Santa Maria in Carfaggio, the mother church of the Servite order, the only religious order to originate in Florence, was built here in the 13th century on the site of an earlier monastery which had been abandoned by Franciscans when Santa Croce was built. The foundation stone was laid on March 25th 1250 and in 1252, so legend later has it, an Annunciation was painted by a friar called Bartolomeo, supposedly with the help of an angel who completed the fresco by painting the Virgin's face while the artist slept, having given up in despair of getting it right. The image's developing cult and miracle-working reputation led to the church's rededication in 1314, to the Most Holy Virgin of the Annunciation, and a need for expansion. Florence's fascination with The Annunciation is said to date from this painting too.
Around this time also began the fad for visitors leaving life-size wax effigies of themselves hanging in the nave or the forecourt. By the 17th century more than 600 of these votive figures filled the atrium, including one of Lorenzo the Magnificent by Verrocchio. They are all now lost, having been melted down to make candles in 1786.
A more major rebuilding took place between 1444 and 1455 to designs by Michelozzo who was the brother of the prior. An argument regarding his polygonal choir, or maybe just the time he was taking, led to Michelozzo being sacked in 1455 by Lodovico Gonzaga from Mantua who was providing the funding. First Manetti and later Alberti were then employed, the latter transforming Michelozzo's polygonal choir into a rotunda with nine radiating chapels capped by a solid concrete dome. Work finished in 1476. The façade loggia was built 1601-4 by Giovanni Caccini echoing Sangallo's central arch and matching the flanking loggias in the piazza.
Pontormo's Visitation (see right) for which he was paid the meagre, for Vasari, sum of 16 scudi, is the highlight of the now-covered entrance atrium (see right) known as the Ciostrino dei Voti, as it was filled with wax votive offerings, it is something of an argument for Mannerism's ability to impress. Pontormo was buried under his painting, but his body was moved to the chapel devoted to artists by Fra Giovan Angelo Montorsoli in 1562, under the Trinity painted by Bronzino, his pupil, and Allori. The decoration of the cloister had begun with works by Baldovinetti and Rosselli. Fifty years later Rosselli's work was continued with five frescoes by Andrea del Sarto (Pontormo and Rosso's master) from the life of Saint Filippo Benizzi, his first public commissions from 1509-10 and opposite his two scenes from the life of the virgin, The Journey of the Magi and the Nativity of the Virgin, painted later, from 1513. The latter is the better of the two, looking to have been very influenced by Ghirlandaio's Tornabuoni Chapel frescos in Santa Maria Novella. The Journey of the Magi, Pontormo's Visitation and the Assumption of the Virgin by Rosso were all removed and restored and grouped in the marvellous first room of the 2014 Pontormo and Rosso exhibition at the Strozzi. Also here is Franciabigio's Marriage of the Virgin which was painted in 1513. Vasari tells us that Franciabigio was so angry with the Servite brothers for uncovering the fresco before it was finished that he attacked some of the heads, including the Virgin’s, with a mason's hammer. Franciabigio was ordered to repair the fresco but this was apparently ignored, as the damage is still clearly visible. The recent restoration of the frescoes in the atrium was completed in 2017.
An impressively confusing dark and dusty-grey space, with much gilding, the mostly Baroque church interior dates to late 17th Century and is by Michelozzo. It has connected chapels up each side and an OTT main altar with chapels in a semi-circular choir behind. There's an unsignposted door to this choir in the left transept, and I recommend it as there are good views from behind the altar and some superior (if unlabelled) altarpieces around the choir, by Bronzino and Giambologna amongst others.
The tabernacle of 1449 near the entrance was also built to designs by Michelozzo, although Pagno di Lapo Portagiani 'was the master who made it' according to an inscription beneath the cornice at the back. This inscription also records that it was made at the expense of Piero de' Medici. The original marble altar, made at the same time as the tabernacle, is now in the Museo Bardini. The wooden cupola was added in the mid-17th Century. The richly ornamented tabernacle frames the miraculous image of The Annunciation of c. 1340, frescoed onto the inner façade wall. In the later 14th Century this became the foremost of the many image cults of the period due both to its integration into civic religious ceremonies and its patronage by the Medici family. The face of the Virgin was said to have been painted by an angel, or even God, as a true image of the Virgin, whilst the painter dozed off in frustration. Vasari named the artist as Pietro Cavallini from Rome, and described him as almost a saint himself.
