Piazza Santo Spirito
An Augustinian convent was founded here in 1250, with work on the convent and the first church finishing in 1292. The Augustinian Hermits (not to be confused with the Augustinian Canons Regular) were one of the original four 13th-century mendicant (begging) orders, along with the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites, all of whom founded large churches in Florence radiating out far from the centre. Brunelleschi was asked to design a new church in 1434, but building did not begin until 1444, two years before his death. Part of the delay was down to residents refusing to sell their houses to make way for a new piazza facing the Arno, which was part of Brunelleschi's original plan. There was also a disagreement amongst the members of the works committee about the number of doors in the facade. The church was unusual for being almost wholly financed by the Florentine government, a fact supposedly explained by their need to have a controlling influence in an area they suspected could harbour an uprising, the district being dominated by the artisan class.
Building continued slowly for most of the 15th century, under the direction of Antonio Manetti and others, but was sped on by a fire which destroyed most the old church, then still in use (see Feast day performances below). The later work included the dome and inner façade, to designs by Salvi d'Andrea.
Suppressed by Napoleon in 1808, much of the larger complex is now government offices, with the Augustinians still responsible for the church and its immediate buildings.
The façade is from 1792 and was decorated with painted architectural detailing (visible in the print and the old black and white photo see far below) which was removed during late-20th-century restoration work. The coats of arms over the windows down the sides are those of the families whose chapels are on the other side of the windows.
Big and serene and very Brunelleschi-ish, if a little spoilt by the later big baldacchino (see photo below right). If you can ignore it this is Brunelleschi at his best - less spoiled and more solemn than San Lorenzo. It's a Latin cross with a dome over the crossing, thankfully left unfrescoed. The chunky columns are reflected by similar pilasters in the aisle walls. The column's capitals, like at San Lorenzo, have blocks above them, called pulvins, from which the arches spring that much higher. There are 39 side chapels, those in the transept show a striking uniformity of size and design, probably due to the friars, or the administrative operai, attempting to impose a degree of control on the chaos and ambitions of private chapels. Uccello is buried here.
This church has thirty-eight altars, almost all with painted altarpieces - the best have been cleaned and are almost all in the transept and behind the baldacchino, this being where the most prestigious local families could afford to have chapels. Many also have impressive painted altar frontals, which aren't something you see everyday.
Beginning at the entrance, the altarpieces facing each other over the first altar on each side are bright and bearable works by Pier Francesco Foschi, a Resurrection and an Immaculate Conception. (There is also a Transfiguration by him in the right transept.) All were commissioned between commissioned between 1540 and 1545. He was a talented pupil of Andrea del Sarto, better known for his portraits but now little studied. His reputation may have suffered from Vasari ignoring him, which could be down to his being a contemporary and Vasari resenting him for getting commissions he thought he should've won himself.
There are unspecial Michelangelo sculpture copies in the next two chapels facing each other across the nave.
The next three on the left are 17th century and missable but the third is by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio and Michele Tosini of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saints Thomas Aquinas, Peter Martyr, Domenico, Vincent Ferrer, Mary Magdalene and Catherine which has charm, which the next two, after the door, lack.
As you turn into the left transept facing you are two admirable altarpieces by Agnolo and Donnino del Mazziere, a Virgin and Child with Angels and Saints Bartholomew and Nicholas and a Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalene and Catherine. The brothers were formerly little known beyond their works here, which includes the altar frontal in the chapel to your left as you face these two, and works by them used to be just ascribed to the Master of Santo Spirito. Above this frontal is a calm Virgin and Child with Saints John the Evangelist, Lawrence, Stephen and Bernard by Raffaellino del Garbo (1505).
Next is the impressive sculptural Capella Corbinelli by Sansovino, and then (after a second Corbinelli Chapel, with an altarpiece by Cosimo Rosselli) there's the Saint Monica Altarpiece, long given to Botticini (and the label here still says so) it is now thought by many to be by Verrocchio. It is an unusual composition with a company of striking darkly-robbed nuns of the saint's order.
