You’re nostalgically strolling down Via Calzaiuoli on your last night in Florence. The street glistens with sparkly hats stacked atop the heads of salesmen. Light-up toy helicopters swirl to remarkable heights into the night sky above you. A tiny Mini Mouse cutout dances to LMFAO on the street corner (seriously how does that work?!). You’ve just about made it down the street when you spot the knock-off Prada bag that you’ve hated yourself for eye-balling your whole trip sitting majestically on a blue tarp. That’s it, you cave. You cave to all of it. All those days (maybe months?) of avoiding eye contact with street vendors and cleverly dodging makeshift displays were for nothing as you fold to your inner crazed tacky adolescent tourist. The next day you find yourself rich with your tawdry treasures, but much to your horror, the € 6.50 that you needed to visit the Uffizi on your last day is gone! How will you break it to your mother that you went all the way to Florence and didn’t see any Botticelli or Giotto? It’s ok, we have a plan.
Many tourists are surprised to discover (or perhaps never do) that you don’t have to go to the Uffizi or the Accademia to see works of art by the masters. In fact, almost every church in Florence displays a masterpiece or two tucked away in a dark chapel. Today, we are taking you to the church of Ognissanti (All Saints) to see works of art done by some of Florence’s A-Team. To note: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Giotto. And the best part – no ticket price, no line, and no crowds!
Caveat: As much fun as “church sleuthing” for works of art is, please do go to the museums! Museums are the best. Meg and I even promise to find you some free museum days to make it easier on your pocketbook.
Distance: 1.1 km
Time: 13 minutes
To find this secret stash of Renaissance art, begin in Piazza della Signoria. Exit the west side of the Piazza towards Via Por Santa Maria. Turn left on this street then take your first right onto Via delle Terme (road of the Roman Baths!). You will follow this charming via all the way to the posh Piazza Santa Trinita. Continue straight across the piazza. The road is now Via di Parioni. Follow this street until it brings you to yet another piazza. Again continue straight. This time the road will be called Borgo Ognissanti. The name of the street and directional signs will ensure you that you are headed in the right direction. In a couple of minutes you will come upon Piazza Ognissanti. The church, to your right, will be obvious.
As always, be sure to avoid siesta hour when planning your visit. Ognissanti opens its doors between 8 am and noon as well as 4 pm and 6 pm.
Before you dash in, look up to the lunette above the doorway. Here you’ll find a glazed terracotta that adds a pop of color to the otherwise monochrome facade. Along the bottom you’ll see a row of saints below the crowning of the mother of all saints (pun intended), Mary. The work is attributed to Benedetto Buglioni. Ok, not one of the big guys, but this sure is pretty to look at. And at the end of the day, isn’t that why we really love art?
After admiring, take a step through the large double doors into the 13th-century church. If you’re not convinced that it looks very Gothic you have good reason. The church was remodeled more than a few times. Today the church drips in Baroque decor added in the mid 17th century. The ornate interior is a sharp contrast to the original church that was most likely a very austere and simple monastic setting for the Umiliati order of monks. For the wealthy, art-happy parishioners of Ognissanti during the Renaissance, however, this just wouldn’t do. So thank the upper-class residents of the Ognissanti neighborhood who bring to you this quick-fix museum substitute today.
Now for the art! Stroll over to the second altar on your right. As Meg mentioned last week in her cenacolo crawl, Ghirlandaio painted the last supper in the monks’ refectory. So it is no surprise that we find his hand in the church as well. The Madonna della Misericordia that you see above this altar was painted by Ghirlandaio for the Vespucci family. That’s right, as in Amerigo Vespucci, as in our country’s namesake. Weird how everything in life comes back to Florence, huh? In fact, it is said that the young man with the dark hair, on Mary’s right, wearing the “go get em” expression is a portrait of Amerigo. Scholars also toss around the idea of the blonde, unveiled woman as the renowned Florentine beauty Simonetta Vespucci. It is often said that Simonetta was the muse and model for many of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings. If all of this is true, then we are all quite familiar with what is under that modest red cloak!
Obviously not all of Botticelli’s paintings were exactly church appropriate, but move ahead a few meters, between the third and fourth altars, to find a Botticelli that is! This painting of St. Augustine in His Study was executed in 1480 upon the commission of the Vespucci family yet again. To ensure proper credit for the painting, the Vespucci coat of arms hangs on the wall above St. Augustine’s head. Although a masterful work by Botticelli, I think the best part is a line written in the open book behind St. Augustine. Translated it reads, “Where is Fra’ Martino? He fled. And where did he go? He is outside Porta al Prato.” This snarky little dig references one of the many escapades of one of the more wily monks of Ognissanti. Oh, Sandro! You jokester!
Do a 180 and find a very similar painting on the other side of the nave directly across from St. Augustine. This is St. Jerome in His Study, also commissioned by the Vespucci family, but painted by Ghirlandaio. Why St. Jerome and St. Augustine you may wonder? Both saints were forward thinkers of their time and doctors of the church. The Vespucci’s saw them as good parallels to the the Renaissance. Remember, during this era pretty much every major Florentine family was playing “keeping up with the Medici.” Commissioning art by the Renaissance top dogs for your local church was a standard move in this cut-throat game.
For the grand finale head to the front of the church and turn to look down the left transept. You know that overwhelming feeling of complete joy when you find a forgotten $20 bill in a pocket of your dirty jeans? Now imagine how you would feel if that $20 bill was a Giotto masterpiece. That is essentially the story of the brilliant blue Giotto Crucifix that hangs before you. The cross was originally mounted atop the choir screen of the church in the early 1300’s. However, in the mid 1500’s when the screen came down, in accordance with Counter-Reformation remodeling requirements, the cross was stashed in a back room amid shuffle. Forgotten about for over 400 years, the cross was finally taken out of storage for a good cleaning in the year 2000. The crucifix was so grimy from centuries of dirt buildup that scholars didn’t even give the work a second look. They passed it off as a work by one of the many Giotto wannabes of the day, rather than by the master himself. However, with a thorough cleaning the immaculate details of the cross were revealed, catching the attention of experts and earning an official attribution to Giotto and his crew. The now radiant crucifix found its way back to the interior of Ognissanti in 2010.
Make sure to take a look around the rest of the church to see more beautiful works of art and tombstones of some prominent Florentines, including Mr. Botticelli as well as the lovely Simonetta Vespucci. The neighboring tombstones remind us that these two were neighbors in life. Perhaps this theory that Simonetta modeled for Botticelli isn’t so crazy after all. Or, maybe it just means that Botticelli was the neighborhood peeping Tom.
You did it! Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Giotto and you get to keep your sequin hat and knock-off Prada bag. As it turns out, you can have it all. Thanks Ognissanti!