I love the bustle of Florence. The grand piazzas, the throngs of people, whizzing vespas, and shouting Italians. It is classic Italy and why we love it so. However, unbeknownst to many tourists, the city wisely keeps its best parts to itself, leaving it up to us to sniff them out! You can consider this post your very own cheat-code to the city as I will be taking you to one of Florence’s best kept secrets that took me over a year to stumble upon myself – the Oratory of the Buonomini of San Martino. The oratory is a beautifully preserved piccola piece of Florentinte culture, art and history. Thanks to recent restorations and the staffing to allow working hours, this 15th-century oratory is open to the public. However, only those who are determined to have more than a face-value experience of Florence, like yourselves, will seek it out. The Oratory is just a hop and a skip away from Piazza della Signoria. So start in the Piazza, head over to the Gucci Museum (northeast side) and exit the Piazza on Via Magazzini. You will then continue straight on Via Magazzini for three blocks until you enter the teeny tiny, so darn adorable you want to stuff it in your pocket, Piazza San Martino.
Distance: 190 m Time: 3 minutes Cost: $0 Once in the Piazza simply look to your left and see a large dark brown door on the corner with a frescoed lunette above the entrance. There you will find Florence’s own Sant’ Antonino inviting you in himself!
Now, before you embark on your scavenger hunt to find this little guy take note of it’s seemingly random (but oh-so-Italian) opening hours. Find the oratory door ajar on Monday – Thursday and Saturday from 10 – noon and 3 – 5, and on Fridays from 10 – noon. A nice old man occassionally sits in a small connecting room to the oratory during these hours. If he’s not snoozing feel free to ask questions – but have your Italian phrase book at hand because we’re not at the Uffizi people! What exactly is this charming little gem, that at the moment you seem to be the only person in the world aware of it’s existence? It is the meeting room or “chapter room” of the confraternity of the Buonomini (the “good men”). The confraternity was founded in 1441 by Florence’s very own Saint, Bishop Antoninus, to help the “ashamed poor,” or those who were destitute but too ashamed to beg for alms. What a nice idea!
Now that you know where you are, please direct your attention to the beautiful, perfectly preserved, works of art that you most likely have all to yourself. This is a perfect example of how you don’t even have to step foot in a museum while in Florence to see true masterpieces (not that I’m condoning skipping museums, Meg and I are museum junkies). We will start low then work our way up. Above the tabernacle there is a bust of St. Martin that is attributed to Verrocchio (a really famous Florentine artist until his pupil, Mr. da Vinci, showed him up…ouch). Now look up at the vibrant frescoes on the walls above you. Right off the bat these frescoes will teach you a few vital facts about Renaissance Florence: Renaissance men had very shapely legs and loved showing them off, the origin of the fanny pack is 15th-century Florence, and that babies in that period looked like shrunken men.
Beyond these initial invaluable lessons we just learned, the frescoes had a much more significant meaning for the members of the confraternity. Eight of the ten lunettes depict the Works of Corporal Mercy, performed by the Buonomini themselves. Look around and it will start to make sense as you see the men giving food to the poor, burying the dead, visiting the sick, etc. So essentially, the frescoes were a “how to” manual for the men in the room who were going to perform these good works throughout Florence. All of the frescoes were painted by the renowned artist Domenico Ghirlandaio and his school (he was also a biggie in Florence until his pupil Michelangelo showed him up…these poor teachers).
Fashion side note: Although it is not the case with this oratory, many confraternities sport images of men shrouded in white or black hooded robes above the entrances to their chapter rooms (the chiostro dello scalzo that Meg wrote about is one such example). To many unaware American tourists an image of a man fully decked out in a white hooded robe may not conjure the best connotations. Don’t you fret though. The fashion choice of these confraternity men was purely humble as they required their good deeds to be performed anonymously, assuring that their acts were for the glory of God rather than themselves. Phew…glad we cleared that one up. The ghost sheet-like costumes are largely out of style as little Florentine bambini would burst into tears upon seeing these hooded men. However, occasionally a few still wander around the city, insisting on keeping the tradition alive. Back to the art! The other two frescoes, the two on the wall above the tabernacle, are scenes from the life of St. Martin. To the left of the altar we see Martin dividing his cloak for the beggar and to the right we see the Dream of St. Martin, thus the snoozy fellas.
The inspirational work of these more than 500-year-old frescoes is far from over. The Buonomini are an active confraternity to this day in Florence and meet Friday afternoons in this space. Although they don’t walk around shrouded in white bed sheets like they used to, their charitable acts do remain anonymous. If these “good men” and beautiful frescoes have inspired you to help the poor while you’re on your trip, drop a euro in the slot to the right of the door on the exterior (don’t worry, I’m pretty sure charity doesn’t compromise the “freeness” of this activity).
The Oratory of the Buonomini of San Martino is just one example of why keeping the arts alive and well-funded in Florence is vital to the pulse and the heart of the city (for more information about keeping the arts and culture thriving see introducing: team florens). With that little burst of fine art, good works, and history, head out to bustling Florence once again. But return proudly, knowing that you discovered one small bit of Florence’s myriad hidden treasures. And hey, how about we keep this our little secret?