Next along, to your right, is the Ubertini Chapel with another Mazziere brothers altarpiece, a Virgin and Child between Saints John the Evangelist and Bartholomew, which has a Bellini-like serenity and very characterful faces.
Amongst the big ones along the back wall the highlights are the middle two, by Allori. On the left is the 1577 Christ and the Adulteress and on the right, in the Pitti chapel, is the flesh-filled Ten Thousand Martyrs of Ararat. The predella features a view of the Palazzo Pitti before it was enlarged with Luca Pitti, who commissioned the altarpiece, standing outside in a red hat. The Christ and the Adulteress was one of three altarpieces showing Christ's encounters with women that Allori painted, the others being Jesus at the Well with the Samaritan Woman in Santa Maria Novella and The Canaanite Woman in San Giovannino degli Scolopi.
The earliest painting in the church is the 14th-century polyptych lacking a frame facing you to the right, a Virgin and Child with Saints Mary Magdalene, Andrew, Julian and Catherine by Maso di Banco, a follower of Giotto. It was placed here in 1480 by the Vettori family, but it had been over their altar in the old church.
Turning into the right transept, the second chapel along is the Nerli, containing a glowing Filippino Lippi Virgin and Child with Saints Martin of Tours and Catherine of Alexandria (The Nerli Altarpiece) (see right) with its slightly drugged-looking Virgin and Jesus playing with the young John the Baptist. The donor Tanai de' Nerli and his wife Nanna are seen being presented by the saints in the foreground. In the background on the right Nerli is seen in a red cloak arriving at his palazzo with the Porta San Frediano visible behind. This altarpiece was restored in 2011-12 for the exhibition Filippino Lippi e Sandro Botticelli at the Quirinale in Rome. Filippino also designed a window for this chapel depicting Saint Martin and the Beggar. It's lost, but a drawing for it is in the Uffizi.
To the left of this chapel is the Nasi chapel, containing a dark but decent copy of Perugino's Vision of Saint Bernard made by Felice Ficherelli. The Vision... is an episode from Bernard's life popular in Florence but rare elsewhere in the main field of altarpieces. The original is in Munich, as is the Perugino-inspired Lamentation with Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene and James, which Raffaellino del Garbo painted for this chapel around 1500 - see Lost art below.
The last chapel on the right on this wall is the Velluti Chapel and contains a small painting which seems to show Mary whacking a devil with a stick in a colourful courtyard. It is called the Madonna del Soccorso, and the story is of a mother who threatens her misbehaving child with the devil and is then shocked when he actually appears, but the Virgin appears and saves them. The painter, previously just known as The Master of the Johnson Nativity, has recently been identified as Domenico di Zanobi.
The right hand aisle of the nave has a pleasing large and bosky sculptural scene with Tobias and the Angel, but not much else to detain us, the altarpieces being from the 17th and 18th century.
Sacristy, cloister and the New Refectory
Reached through a door in the left aisle, you first enter a vestibule built by Cronaca (Simone del Pollaiolo, the nephew of the painter brothers) in 1491, to a design by Giuliano da Sangallo, then enter the pleasing octagonal space of the sacristy, with its built-in cupboards, also designed by Sangallo. It contains a suspiciously lissom Crucifix attributed to Michelangelo, said to have been carved in gratitude for his being allowed to to study corpses here, it was rediscovered here in 1963 and restored in 2000.
Off the vestibule is a door to a rather fine and bosky cloister (see photo right), off of which is the New Refectory, which has a fresco of The Three Suppers by Bernardino Poccetti painted in 1597 (see photo below right). These are, left to right, The Wedding at Cana, The Last Supper and The Supper an Emmaus. There is also a somewhat stern Chapter House with dark wooden stalls around the wall, tomb slabs in the floor and a Crucifix in a stone altar frame with the altar table removed.
A design for a projected façade in the 1830s.
Oltrarno :: Fiesole