The more important churches get a page to themselves
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The Umiliati order from Lombardi had grown from a grouping of citizens dedicated to poverty and austerity in response to the perceived corruption and iniquities of the church in the late 12th Century. The order, and several similar, had been condemned as heretical by Pope Lucius III in 1184. But in 1201 Pope Innocent III granted them a rule. The order, by then established as successful entrepreneurs in the wool trade, were invited to Florence by the bishop in 1239. Twelve years later they were given the church of Santa Lucia al Prato and permission to build a larger church and monastery. By 1260 they had been completed, the original church having a large nave with polychrome trusses, lit by tall arched windows. This order developed the Florentine wool industry, so important to the city's future wealth. The site was ideal, having a river and canals for driving water-wheels and mills, the order also built a system of canals and ponds. They rented thirty houses to the families of wool workers as well, and built a sturdier bridge nearby which spanned the Arno between the parishes of Ognissanti and San Frediano opposite, another centre of the trade. But it wasn't until the early 14th Century that the order began to commission much art, from Giotto, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio.
Franciscans from San Salvatore al Monte replaced the Umiliati in 1561, the order having waned in size and influence - only six monks remaining here that year. (Around this time Carlo Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, was asked to reform the failing order. Disgruntled monks plotted against Borromeo and one of them, Girolamo Donati, made a botched attempt to assassinate him whilst he prayed, managing to inflict nothing more than a flesh wound. The order was consequently suppressed by Pope Pious V in 1571.) The Franciscans brought with them the habit worn by St Francis when he received the stigmata on Mount Verna in 1224. This relic now to be found in a chapel to the left of the high altar. The complex was found to be in a very poor state by the Franciscans and extensive renovations took place. It's probably around this time that Ghirlandaio's frescoes in the Vespucci chapel were painted over. The new church was consecrated on August 1st 1582. The two cloisters were built at this time too.
Work continued into the early 17th Century, with considerable work on the interior in 1627 by Bartolomeo Pettirossi and completion in 1637 with addition of a fine baroque façade by Matteo Nigreti which was rebuilt in 1827 to the original design. The polychrome terracotta over the door, from the older façade, is Coronation of the Virgin with Saints and Angels by Giovanni della Robbia or Benedetto Buglioni. Suppressed in 1810 and 1866. The convent became a Carabinieri barracks in 1923. In 1885 some of the complex was returned to the friars.
Seems small inside, with no aisles, and compressed almost for being very densely decorated. Vertigo-inducing trompe l'oeil architectural ceiling painting by Giuseppe Benucci, with scenes showing The Glory of St Francis by Giuseppe Romei (see photo right) dating from 1770. Romei collaborated on similarly impressive work in Santa Maria del Carmine just over the Arno.
Four shallow chapels each side. The second altar on the right, the Vespucci chapel, (see right) contains Ghirlandaio's very early Madonna della Misericordia of around 1470, with a Pieta below which looks very much like the work of many hands, and a pair of barely-there flanking figures, although one has been identified as the Archangel Raphael. These frescoes were rediscovered in 1898 behind another painting. The search for these murals was brought about by Vasari's assertion that they contained a portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, the navigator from whose name America is derived, but these claims have been thrown in doubt in recent decades by referring to tax returns and the like, showing that Amerigo would've been 14 when the fresco was painted. Also supposedly depicted here is Simonetta Vespucci, the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici and, it is said, Botticelli's model for his famous Venus.
Between third and forth altars on the right is Botticelli's Saint Augustine, his only fresco remaining in Florence. (Recently reinstalled after two years in restoration) It makes a distinct pair with Ghirlandaio's equally-Flemish-inspired Saint Jerome opposite. This Flemish influence is said to have derived from a Saint Jerome in his Study by Jan van Eyck then in the collection of Lorenzo de Medici. Both works here are frescoes, both from 1480, and were detached from the old tramezzo (rood screen), on which they were placed either side of the doorway, demolished by Vasari in 1564. Many such screens were removed at this time, this act being prompted by the Council of Trent's decree that even the laity should have a clear view of the altar and be able to clearly hear the sermon. Saint Augustine is reacting to a vision of the death of Saint Jerome, said to have taken place in the hour before sunrise, the time shown on the clock behind him. Above Saint Augustine in the fresco the text in an open book includes the mysterious lines Where is Fra' Martino? He fled. And where did he go? He is outside Porta al Prato.
Steps up take you into a transept seemingly as long as the church, the right wing longer than the left with an extra chapel to the west at the end. Botticelli is buried in this otherwise uninteresting right wing, very near the last resting place of Simonetta Vespucci, his model for Venus in The Birth of Venus and, as his request to be buried near her suggests, possibly someone who meant much more to him. He had been buried in the Ognissanti's churchyard in 1510 but his body was later moved here. The sanctuary has a large domed choir behind the ornate early 17th century high altar by Francesco Gargiolli, (see photo far right). The crucifix now to be found in the left transept, long thought to be by the studio of, or a follower of, Giotto is, following a 2010 clean, now thought to be by the man himself. (See photo right.) When it was thought to be merely giottesca it was kept in the sacristy (see black and white photo above right).
Two of the three works by Giotto painted for Ognissanti after he returned from painting the Arena Chapel in Padua c.1306. These being the famous and enormous Madonna and Child with Angels (see right) now in the Uffizi (since 1919), which was painted for the high altar of the original church around 1310. Also the wide and gable-topped Dormition of the Virgin now in the Gemäldagalerie in Berlin. He also frescoed a chapel here.
Giovanni da Milano's Ognissanti Polyptych painted for the high altar here around 1360 was removed to a side chapel and then dismembered in the late 17th/early 18th Century. The surviving panels are in the Uffizi.
Cloisters and Cenacolo
The first cloister was built in the 13th Century, like the church. The second, to the north, was built probably not much later. Both were modernised in 1480 when the third cloister was built to the west. Frescoed early in 17th Century by Jacopo Ligozzi, Giovanni da San Giovanni, and others, with scenes from the Life of St Francis. The convent became a home for old and sick friars after the Napoleonic suppression. In 1882 the the refectory was being used as a storeroom.
The refectory (cenacolo) is off of the first cloister, It was converted to a museum in 1893 and houses a superb early fresco of The Last supper by Ghirlandaio - well preserved apart from Christ's head, repainted by Carlo Marratta in the 17th Century (see photo right). There are strong arguments that this Last Supper was very influential on Leonardo's in Milan, not least because it is the first not to feature a Crucifixion, or similar, above and that St Peter clutching a knife in Leonardo's version is a straight steal from this one. The sinopia (underdrawing) for the fresco is displayed here too, discovered when the top layer was removed for repair after the 1966 flood. The dove and the peacock are symbolic of the Holy Ghost and the Resurrection, respectively; and did you know that lettuces are symbolic of penitence, and apricots of sin? Me neither.
Botticelli had been buried in the churchyard in 1510 but is body was later moved into the church where a humble plaque in a chapel off the right transept marks his last resting place.
All that remains of the 13th Century church.
The church in fiction
The church appears in Alana White's The Sign of the Weeping Virgin as a place where major plot events and meetings take place. Botticelli, his painting of Saint Augustine, and an explanation for its mysterious message also feature.
7.00-12.30 & 4.00-7.30
Sundays and holidays 8.45-1.00 & 5.00-7.30
The Cenacolo is open Monday, Tuesday and Saturday 9.00 – 12.00
Oltrarno :: Fiesole