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 of the church, also known as the crypt, is to be admired as it is made up of a beautiful polychrome mosaic with geometric decorations, including the motif of the cross, not unlike the mosaic floors of the Aquileia Cathedral. Note a beautiful peacock symbol of immortality, one of the few remaining figurative elements.
A Florentine fresco from the mid-fourteenth century that decorated the semicircular wall of the right apse, the work of a Giottesque painter of the mid-fourteenth century, suggests that Santa Reparata, although condemned to death and already inserted in the new Cathedral, still enjoyed the attachment of the Florentines.
There are numerous tombstones. Among these, the beautiful one of Lando di Giano, chaplain of Santa Reparata, who died in 1353, that of Niccolò Squarcialupi of 1313, that of Giovanni Di Alamanno de'Medici, who died in 1352, and perhaps, but still not certain, also the sepulchres of two Popes: Stephen IX and perhaps Niccolò II, former Bishop of Florence in 1058. During the excavation campaign, the tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi was also found, while there are no traces of those of Giotto, Arnolfo di Cambio, Andrea According to tradition, Pisano, too, are buried here.
Access is from the Cathedral “Porta Campanile” (south side, beside the Bell Tower entrance). Visitors arrive at Santa Reparata by going down a short staircase in the second bay of the right aisle of the Cathedral (no lifts).