At a time when all of Florence is worrying about what has happened 24 hours before, Mona Niccolosa takes us to where the city’s religious life began a thousand years before. Like many, she believes that it was the earliest Roman Christians who built this simple church of San Salvatore. It is now completely absorbed within the huge complex of the archbishop’s palace. It is miniscule compared to the Cathedral which towers only 100 metres away. Yet for Mona Niccolosa it is no less important than either.

Just as many renaissance humanists found models for literature, medicine, philosophy, and art in the classical period of ancient Rome, so many ordinary Florentines thought that the early church provided the best example for Christian faith, worship, and community. They were proud of how they and their ancestors had put their faith into action for centuries by building hospitals for the sick and travellers, opening orphanages and sheltering widows, and creating confraternities to organize mutual help in times of sickness and death. They believed that God and the Virgin Mary had a special love for Florence, and that Florentines had a special responsibility to demonstrate God’s mercy on earth. We can call this mix of religion, social purpose, and local pride a civic religion, because it emphasizes the eternal significance of local sacred history and miracles. Florentines believed that they were on a mission from God to redeem the world.

Savonarola made sharp contrasts between the luxury-loving priests, bishops, and other clergy of his own time, and the simple honest faith of the early Christians. Many Florentines flocked to the sermons where he told them about their mission from God to be a model for the rest of the world. That was a common goal that united ordinary lay people like Mona Niccolosa and higher clergy like her sister the Abbess, and that should leave political plots and vendettas far behind.

Nicholas Terpstra


To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘A civic religion’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further Reading

Robert Gaston, “Sacred Place and Liturgical Space: Florence’s Renaissance Churches” in R.J. Crum & J.T. Paoletti, Renaissance Florence: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006: 331-352.

Marica Tacconi, Cathedral and Civic Ritual in Late Medieval and Renaissance Florence: the Service Books of Santa Maria del Fiore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence. New York: Academic Press, 1980.

Donald Weinstein, Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.