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Borgo Ognissanti

The Humiliati order from Lombardi had grown from groups of citizens in prospering urban centres, dedicated to poverty and humility 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 recognised all three orders of Humiliati - men, women and priests. They were by then established as successful entrepreneurs in the wool trade and were invited to Florence by the bishop, Ardingo Trotti, in 1239. They were initially granted the church and monastery of San Donato in Polverosa, outside Florence. Eleven years later, on the 6th of February 1250, they were given Santa Lucia al Prato, a church and hospital considerably closer to the river and city centre, and permission to build a larger church and monastery. Only months later they had bought considerable riverfront property to the east of Santa Lucia and recorded the dedication of a planned church to All Saints and the Virgin Mary. By 1256 this church was ready to be occupied, the original church having a large nave with polychrome trusses, lit by tall arched windows and an oculus, still visible in the Buonsignori map of 1584, see right. 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 - a number of the latter were probably already on the land when they bought it. They rented out 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, during a time when the order suffered papal criticism and charges of licentious behaviour linked to its lack of segregation of men and women in its monasteries. The practice of allowing lay patronage of chapels and commissioning of art then came to dominate the church additions in the later trecento, just as the textile production industry also went into a decline.
Observant Franciscans from San Salvatore al Monte replaced the Humiliati here in 1561, the latter order having waned in size and influence - only six monks remaining here that year. The order was moved to the smaller church of Santa Caterina.  The name of the church was changed at this time to San Salvatore in Ognissanti to refer to the Franciscan's previous church.
Around this time Carlo Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, was asked to reform the failing Humiliati order. Unhappy with his proposed reforms four disgruntled monks plotted against Borromeo and one of them, Girolamo Donati, made a botched attempt to assassinate him whilst he prayed, on October 26 1569, managing to inflict nothing more than a flesh wound with his harquebus. The male branch of the order was consequently suppressed by Pope Pious V in 1571, the year after the conspirators were executed.
The Franciscans brought with them from San Salvatore al Monte the tunic worn by Saint Francis when he received the stigmata on Mount Verna in 1224. (This relic was returned to the sanctuary at La Verna when the Franciscans left Ognissanti on November 1st 2000.) The complex was found to be in a very poor state by the Franciscans and extensive renovations took place, largely paid for by the Medici. It's probably around this time that Ghirlandaio's frescoes in the Vespucci chapel were painted over. By 1580 there were eighty Franciscans here and 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, built before 1756, which was rebuilt in 1827 to the original design. The glazed terracotta lunette over the door, from the older façade, is Coronation of the Virgin, with Saints and Angels of c.1510-20, attributed to Benedetto Buglioni, who headed up a rival studio to the della Robbia and probably trained with them. Suppressed in 1810 and 1866. The convent became a Carabinieri barracks in 1923 but in 1885 some of the complex was returned to the Franciscan friars. They left on November 1st 2000 and the complex passed to a new Benedictine order. This order were themselves replaced by 2007 by a new group of observant Franciscans, and these friars remain.


The church seems small inside, with no aisles, and compressed almost, for being very densely decorated. The nave is probably the same size as that of the original church, which had a pitched timber roof, some polychromed remnants of which remain behind the current vertigo-inducing trompe l'oeil architectural frescoes by Giuseppe Benucci, with scenes showing The Glory of Saint Francis by Giuseppe Romei (see photo right) dating from 1770. Romei collaborated on a similarly impressive ceiling in Santa Maria del Carmine just over the Arno.
There are four altars down each side of the nave, the second on the right being the third (and last) of the Vespucci chapels in this church (see right). It contains Domenico Ghirlandaio's very early Madonna della Misericordia in its lunette, with a Lamentation below. The latter looks very much like the work of many hands, and a pair of barely-there flanking saints, although the elft-hand one has been identified as the Archangel Raphael. Bands of simulated marble would have originally suggested a framed altarpiece and there are fragments of predella-like narrative panels below the saints. These frescoes, of c.1475, were rediscovered under whitewash in 1898 by Roberto Razzòli.  The search for the murals was encouraged by Vasari's assertion that the Misericordia contains a portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, the navigator from whose name America is derived, but these claims have been thrown into 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 arguably depicted here is Simonetta Vespucci, the wife of Marco Vespucci, the supposed mistress of Giuliano de' Medici and, it is said, Botticelli's model for his famous Venus.
Opposite this chapel is the Rustici chapel, decorated by Domenico's son Ridolfo Ghirlandaio c.1530. The Coronation of the Virgin is depicted in the lunette, with The Trinity below. The latter was also uncovered in 1898.


