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The Oltrano is a picturesque neighborhood, traditionally populated by craftsmen, restorers and antique dealers, strung along the south side of the Arno. Originally the domain of those unable to offer themselves a palazzo on the north side of the river, the now trendy Oltrano first saw its fortune change with the construction of the Palazzo Pitti in the mid-15th century and since has gone from strength to strength. These days its windy, cobbled streets are both the site of the last vestiges of Florentine culture and the meeting place for Florence’s globalized youth, a dichotomy also reflected in its much-frequented restaurants.
Piazza del Carmine
Start your tour of the Oltrarno on Piazza del Carmine, the heart of the San Frediano district and considered by many Florentines to be the only remaining location of the city’s traditional sense of community. These days, the square is a rather bland car park which the fashionable caffè-bars (the Dolce Vita being one of the stars of the young nightlife scene) and the bleak exterior of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine only manage to exacerbate. Don’t let this put you off; this church accommodates one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles in the Cappella Brancacci.
Cappella Brancacci (Brancacci Chapel)
World-famous for its Renaissance fresco cycle depicting scenes from the Old Testament (from the Original Sin to the Life of St Peter) and a must-see for any serious art fan, the Cappella Brancacci was happily preserved from the 1771 fire that destroyed almost all the remainder of the 13th-century church (later reconstructed in its present Neo-Gothic style). The frescoes were worked on by Masolino and his then-pupil Masaccio, then completed by Filippino Lippi after the death of the latter from the plague. But it is the frescoes by Masaccio that are the most celebrated, especially those of the Expulsion from Paradise (first panel left) and the episodes of The Tribute Money. The work of Masolino can be seen in the lower tier to the right of the altar, while Filippino Lippi is responsible for most of the lower zone of the right wall.
The narrow Via S. Monica leads onto Via Sant’Agostino, where you’ll find yourself in a much pleasanter tree-lined community square, Piazza Santo Spirito. Buzzing with gelato-eaters year-round, it is especially engaging during Firenze Estate (the city’s summer festival), when it sees live performances on an almost nightly basis. Its showpiece, apart from the bustling cafès and restaurants, is the Brunelleschi-designed church of Santo Spirito with its uncompleted, slightly dilapidated, yet somehow charming, façade.
Chiesa di Santo Spirito
The Augustinian church of Santo Spirito, which was the last church designed by Brunelleschi, is also said to be the one that fits most closely with his well-proportioned plans. Constructed in the shape of a Latin cross with three spacious naves and arches supported by 35 pietra serena Corinthian columns, the interior houses some great 15th-century works, including Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Saints and Botticini’s St Monica and the Augustinian Nuns. On the left of the church, the Cenacolo di Santo Spirito (055-287043, Tues-Sun, 9 am-2 pm, i2.10) occupies two cloisters. The refectory is also here, with its display of 14th-century frescoes (including the remainder of a Last Supper by Andrea Orcagna) and Romanesque sculptures.
Also of interest, back towards the Ponte Vecchio along Via Santo Spirito (home to many of Florence’s popular restaurants) just before the palazzo-lined Via Maggio, at no. 26, is a beautiful graffiti-decorated façade that adorns the house of Bianca Capello, the mistress of Ferdinando I. From here, Strada dei Pitti journeys through the Giardino di Boboli for the best approach to the Piazza and museum-packed palace of the same name, the Pitti. But first, before the Pitti, there is the oft-ignored Piazza San Felice, home to an interesting 11th-century church with a crucifix linked to Giotto and a triptych from Botticelli’s workshop. From here, Via dei Guicciardini leads directly to Palazzo Pitti.
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