Florence has so much art in its churches–of such high quality– that you almost don’t need to pay for museums.
Lets say you just take the art in the churches of Santa Maria Novella, Santa Trinita, and Santo Spirito. Right there, if any city outside of Italy had art of such caliber, by such masters, sitting in situ, the town would be famous. But in Florence you’ve made the most minuscule scratch on the surface just seeing the art in those three churches.
I wandered into Santo Spirito on my first morning in Florence two weeks ago and was blown away. Yes I’d been in before. Yes, I’ve lived in the city a few times. But still….
You may think the plain exterior means there is nothing special inside. You would be wrong.
The church was designed by none other than Filippo Brunelleschi (architect of Florence’s dome) in 1434.
Brunelleschi created the perfect Renaissance church–all harmony and clean lines.
The vanishing points all converge at the main altar and harmony is also found in the simple tones of creamy white walls and gray Pietra Serena stone arches. No baroque fussiness here.
I hadn’t been in there since I got my master’s in Florentine Renaissance history and Lordy Lordy Lordy!
Massively large paintings down each side aisle and around the ambulatory–each worthy of attention, even those by unknown Renaissance painters– and in the sacristy, there’s crucifix attributed to Michelangelo.
In 1492 Michelangelo went to the convent of Santo Spirito to ask permission (which he was granted) to make anatomical studies of corpses in the monastery’s hospital. In return, he carved a crucifix for the church. We know this from Giorgio Vasari–(the first Italian art historian who wrote a series of biographies of artists in the mid 1500s.)
“For the Church of Santo Spirito in the city of Florence Michelagnolo made a Crucifix of wood, which was placed, as it still is, above the lunette of the high altar; doing this to please the Prior, who placed rooms at his disposal, in which he was constantly flaying dead bodies, in order to study the secrets of anatomy…”
The crucifix was believed to be lost, but in the 1960s Doctor Margrit Lisner, an expert on crucifixes, discovered what might be “it” in the Santo Spirito monastery. The monks said they knew it was a fine piece but had no idea it might be so valuable. A debate has ensued among scholars ever since, as to whether it truly was carved by Michelangelo.
I tiptoed into the sacristy to view it. As soon as I entered there was that scent, that essence that emanates from these corners of the old world– of damp stone and layers of prayer.
It certainly has none of the monumentality that enters his later work. But even in works he made a year after this one, he carved bodies rippling with muscle. Here, the body is so slender and delicate that it seems prepubescent.
I immediately thought gothic when I looked at the face, with its long thin nose. In fact, the mouth, beard, and hair are all very similar to Gothic crucifixes carved in the 1200s.
Of course the body, with it’s realism and its nakedness is pure Renaissance. (Gothic crucifixes did not achieve realism in human form, nor were they totally naked.)
The contraposto is rendered beautifully with the face hanging to one side and the legs twisting to the other. The way the arch of one foot slides over the top of the other foot captured me with its tender realism.
After the sacristy, I was compelled to circle the main interior twice in order to take in the art. The painting over the first altar on the left is a Resurrection by Pier Francesco Foschi. (He also did two other altar pieces for this church.)
One glance at the Resurrection and you know that Foschi painted in the Mannerist style by the bright pink color chosen for the clothing of the Roman soldiers.
I had a lot of fun examining this garish pink clothing! You see what he was doing here? Pushing exaggeration to the limits. Quite modern for the 16th century.
And it was fun too, to see in the gesture of Jesus (his right arm held up, and finger pointing toward Heaven) the exact same gesture Plato makes in Raphael’s School of Athens.
This church, and these paintings, are for me, what Disney Land may be to others.
In the ambulatory along with many others that called for my attention, I viewed Christ and the Adulteress by Alessandro Allori and even if you don’t know Allori’s work and don’t look at the date, you see the Mannerist style in the marble-like form of Christ’s pinkish gown.
The Adulteress pulls a gypsy style scarf partly over face, which for me was reminiscent of Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia. It is a beauty.
The most noteworthy painting in this church is by Filippo Lippi. The Nerli Altarpiece as it’s referred to, was commissioned by the Florentine Tanai de’ Nerli in the late 1400s.
It shows the Madonna with baby Jesus in her lap and Saint John at her feet (he’s the patron saint of Florence) and on her right is Saint Martin of Tours and on her left is Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
As was the tradition, the donors, (in this case Tanai de’ Nerli and his wife) are depicted kneeling in the foreground.
It was restored in 2011, with GORGEOUS results.
Seeing it in person is really striking. Trust me, you need to go see this.
Mary’s red camicia is a most brilliant red. She leans toward Saint Catherine with wonderful heavy-lidded eyes (one thinks of Botticelli here and in fact Lippi was a pupil of Botticelli.) I noticed that Saint Catherine’s attire is the reverse of Mary’s (red over blue.)
Also of note is the recognizable San Frediano quarter of Florence in the background. Seeing the Porta of San Frediano really made me smile because I was staying a short distance from it and had just been taking pictures of it.
I walked out of the church full of Stendhal Syndrome— overcome and asking myself, how do the Florentines handle being surrounded by so much art? I mean, I’d just had a Christmas feast of art and it was only ten in the morning.
This was to happen again that afternoon and again that night as I made my rounds of the city, ducking into cloisters, biking over the bridges, witnessing live opera singing twice in one day…