Between third and forth altars on the right is Botticelli's Saint Augustine, (see above right) his only fresco remaining in Florence,
recently reinstalled after two years in restoration. It makes a distinct pair with Ghirlandaio's Flemish-inspired Saint Jerome opposite (see above). 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, now possibly in Detroit. These Doctors of the Church are both frescoes, both from 1480, and were detached from the old tramezzo (rood screen), on which they were placed either side of the doorway, which was pulled down in the mid-1560s. The exact location and configuration of the tramezzo is unknown. The removal of these screens is traditionally said to have been prompted by the Counter Reformation and 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, but recent research has lead to the appreciation of more factors, many more aesthetic than liturgical, and a longer timescale. 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. When the panels were removed from the tramezzo the inscriptions on the painted porphyry-coloured panels above the pair were changed. Augustine's humourously reads 'Augustine has devoted himself so completely to sacred studies that he is still not aware that his location has changed.'
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, in another Vespucci family chapel. She was 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 was buried in the Ognissanti's churchyard in 1510 but his body was later moved here. The floor tomb of Simone di Pietro Vespucci here, from 1376, is the first of the family's works for the church. The shield-shaped stemma shows wasps (vespe) from which the family name derives.
At the end of the right transept is a door to the recently-restored burial chapel of Queen Caroline Bonaparte (see left).
The cappella maggiore, begun in 1574, has a large domed choir behind the ornate early 17th century high altar by Francesco Gargiolli, (see photo right).
The Crucifix now to be found in the left transept Gucci Chapel was widely thought to be by the studio of, or a follower of, Giotto (see photo below right). But following a 5-year restoration project, and its return here in 2010, it is now attributed here to the man himself. When it was thought to be merely giottesca it was kept in the sacristy (see black and white photo below right), but in the 18th century it was in the Gucci Chapel. This chapel is a rare survival from before the Franciscan rebuilding programme, and is a small copy of the Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, in both its position and construction. Both chapels are said to have been inspired by the Calvary Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, which may explain the Gucci Chapel's survival of the Franciscan rebuilding.
The sacristy, off of the left transept to the left of the Gucci Chapel, has a fresco of The Crucifixion with Saints Bernard and Benedict by Taddeo Gaddi from c.1340/60 (see photo below). Lacking a charismatic fonder the Humiliati had adopted Saint Bernard in the decades before the commissioning of this fresco. Also in here is a fresco fragment found after 1966 in the cappella maggiore. It shows the bottom of a Resurrection and the top of an Ascension attributed to Pietro Nelli from c.1390-95. The subjects strongly suggest a Passion cycle around the high altar.

There's a carved wooden Crucifix by the famed German sculptor Veit Stoss in one of the transept chapels.  It was commissioned around 1500 by someone called Santi délia Fonte for the church of San Salvatore al Monte, and was transferred here 1561. Stoss's limewood statue of San Rocco in Santissima Annunziata was described by Vasari as ‘a miracle in wood’.
The mid-13th-century chapel in the campanile is accessed through a door in the right transept. Following the 1966 flood some very damaged fresco fragments were found dating to c.1310 and depicting scenes from The Life of Saint Nicholas.

