The original and smaller complex of the Vallombrosans, a Benedictine order created by
a Florentine nobleman called Giovanni Gualberto (see The Story of
below), was founded in 1092 on the site of an earlier Carolingian
oratory which they enlarged at this date. Parish church status was granted in 1178, with rebuilding and
expansion following after 1250 in a Gothic style by Niccolò Pisano. Damage
resulting from the flood of 1333 resulted in more work from 1340,
possibly under the direction of Neri di Fioravante. This is the gothic interior
we see today.
A controversial 'restoration to its original form' in the 1890s led to the
loss of mannerist elements, including a staircase in front of the high
altar by Buontalenti of 1574 which is
Santo Stefano al Ponte and said to have been inspired by shells
and bats' wings. This staircase was admired by Francesco Bocchi, writing
in 1591, especially for it's bringing the clergy closer to the
congregation. He also said that the church responds to the eye with
considerable grace despite being planned at a very uncouth time.
Mannerist façade by Bernardo Buontalenti of
c.1593. His need for a looming vertical effect leads to his not
covering the whole width with his façade, leaving the odd
diamond-pointed bit to the left, visible in the photo (see right).
A big dark church, even on bright days, and very wide with unusually
wide aisles. Many fine altarpieces, patches of fresco and fully
frescoed chapels - there are frescoes or fragments in the arches over most of
the chapels, mostly lost in gloom. The facade of the old, Romanesque, church can be seen
on the inner facade.
The chapels all have semi-hidden boxes with red buttons to push for lighting, and most
of them work. You need a 50 cent or €1 coin to illuminate the Sassetti Chapel.
Left hand side
The first chapel has minor 17th-century art,
including Saint Lucy (to whom this chapel is dedicated) about to get her eyes gouged out,
by Pompeo Caccini.
In the second chapel
there's a serene Saint Jerome, in an attractive
wilderness with his dozing lion, by Ghirlandaio's son Ridolfo. Like all
the works in this chapel it's the wrong size for it's stone frame.
The third chapel has a fine Annunciation
altarpiece of 1430 by Bicci di Lorenzo. In the left wall here a classical tomb with
a small Madonna and Child panel above attributed to Donatello,
restored in 2014. Some good 14th- century 'school of Gaddi' fresco fragments here too.
The fourth chapel, the Compagni family chapel, was
dedicated to Saint John Gualberto. Giovanni Gualberto with Saints (see detail
far below) is a rare, and large, fresco
by Neri di Bicci from 1455, detached from the cloister of the former monastery
of the church of
San Pancrazio after the flood in 1966 and restored and
It has recently been more fully restored. There's also a sweet, but ill-lit Annunciation
here by him. This chapel walls were once frescoed with scenes from the
life of the saint. The remaining scenes are high up on the outer arches, and
show The Murder of St John Gualberto’s Brother and St John
Gualberto Forgiving the Assassin. Some sources say they are by Neri
di Bicci and his
father Bicci di Lorenzo, but they have recently been attributed to
Bonaiuto di Giovanni, an associate of Bicci di Lorenzo.
fifth chapel is the Chapel of the Assumption, or the Spini Chapel. In
1452/3 Bicci di Lorenzo's son, Neri di Bicci, frescoed this chapel with
scenes from the life of Saint John Gualberto, and in 1455/6 he painted an
altarpiece of The Assumption, now in Ottowa. See
Lost art below.
At the end of left transept arm is a small
chapel with lots of marble decoration and fresco decoration by Domenico
Cresti Il Passignano from 1593.
On the left wall if the first chapel on the left is
a sweet tomb, of Benozzo Federighi,
Bishop of Fiesole, with a lovely flowery frame, by Luca della Robbia (see
came here from the deconsecrated church of
San Pancrazio in 1896. Above it
and opposite are tantalising fragments of frescoes of martyrdoms (a flaying
and a beheading?) by
Giovanni dal Ponte.
