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Santa Maria degli Angeli
via degli Alfani


San Michele was the name saint of the church of the monastery which began construction here in 1295 by the Camaldolese Order - a branch of the Benedictines founded in 1012 by the hermit St. Romuald (c.951-1027) at Camaldoli, near Arezzo, hence their name. Don Rorlando of that order had been sent to Florence in 1294 to establish the order there, a move suggested, and initially funded, by the aristocratic poet Frate Guittone of Arrezzo, who didn't live to see his vision come to fruiting, but whose piety and generosity Dante writes of in his Commedia. That an order devoted to the hermit lifestyle should want to establish itself in such an urban environment is thought to be due to the then prosperity and wealth of the city and its nobles and merchants. Within the previous few years Santa Maria Novella had been built and Santa Croce and the Duomo had seen rebuilding and expansion. As the foundations were being dug the bishop of Florence led a procession of worthies to the monastery site, bearing gifts monetary and liturgical. Onlookers also spontaneously chucked money, amounting to 250 lire, which equalled the amount the order had paid for the land, previously owned by the Alluodi family. The complex was originally built to house just six, including Don Rorlando. It amounted to a small church, cells, a refectory and a meeting room. The original six monks, including Don Rorlando, must have found the going tough, as they returned to Camaldoli after a few years, and were replaced by another six, led by one Don Romualdo, who seem to have faired better. Numbers then swelled from six to sixty and then to ninety, so rebuilding was swift and considerable.

The original church was small, austere, choirless and aisleless and served just the monastic community throughout the 14th Century. An unusual feature was, by 1297, the chiesetta, a space running along the east of the church solely for the use of female patrons. It had an altar, an altarpiece and a grill through which the women could have limited contact with the monks. A little later a choir for the monks was added, protruding and making an odd L-shape sticking out from the apse end beyond the end of the chiesetta. The early 14th Century saw the convent grow and become an established Florentine institution, patronised by rich families, like the Spini and a native Florentine prior appointed (Don Filippo degli Nelli) in 1322. By 1330 all twenty-two members of
the community were Florentine and it is thought to be the need to teach young novices the liturgy that was second nature to the earlier monks from Camaldoli that lead to the borrowing of none books from the convent of San Pietro di Poteoli in 1322 and the establishment of a scriptorium to copy said books within a decade.

The plague of 1348, which swept Europe and saw off half of the city's population, also resulted in the deaths of seventeen of Santa Maria degli Angeli twenty-two monks. But the widespread belief that the pestilence had been God's punishment for man's wickedness resulted in considerable donations of money and children by those remaining and benefiting from the drastic lessening and shifting of resources, both human and financial, following the plague. The new donors included an ironmonger. So, new money and old money together resulted in the convent's best time yet for donations and building work, notably the new chapter house to house the complex's growing number of monks. Altarpieces too, notably from the workshop of Nardo di Cione. Lesser, but still major, outbreaks of  the plague kept levels of penitence and donation steady through most of the 14th Century, with the Albizzi family the major financiers. It was mostly their money which paid for the major work improving the church in the years leading up to completion on Christmas Day 1374.
 

 

 



Illumination and Lorenzo Monaco
A renowned scriptorium flourished here from the 13th Century. Vasari, writing a hundred years after, wrote that a Don Giacobbo and a Don Silvestro were the monk/artists to be credited. This 'fact' seems to be based on legend, however, and relies on the confusing of three separate monks called Silvestro
and his having the wrong Jacopo and Silvestro buried in the same tomb. These errors lead to the citing of Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci as a major artistic talent, an assertion which took a knock when his one signature (on one of the dozen excised miniatures acquired by William Young Ottley from the monastery, along with the Crucifixion altarpiece mentioned in Lost art below) was found to be a late 18th/early 19th century forgery. Disagreement still rages. Don Giacobbo dei Francheschi does seem to have been a major contributor to the artistic excellence of the scriptorium, though, even though the major part of the illumination work in his time is now thought to have been contracted out to lay artists. 