Lost art
Giotto painted several works for Ognissanti after he returned from painting the Arena Chapel in Padua c.1306 and before his work at Santa Croce. Ghiberti mentions a chapel, a crucifix and four panels, but one of these may have been the Bernardo Daddi triptych mentioned below. The crucifix is still here, but two of the panels are now elsewhere.
The famous and enormous Ognissanti Madonna of c.1310 (see right) is now in the Uffizi (since 1919) where it's part of the spectacular Cimabue/Duccio/Giotto trio of gabled panels on display in Room 2. As the last-painted of the trio it was probably seen as old-fashioned when it was created, in conception if not execution. It was restored in 1992. The two kneeling angels wear the robes of the Humiliati and Saints Paul (in red) and Benedict (in white) who are, respectively, a patron saint of the order and the basis of the order's monasticism respectively. The other saints, not least because they're hidden behind others' hales, are harder to identify with certainty. It is said to have been originally sited on the high altar, or maybe on the right side of the tramezzo (rood screen). But to complicate debate recent research into the function of tremezzi  has resulted in suggestions that it may have been free-standing on top, facing the nave. Despite being undocumented and unsigned this is the only panel universally accepted as by Giotto himself, unlike the other panel, the wide and gable-topped altar frontal depicting the Dormition of the Virgin now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, mentioned by both Ghiberti and Vasari and probably also sited on the tramezzo. But by the time of Vasari's second edition of his Lives in 1568 the panel had disappeared. A half-length Virgin and Child mentioned by Ghiberti has not been identified, but the chapel may have been the one to the left of the sanctuary here decorated with scenes from The Life of Saint Benedict, which were still visible in the 17th century.
An early triptych by Bernardo Daddi, now called The Ognissanti Triptych has been in the Uffizi since 1871. It features the Virgin between Saints Matthew and Nicholas of Bari, with two angels and The Redeemer in the small roundels. An inscription gives the date, 1328, and patron Fra Nicholaus dei Mazzinghi. The Saint Matthew  panel had to be restored in 1965 after it was attacked by a visitor. It's been suggested that this triptych was originally sited in the small campanile chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas mentioned above.
The Ognissanti Polyptych by Giovanni da Milano was painted for the high altar here from 1363-69, to replace Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna, when that work was only around 50 years old. It was itself removed by the Franciscans when they moved here in 1561. By the later 17th century it was in the Gucci Chapel and was soon after dismembered. The most likely patron was Luca Manzoli, a prominent figure in the Humiliati order who later became bishop of Fiesole and then a cardinal, was buried in this church, and later beatified. What's left of his tomb is high up at the end of the left wall of  then nave. The five surviving main-register panels (of the original seven) depicting full-length standing saints are in the Uffizi. They moved there in 1861 and recently benefited from a cleaning for an exhibition devoted to the artist. One of these panels is lost and the central panel was probably a Coronation of the Virgin, a fragment of which survives in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires. Five predella panels remain, also depicting saints, and these are in the Uffizi too. There's also a central pinnacle of the Trinity with Saints John the Evangelist and Paul formerly belonging to the Francis of Assisi Foundation now.
A fresco of The Annunciation from 1369 (see right) was originally located to the right of the door on the inner façade, in emulation of the famed miracle-working Annunciation at Santissima Annunziata, was still there in 1756. It was detached and moved to the sacristy, being visible in the old black and white photo (above), but is now in the refectory. Commissioned by Pietro Mazza, a barber, for the redemption of his son Guasparre, it has been attributed to various artists, most recently to a follower of Orcagna called the Maestro di Barberino.
A gilt bronze Reliquary Bust of San Rossore by Donatello from 1422-25 is now in the San Matteo museum in Pisa. It was made after the skull relic of the saint was brought to this church by the Humiliati in 1422, from the church bearing his name in Pisa - San Rossore is Pisan dialect for Saint Luxorius - now called Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. As he was credited with Florence's famous victory at the Battle of San Romano, the order's prestige greatly benefited. The altar dedicated to Saint Rossore here was on the left side of the inner façade, and the reliquary would have been placed here on feast days.
An altarpiece by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio is reported to have been in a chapel to the left of the choir in the 17th century. It is now lost. It depicted the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and a figure Vasari identified as Romuald, but which was more likely Benedict. It was commissioned by Leonardo Buonafé as executor of the will of Francesca de' Ripoi, after a similarly-populated altarpiece commissioned from Rosso Fiorentino was rejected, possible due to the scary-looking saints. This latter panel is now in the Uffizi.

All that remains of the 13th-century church, in place around 1258.

The church in fiction
Ognissanti features 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.

Opening times
7.00-12.30 & 4.00-7.30
Sundays and holidays 8.45-1.00 & 5.00-7.30

Julia I. Miller and Laurie Taylor-Mitchell From Giotto to Botticelli - the artistic patronage of the Humiliati in Florence
As this church was part of the major house of the Humiliati in Florence, and the site of all of their important art commissions, this book can't help but be about Ognissanti.


  The 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 Saint Francis. The convent became a home for old and sick friars after the Napoleonic suppression.
The refectory (cenacolo) is off the first cloister. It was rebuilt and decorated during the 1480 rebuilding work. In 1882 it was being used as a storeroom and was converted to a museum in 1893. It houses a superb early fresco of The Last Supper by Ghirlandaio - well preserved apart from Christ's head, repainted by Carlo Maratta in the 17th century (see photo right). Of the four Last Supper frescoes painted by Ghirlandaio in around a decade this is likely the second. It is more horizontally oriented than previous refectory end walls, and 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 the Saint Peter clutching a knife in Leonardo's version is a straight steal from this one. The spandrel and corbel lead the eye to the central point of the composition, the shadow of Christ's head behind Saint John. The sinopia (underdrawing) for the fresco is displayed here too, discovered when the top layer was removed for repair after the 1966 flood. The sinopia shows Christ looking downwards and towards Judas, not out at us as in the repainting. Serious flooding has resulted in the loss of the original decoration below the scene. The narrative scenes often painted above Last Suppers have here been replaced with garden views, although the presence of birds of prey attacking a duck, quail and pheasant may have a sacrificial meaning and so suggest the Garden of Gethsemane, the scene in the Passion that follows the Last Supper.
The dove and the peacock are symbolic of the Holy Ghost and the Resurrection, respectively, and, amongst the fruit and veg, cherries suggest the blood of Christ, the apricot stands in for the female sex organ, we're told, and hence sin, and the lettuce is symbolic of the bitterness of penitence, as it is one of the bitter herbs laid down to be eaten by Jews at Passover.

Cenacolo opening times Monday, Tuesday and Saturday 9.00 – 12.00



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