The inlaid 15th-century cupboards in the sacristy came from the demolished monastery of San Pier Maggiore. Restoration work has revealed some remains of 14th-century frescoes.
To the right of the entrance, still under the loggia, is the door to the oratory of San Sebastiano (see right) built for the Pucci family in 1452 to designs by Michelozzo. The presbytery was rebuilt in 1608 to a design by Giovanni Caccini and finished by Gherardo Silvani. The vault has frescoes by Poccetti and there are panels by Paggi and Lomi. The altarpiece is a Birth of the Virgin by Cigoli. It was for this oratorio that the Pollaiolo brothers painted The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, now in the National Gallery. See Lost art below.
The large Choistro dei Morti (see far right) is mostly occupied by the Istituto Geografico Militare, Italy's national mapping agency. The fresco lunettes are nearly all from the early 17th and mostly by Bernardino Poccetti. The lunette above the door into the left transept of the church, is the Madonna del Sacco by Andrea del Sarto from 1525. The cloister also contains the Chapel of the Artists, used by the confraternity set up by Vasari, where various 16th Century painters, including Pontormo and Benvenuto Cellini, are buried. Vasari's Saint Luke Painting the Virgin, with himself immodestly depicted as St Luke, was painted for this chapel, and remains here. Other works here include Pontormo’s Holy Family of c.1514, painted for church of St. Ruffillo and frescoes by Alessandro Allori.
The sinopia (underdrawing) of Andrea Castagna's fresco The Vision of Saint Jerome between Saints Paula and Eustochium is now installed in the refectory of Sant'Appollonia. Paula and Eustochium being mother and daughter nuns who studied with, and collaborated with, Saint Jerome.
Shutters for a cabinet to protect the church's silver offerings, commissioned by Piero de' Medici from Fra Angelico. It featured forty scenes from the Life of Christ, all the same size, with one double-sized panel. Of the thirty-five remaining panels kept in the San Marco Museum, three have been attributed to Baldovinetti, the rest are by Fra Angelico.
Christ with the Four Evangelists by Fra Bartolomeo, now in the Galleria Palatina, with its two side panels to be found in the Galleria dell'Accademia.
The famous Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, completed c. 1475, by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo (arguably their masterpiece, see right) was originally painted for Antonio Pucci, a Medici employee, for their oratory here, dedicated to Saint Sebastian. Roberto Pucci, an ancestor, removed it from the oratory, supposedly to be restored, but in 1857 he sold it to the National Gallery in London, where it remains.
Filippino Lippi’s Deposition, begun in 1503 and after Lippi's death that year completed by his workshop successor Perugino, who was responsible for the calmer bottom half of the painting and completed it in 1507. It is now in the first room of the Accademia. It was the front main panel, the reverse Assumption panel is still here. Two saints (John and Lucy) by Perugino (subdued in colour and somewhat drugged-looking) are now in the Met in New York. Two more are at Altenburg (Helen and Francis of Siena), one in a private collection (Catherine of Alexandria) and one depicting San Filippo Benizzi, is in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The panels were dispersed in 1654.
Lorenzo di Credi's Nativity, (c.1496-1500) with his favoured version of the Baby lying on a symbolic bundle of grain, now in the Accademia is thought to have been painted for the chapel of the Blessed Gioacchino Piccolomini here. Piero di Cosimo's Immaculate Conception with Saints (c.1505) which was originally in the Cappella Tebaldi here, is now in the Uffizi.
Antonio del Ceraiolo's Archangel Michael is in the Andrea del Sarto Cenacolo Museum at San Salvi. Andrea del Sarto's own Annunciation, intended as the lunette of an altarpiece painted in 1528 for the high altar of the church of San Domenico in Sarzana, having been commissioned by Benedetto Celsi, was, according to Vasari, kept by Giuliano Scala, who had ordered the altarpiece for Celsi and had ended up out of pocket. It hung in the Scala chapel here until 1580 when it was acquired from the family by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici. A copy by Alessandro Allori (now in the Louvre) was substituted. The original, its lunette shape squared off with added painted curtains, is now in the Pitti. The main panel The Madonna in Glory with Saints, ended up in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, where it was presumed destroyed in the Friedrichshain flak tower Flakturm fires of May 1945. A 19th century German print of it (see right) is in the British Museum.
The church in art
Oltrarno :: Fiesole