The next chapel (there's a rocker light switch
to the left, but the attendant will tell you off if you turn it on) is dark and baroque with
17th-century works, including a darkened San Pietro sulle Acqua of
1621 by Cristoforo Allori and Zanobi Rossi
In the baroque choir the high altarpiece
polyptych is a Trinity and Saints Anthony, Michael, Francis, and Julian by Marriotto di Nardo (1424) and you
can get behind it and look at the panels and construction. There is also
a rare surviving 15th-century carved Trinity on the altar below. Similar
images were considered blasphemous by Pope Urban VIII and he ordered
them destroyed in 1628. The apse ceiling disappears into the gloom,
unfortunately, making it hard to see the figures of David, Abraham,
Moses and Noah by Alesso Baldovinetti.
The next chapel, the Doni chapel, decorated
1608-40 by Ludovico Cigoli, is dark and fenced off, with a painted
Crucifix and grills each side. The Crucifix is the one from
San Miniato which is said to have nodded to Giovanni
Gualberti (see The Story of Giovanni Gualberto below ). It came here
in a procession in November 1671.
The last chapel on the right hand side is The Sassetti Chapel with Domenico
Ghirlandaio's very wonderful 1483-6 fresco series of the Life of St Francis.
The back wall contains the most interesting scenes. The Miracle of Saint
Francis in resuscitating a boy who had fallen from Palazzo Spini was a
late replacement for the originally-planned Apparition at Arles. It
shows the piazza outside this church and is said to allude to the death of Sassetti's first son Teodoro and the birth of his second, given the same
name as a sort of resurrection. The women clustering to the
left said to be Sassetti's daughters. The figure far right, with his hand
on his hip, is said to be Ghirlandaio. It is said that the whole cycle
contains approaching sixty of Sassetti's family and friends. The Confirmation of the Rule
scene above features portraits of Lorenzo de' Medici his sons and their
tutor Angelo Poliziano against the backdrop of the Piazza della Signoria. (Despite
the Florentine settings of these two scenes they both took place in Rome.) The
Sibyls in the vaults, including one modelled on Sassetti's daughter
Sibilla, are also by Ghirlandaio, as is the Vision of Augustus and the Tiburtine
Sibyl on the wall above the chapel entrance (see right).
Francesco Sassetti, a Medici banker blamed for its declining fortunes
just prior to his death from a stroke in 1490, and his wife Nera Corsi
kneel either side of an equally gorgeous altarpiece, also by
Ghirlandaio, depicting The Adoration of the Shepherds. This
altarpiece is often cited as the work most
obviously inspired by the Portinari Altarpiece (amongst many such)
especially the shepherds. Ghirlandaio depicted himself,
as the shepherd pointing to the Baby and the carved garland (ghirlanda)
on a sarcophagus. The unusual presence of this antique sarcophagus in a
nativity has been explained as it's thereby making a group of three with
the actual tombs of the donors flanking the altarpiece in the side walls.
Right hand side
The first chapel is firmly fenced in so
the Cenni di Francesco fresco of the Communion of Mary Magdelene
and its sketch opposite, are not easily seen.
The second, quite bare, chapel has a Prediction of John the
Baptist by Francesco Curradi from 1649.
The third chapel has a Neri di Bicci altarpiece of
1466 of The Virgin Enthroned with Saints painted for the church of
Saint Jerome in Fiesole and transferred here in the 19th century. Also in here is a damaged detached fresco
of the Madonna Enthroned with Saints by Spinello
Aretino, with its sinopia opposite found under Lorenzo Monaco's
frescoes in the Salimbeni chapel, and still showing his hammer marks.
The fourth, Bartolini Salimbeni Chapel, has frescoes of The
Life of the Virgin (1420-25), with the prophets David, Isiah,
Malachi and Micah in the vaults, mature works by Lorenzo Monaco. These are
his only known work in fresco and almost as
special as the Ghirlandaios. For me the highlights are the people on the
right wall and the architecture on the left wall. The Annunciation altarpiece is also
by Lorenzo (see right) who did much good work, especially in illumination, at the convent of
Santa Maria degli Angeli,
but it is in this chapel where you can see his best work in its original
context. The floor features poppies, the family emblem, and 'Per non dormire' their
motto, which translates as 'For those who don't sleep.'