It was here that Lorenzo Monaco established himself as both a manuscript illuminator and a painter, although it's probable that his production of panels and frescoes date to the years after he left. From whom he received his training is undocumented and hence the subject of much scholarly conjecture and argument - Agnolo Gaddi and Jacopo di Cione are mentioned, the latter seeming more likely. (He became a deacon in 1395, after which his name disappears from the monastic legers, suggesting that this is when he moved out of the monastery, but he maintained links - he painted the majestic Coronation of the Virgin of 1414 (see below), the monastery sold him a house and studio (right opposite the church doors and for a pittance) in 1415, and when he died (c.1424) he was buried in the chapterhouse here.

 

The rotunda
In 1434 Brunelleschi was commissioned by Matteo and Andrea Scolari (the heirs of  condottiere Filippo Scolari aka Pippo Spano) to design another church for the monastery. His original design was  probably inspired by ancient Roman temples and was the first centralized building of the Renaissance. It consisted of a a domed octagon with 8 radiating chapels linked by a narrow passageway that pierced the apses and served as an ambulatory around the octagon, and with a sixteen-sided exterior. The altar would have been in the centre. Construction progressed quite rapidly but was halted due in 1437 when the Scolari funds were confiscated to help pay for the war against Lucca. The building had reached a height of about 7 metres. Around this time it acquired its nickname of Il Castellacio - the broken-down castle. In the 17th Century the shell was finally given a simple wooden roof, but it still deteriorated rapidly. I have a guidebook, written in 1928, which describes Brunelleschi's building as a 'rather picturesque bit of ruin'. The building, which had been put to various uses, was repaired and acquired its current (and controversial) appearance after rebuilding in 1937 by Rodolfo Sabatini. It was given to the university and, you will read elsewhere, thus became known as the Rotonda degli Scolari, but I'd hazard a wild guess that it's so called because of the name of the brothers who first built it.

Lost art
The centre panel of Nardo di Cione's workshop's Coronation of the Virgin, 'almost certainly' from the Albizzi chapel of the Ognissanti in the infirmary here, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The wings depicting saints are in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. His Trinity painted for the Ghiberti chapel in the rebuilt chapter house here is in the Accademia's Orcagna Room and his Madonna and Child enthroned with flanking panels depicting Saints Gregory and Job and predella panels showing The Trials of Job, is now in the small room beyond the sacristy in Santa Croce. Both were installed in 1365.

Also dating to around 1365 is a very nice panel depicting The Enthroned Christ Adored by Angels by Giovanni da Milano, now in the Brera, Milan and part of a now dispersed polyptych.

Noli mi Tangere
(probably) by Andrea di Cione (Orcagna), a panel from an altarpiece possibly from the Palagio chapel, dedicated to Saint Peter, also in the rebuilt chapter house, is now in the National Gallery in London. Two more panels said to be from the same altarpiece are in the MET in New York (The Crucifixion), Denver (The Man of Sorrows) and Rome and Luxembourg (Female Saints and Male Saints respectively. American art historians, writing American catalogues, seem intent on giving these panels to Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci.

The Baptism of Christ, with Saints Peter and Paul and Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist of 1386 by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, painted for the Stoldi chapel in the infirmary is now in the National Gallery in London. (The flanking saints stand on a carpet imitating the design of one in the Nardo di Cione works mentioned above.) A pair of panels depicting the Annunciation, now in the Feigen Collection, are thought to have been originally sited over this altarpiece, with a Salvator Mundi, now in the Munich Alte Pinakothek, over the centre panel.  A Crucifixion by the same artist, now in the Accademia, is known to have come from here, due to its inclusion in the list of works looted by Napoleon, possibly having been sited in the refectory.

The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Evangelist and John the Baptist on to the left and Saints James the Great and Bartholomew to the right, painted mostly by Agnolo Gaddi in 1388 for the Nobili Chapel in the cloister here, is now in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, but was not on display when I was there in October 2015. Its predella panels by Lorenzo Monaco are in the Louvre (The Banquet of Herod, The Crucifixion, and a single panel showing  two Episodes from the life of the Apostle James, all looking very much like finely-wrought manuscript illuminations), the National Gallery in London and private collections.

