A major archaeological dig beneath the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore from 1965 to 1973 brought to light the remains of the old basilica of Santa Reparata, the most tangible evidence of early Christianity in Florence after the disappointing results from a dig in Santa Felicita and the difficulty in finding documentary references to the city's first cathedral of San Lorenzo.
Now just over two and a half metres separate us from the ancient early Christian basilica of Florence, which was restored on more than one occasion and also used as a meeting hall by the Parliament of the Republic before the construction of Palazzo Vecchio.
Santa Reparata was one of the major early Christian complexes in the region of Tuscia, its importance accentuated by its position directly in front of the baptistry – in fact fully eight metres closer to it than the present cathedral.
Open, well lit and similar to S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, with elegant arcades and marble columns: this is what the very first version of Santa Reparata must have looked like.
The basilica had three aisles with colonnades separating the central nave from the side aisles, and an enclosure separating the apsidal choir from the area of the church open to public worship, with an extension down the nave for serving communion. The basilica's foundation is said to be the result of a vow, in thanks for the Christian victory over Radagaisus, King of the Goths, in around 405 AD.
The church was rebuilt in Carolingian times after being severely damaged in the wars between the Goths and Byzantium.
In this phase Santa Reparata maintained its original plan, but with the addition of two side chapels at its east end, a small crypt and a new floor. We may surmise that it now resembled the coeval abbey church of Pomposa near Ferrara.
Some time between 1050 and 1106 a raised choir was built above a new crypt where the body of St. Zenobius, which was translated from the old cathedral of San Lorenzo in the 9th century, was to rest until the 1440s, at which time it was moved into the new cathedral. Subsequent maintenance kept Santa Reparata going until 1379, when a decision was reached to demolish the basilica completely in order to make way for the new cathedral.
Beneath our present cathedral it is no exaggeration to state that we have the remains of fully four ancient churches: the original basilica and three rebuilds. Stairs situated between the first and second pilaster on the south side of the nave in the present Duomo lead down to the archaeological remains of the city's earlier cathedral. The vast area, opened to the public in 1974, contains extensive remains of the walls and floors of houses dating back to the Roman city of Florentia. The floor bears the names of the fourteen donors of Latin origin who funded the basilica's construction.
The floor 's most striking feature is an extremely fine polychrome mosaic with geometrical decorations, including the cross motif, reminiscent of the mosaic flooring in the cathedral of Aquileia. Particularly worthy of note is a splendid peacock symbolising immortality, one of the few figurative elements to have survived.
A mid-14th century Florentine fresco which adorned the semicircular wall of the right-hand apse, the work of a follower of Giotto, suggests that even though Santa Reparata's fate had been sealed by then and it was now encased in the shell of the new cathedral, the people of Florence still felt a strong attachment to their old basilica.
Santa Reparata hosts numerous gravestones, including the very fine tomb of Lando di Giano, a chaplain of Santa Reparata who died in 1353, the tomb of Niccolò Squarcialupi who died in 1313, the tomb of Giovanni Di Alamanno de' Medici who died in 1352, and possibly – though this has yet to be confirmed –the tombs of two popes, Stephen IX and maybe also Nicholas II, who was bishop of Florence in 1058. While archaeologists also discovered the tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi, no trace has been found of the graves of Giotto, Arnolfo di Cambio or Andrea Pisano even though tradition has it that they too were buried here.