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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 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.
Franciscans from San Salvatore al Monte replaced the Humiliati in 1561, the order having waned in size and influence - only six monks remaining here that year. Around this time Carlo Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, was asked to reform the failing order. Disgruntled monks plotted against Borromeo and one of them, Girolamo Donati, made a botched attempt to assassinate him whilst he prayed, managing to inflict nothing more than a flesh wound. The order was consequently suppressed by Pope Pious V in 1571. The Franciscans brought with them the habit worn by Saint Francis when he received the stigmata on Mount Verna in 1224. This relic is now to be found in a chapel to the left of the high altar. The complex was found to be in a very poor state by the Franciscans and extensive renovations took place. It's probably around this time that Ghirlandaio's frescoes in the Vespucci chapel were painted over. 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 polychrome terracotta over the door, from the older façade, is Coronation of the Virgin with Saints and Angels by Giovanni della Robbia or Benedetto Buglioni. Suppressed in 1810 and 1866. The convent became a Carabinieri barracks in 1923. In 1885 some of the complex was returned to the Franciscan friars, who remain.


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 pitch 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 St Francis by Giuseppe Romei (see photo right) dating from 1770. Romei collaborated on similarly impressive work in Santa Maria del Carmine just over the Arno.
Four shallow chapels down each side of the nave. The second altar on the right, the Vespucci chapel (see right) contains Ghirlandaio's very early Madonna della Misericordia of around 1470, with a Pieta below which looks very much like the work of many hands, and a pair of barely-there flanking figures, although one has been identified as the Archangel Raphael. These frescoes were rediscovered in 1898 behind another painting. The search for these murals was brought about by Vasari's assertion that they contained 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 supposedly depicted here is Simonetta Vespucci, the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici and, it is said, Botticelli's model for his famous Venus.
Between third and forth altars on the right is Botticelli's Saint Augustine, his only fresco remaining in Florence and
recently reinstalled after two years in restoration. It makes a distinct pair with Ghirlandaio's equally-Flemish-inspired Saint Jerome opposite. 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. Both works here are 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 demolished by Vasari in 1564. The exact location of the tremezzo here 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.
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, 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 sanctuary has a large domed choir behind the ornate early 17th century high altar by Francesco Gargiolli, (see photo far right).
The Crucifix now to be found in the left transept is widely thought to be by the studio of, or a follower of, Giotto (see photo right). But following a 2010 clean 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).
A carved wooden Crucifix by famed German sculptor Veit Stoss, whose limewood statue of San Rocco in Santissima Annunziata was described by Vasari as ‘a miracle in wood’.

Lost art
Two of the three works that Giotto painted for Ognissanti after he returned from painting the Arena Chapel in Padua c.1306 are now elsewhere. These being the famous and enormous Ognissanti Madonna of c.1310 (see right) now in the Uffizi (since 1919) where it's part of the spectacular Cimabue/Giotto/Duccio trio on display in Room 2. It was restored in 1992. It is said to have been originally sited 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 work, the wide and gable-topped altar frontal depicting the Dormition of the Virgin now in the Gemäldagalerie in Berlin, mentioned by both Ghiberti and Vasari. Giotto also frescoed a chapel here and Vasari mentions two more panels, now lost.
An early triptych by Bernardo Daddi, now called The Ognissanti Triptych has been in the Uffizi since 1871. It features the Madonna between Saints Matthias and Nicholas of Bari. An inscription gives the date, 1328, and patron Fra Niccolò dei Mazinghi. The Saint Matthias panel had to be restored in 1965 after it was attacked by a visitor.
The Ognissanti Polyptych by Giovanni da Milano, painted for the high altar here from 1363-69 was removed to a side chapel and then dismembered in the late 17th/early 18th century. The surviving panels (of the original seven) are in the Uffizi, where they recently benefited from a cleaning for an exhibition devoted to the artist.

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

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 St Francis. The convent became a home for old and sick friars after the Napoleonic suppression. In 1882 the the refectory was being used as a storeroom.
The refectory (cenacolo) is off of the first cloister, It was converted to a museum in 1893 and  houses a superb early fresco of The Last Supper by Ghirlandaio - well preserved apart from Christ's head, repainted by Carlo Marratta in the 17th century (see photo far right). 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 sinopia (underdrawing) for the fresco is displayed here too, discovered when the top layer was removed for repair after the 1966 flood. The dove and the peacock are symbolic of the Holy Ghost and the Resurrection, respectively; and did you know that lettuces are symbolic of penitence, and apricots of sin? Me neither.

Cenacolo opening times

Monday, Tuesday and Saturday 9.00 – 12.00

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























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