The entrance staircase is in the centre of the nave. It's a bare and wide and roughly
cross-shaped space (see right), atmospheric if not pretty, and you'll need
a 50¢ coin to light it.
The entrance doorway (by Lorenzo Ghiberti) is to the left of the side
door in the right transept, and is opened on request by the attendant. It's a pleasingly tall space, which used
to be a Strozzi chapel, and may also have been designed by Ghiberti. It's pretty bare, but there are some detached frescoes, and the tomb of Onofrio
also built to designs by Ghiberti, commissioned by
his son Palla, who was banished after the revolt in 1434 against Cosimo il
Vecchio. Palla was one of 500 who were banished, and he died in Padua. The
tomb is decorated with flowers painted by Gentile da Fabriano, who also
painted the Adoration of the Magi (now in the Uffizi) for Palla
Strozzi for this
Cimabue Maestà della Madonna (see right)
painted around 1280 for the high altar here. It was replaced with a
Trinity by Alesso Baldovinetti in 1471 and moved into a side chapel
and, later, the monastery infirmary. It's been in the Uffizi since 1919,
where it's now part of the spectacular Cimabue/Giotto/Duccio trio on display
in room 2.
An altarpiece of 1423 by Gentile da Fabriano, commissioned by Palla
Strozzi around 1421 for
the family chapel here, now the sacristy. The gilt and gorgeous central panel, The Adoration of the Magi, and
two panels of the predella, The Nativity and The Flight into
Egypt, are in the original frame in the Uffizi (since 1919).
Another panel from the predella, the impressively architectural and very
at the Temple, is
in the Louvre (since 1812), with a copy taking its place in the Uffizi.
A Deposition by Fra Angelico (begun
by Lorenzo Monaco) also commissioned by Palla Strozzi for the family
chapel here (the first on the left) is now in the Museo di San Marco,
as are its pinnacles by Lorenzo Monaco, with the predella panels he
painted in the Accademia.
Bicci di Lorenzo's altarpiece of 1434, painted for the Compagni chapel
here (see reconstruction above, from Bicci di Lorenzo’s
altarpiece for the Compagni family chapel by Dillian Gordon,
Burlington Magazine Feb 2019 ) has its main-tier panels now in Westminster
Abbey in London. The central panels show the Virgin Enthroned with
Saints John Gualberto, Anthony, John the Baptist and Catherine. The
predella panels have in recent years been identified as the central
Nativity and Saint John Gualberto and the Destruction of the
Abbey of Moscheta in private collections, and the Baptism of Christ
in the York Art Gallery. The missing panels are also thought to be scenes
from the lives of the saints above them, Anthony and Catherine. The
reasons for the altarpiece's removal, by 1845, are unknown. Bicci's son
Neri di Bicci painted an altarpiece of The Assumption in 1455/6 for
the Spini chapel here. It is now in the National Gallery of Canada in
Trinity with Saints Benedict and Giovanni Gualberto by
Baldovinetti of 1469-71 is now in the Accademia too.
Albertinelli & Franciabigio's impressive Virgin and Child between
Saints Jerome and Zenobius painted for the Zenobi del Maestro chapel
here, is now in the Louvre, having been looted by Napoleon.
Lamentation of 1546/8, formerly here, in the Uffizi since 1925.
The Story of Giovanni Gualberto
One Good Friday Giovanni Gualberto left home with his gang of roughs, fully
intending to avenge the recent murder of his brother. Upon finding the murderer,
who pleaded for his life, it being the day Jesus was crucified, Gualberto
decided to spare him, and proceeded up to San Miniato. Here a crucifix was
said to have bowed its head to him in honour of his mercifulness.
Gualberto later became a Benedictine monk and founded the Vallombrosan
order. He died in 1073. This story is the source of Edward Burne-Jones's early painting
The Merciful Knight, which shows Christ kissing Gualberto. The
Crucifix of Saint Giovanni Gualberto, now kept in this church, is said to
be the miraculous crucifix, but it isn't that old - the story is around
200 years older than this crucifix. A cult
flourished in the late-14th and 15th centuries which ascribed to it
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