 15th-century sculpture. The sacristy also houses several paintings including the Madonna and Child and Saints Peter, Clement, Sebastian and Paul by Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Another religious art collection can be found in Pisa’s Opera del Duomo Museum, boasting an impressive 25 rooms. The works on display were once located in and on the buildings throughout piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa’s cathedral square, and span from the 12th to 19th century.
One room houses 27 statues and 9 busts in marble from the outside of the baptistery, while room 7 is entirely dedicated to Giovanni Pisano: 7 marble sculptures made between 1306 and 1312, all from the outside of the cathedral, including the Madonna del colloquio. Room 11 contains the cathedral’s “treasure”: 14 of the oldest and most religious pieces in the history of the Republic of Pisa, including a crucifix and an ivory Madonna by Giovanni Pisano and the remains of the “Cintola del Duomo,” a belt in enamelled silver and gems on red damask, which was wrapped around the outside of the cathedral during solemn occasions.
Our itinerary ends back in Florence, at Santa Croce. The basilica complex, which is the largest Franciscan church in the world, winds through the two 15th-century cloisters before reaching the Pazzi Chapel, decorated with Andrea della Robbia’s glazed terracottas. The real museum lies in the refectory, home to frescoes, paintings and sculptures from the 14th to the 18th century, including the large Crucifix by Cimabue and frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi, Andrea Orcagna and Domenico Veneziano. The highlight in terms of sculpture is the gilded bronze statue of Saint Louis of Toulouse by Donatello.