A Madonna and Child with Saints by Mariotto di Nardo, now in the church of Santa Margherita a Tosina, outside Florence, is said to have been painted for the da Filicaia chapel in the west cloister here in 1389.

An early work by Lorenzo Monaco, The Agony in the Garden, now in the Accademia. It was painted around the time of his departure from Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1395 to establish himself as a secular artist and may have been a supportive commission by his former brethren.

Lorenzo Monaco's only signed, and arguably most important, work is the spectacular Coronation of the Virgin of 1414 (see above right) painted for the high altar here, now in the Uffizi. Another Coronation of the Virgin by Monaco, painted for the Alberti Chapel here, is in the National Gallery, London. The National Gallery also has one of four panels from a predella (the rest are in the Louvre) attributed to Monaco. They may be matched with the Gaddi altarpiece mentioned above, this fact being explained by Monaco probably being a pupil of Gaddi.

Andrea del Castagno's fresco of the Crucifixion of c.1453 (see right) now in the Cenacolo di Sant'Appolonia, includes the Virgin, St John the Evangelist, St Benedict and St Romuald.  It was in the fifth cell of the second cloister here, above the garden. It was removed in the 20th century and is badly damaged. Another, even earlier, fresco of the Crucifixion by Andrea from here is now in the offices of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. It has the same saints, plus Mary Magdalene.

A fresco attributed to Davide Ghirlandaio of a Crucifixion with Saints Benedict and Romuald, said to have come from the cloister here, is in the Andrea del Sarto Cenacolo Museum at San Salvi.

Alessandro Allori's flower-filled Coronation of the Virgin of 1593 is now in the left wing of the Tribune at the Accademia.

Bibliography

George R Bent - Monastic art in Lorenzo Monaco's Florence: painting and patronage in Santa Maria degli Angeli, 1300-1415 
Winter 2015 update -
this book read and fed into the above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



The complex was sacked in 1378 during the rising of the ciompi, who saw Santa Maria degli Angeli as unacceptably patrician-funded. A fire started in the infirmary soon spread and resulted in the death of two monks. Only divine intervention, in the shape of a miraculous gale, prevented the complete destruction of the convent. Many early altarpieces were lost too. It wasn't until the wealthy families, the Albizzi faction again foremost, regained power in 1382 that funding began to flow to repair the considerable damage wrought during the sacking. The moribund scriptorium was revitalised at this time too, and many burial chapels paid for and embellished with altarpieces.

During the Great Schism of 1409-1414 one of the claimants to papal authority, Pope John XXIII, spent time in exile in religious houses around Florence, from 1413 until is death in 1419. Since 1410 Pope John had worn a prized relic, John the Baptist's right index finger, on a chain around his neck. In 1413 he secretly left this relic in the safe keeping of Santa Maria degli Angeli, It's presence here was known only to the monks, Cosimo de'Medici and and Matteo da Viterbo, the pope's confessor. It was kept here for eight years, only passing into the Florence Baptistery two years after John's death.

The late 15th Century saw something of a decline, following the glory days leading up to the installation of Lorenzo Monaco's altarpiece. Remodelled in 1676, the church has a ceiling vault fresco by Alessandro Gherhardini of 1700. The dome of the Ticci Chapel off of the cloister has frescos by Bernardino Poccetti (who also probably painted the altarpiece here) from 1599.  The former refectory contains a 1543 Last Supper by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio (Davide's nephew) which was restored in 2000.

Suppressed in 1808, with the manuscripts (see below) going to the Biblioteca Laurenziana. The buildings are now used mostly by the university, the church for lectures. Much of the rest of the complex has been absorbed into the Santa Maria Nuova hospital.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



This is an initial S, with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter,
by Lorenzo Monaco. It is now in Washington, cut from
a choir book now in the Biblioteca Laurenziana.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



from the Codex Rustici of c.1447


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