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. Parish church status was granted in 1178, wth 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
now in 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 (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
First chapel Minor 17th century art,
including Saint Lucy about to get her eyes gouged out.
Second chapel There's a serene St 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 size for it's stone frame.
Third chapel A fine Coronation of the Virgin
altarpiece of 1430 by Bicci di Lorenzo. In the left wall here a tomb with
a small Madonna and Child panel above attributed to Donatello,
restored in 2014. Some good fresco fragments here too.
Fourth chapel 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 by him. High up on
the outer arches are frescos of the Life of Gualberto by Neri and his
father Bicci di Lorenzo.
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.
First chapel on the left On the left wall 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 frescos of martyrdoms (a flaying
and a beheading?) by
Giovanni dal Ponte.
The next chapel (there's a rocker lightswitch
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.
Last chapel, right hand side 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 to be properly seen.
The second quite bare chapel has a Prediction of John the
Baptist by Francesco Curradi from 1649.
The third chapel is the Spini chapel and has a Neri di Bicci altarpiece of
1456 of the Assumption of the Virgin. Also in here is a damaged detached fresco by Spinello
Aretino, with its sinopia opposite.
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.'
Entrance in the centre of the nave. Bare and wide and roughly
cross-shaped (see right). It's atmospheric if not pretty, and you'll need
50¢ 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. It's pretty bare, but there are some detached frescoes, and the tomb of Onofrio Pazzi,
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 far 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
their family chapel, which is now the sacristy. The central panel, The Adoration of the Magi, and
two elements of the predella, The Nativity and The Flight into
Egypt, are in their original frames in the Uffizi (since 1919).
Another panel from the predella, the impressively architectural and very
finely wrought Presentation
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.
The striking 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.
A Bronzino 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
Daily 8.00-12.00, 4.00-6.00
Sundays and holidays: 8.00 -10.45, 4.00 - 6.00