the capponi chapel

Mannerism: an artistic style of art popular in the mid-16th century that is undeniably weird but also totally awesome

Ok, so I didn’t get that definition out of my old Art History textbook, but that’s pretty much it. And if you don’t believe me take a stroll over to the Oltrarno to check out the Capponi Chapel and get weirded out for yourself!


Distance: .5 km
Time: 7 minutes
Cost: $0

Exit Piazza della Signoria out of the southwest corner. Turn left on Via Por Santa Maria. Head straight across the Ponte Vecchio. Cross the main road right after the bridge then look to your left to the bite-sized Piazza di Santa Felicita. As with all churches in Florence, considering opening hours is a must before you head out on your adventure. Santa Felicita is open Monday – Friday 9:30 am – noon and 3:30 pm – 5:30 pm. It is closed to visitors Saturday and Sunday as to not disturb worshipers.

Piazza di Santa Felicita

Piazza di Santa Felicita by Professor Zucker

The door you enter will spit you out smack dab in front of the chapel which occupies the southwest corner of the church. A tall iron gate protecting the pitch black chapel will most likely have you thinking, “Hannah and Meg sent me to a dark corner of a cold church, I’m never using florence for free again.” But hold that thought and hold your ground. One of the most important tips for the freeloading traveler such as you and I, is that near every important work of art in an Italian church is a small box which will illuminate the piece when change is inserted. To keep this experience entirely free, as the name of the website promises, we will need you to play dumb on this one. Pretend you are merely a lover of art who wants nothing more than to  gaze into the chapel. Most importantly act completely oblivious to the said box. By peering through the iron rods you will attract attention and other tourists will quickly join. Upon seeing the box they will jump at the chance to save the day and salvage your and their viewing experience. Within moments the chapel will light up and look like this:

Capponi Chapel, Flickr, profzucker

The Capponi Chapel illuminated by Professor Zucker

Smile with satisfaction. You now have the 51 cents you need to make the pressed tourist centesimo with an impression of David  on it that you were dying for (it’s ok to admit, I have one). Now that the lights are on and you graciously thanked your donor, gaze in at the twisting bodies, disproportionate limbs, bulging eyes and psychedelic colors. What is this place and what am I on? It’s an entombment chapel, and as far as I know, hopefully you’re on nothing.

In the 1520’s Lodovico Capponi, from the affluent Capponi family of the Oltrarno, threw a hissy fit and told his family he couldn’t possibly stand to be near them anymore. So he did something drastic; he changed his parish from the family’s prominent Basilica of Santo Spirito, to the quaint Santa Felicita – almost an entire kilometer away! Whoa! Just to make sure that his family got the point, he commissioned the Mannerist artist, Jacopo Pontormo, to decorate a funerary chapel for him in the church. The space he purchased was originally designed by Filippo Brunelleschi – the guy who built the big dome. While Capponi kept the prominent architect’s design, he had the paintings white-washed, creating a canvas for the Mannerist artist to go nuts. And nuts he went.

Pontormo, The Lamentation, Capponi Chapel, 1525 – 28, photo by Professor Zucker

Although most visit the chapel to see The Lamentation, as seen above, the entire chapel can actually be seen as one large masterpiece rather than separate entities. My favorite theory is that the entire chapel represents all of the events that led to salvation – an obvious motif for a burial place. If that is the case, the whole shebang starts with an image of God painted on the ceiling (now lost) sending down the Angel Gabriel to ask Mary if she would like to be the mother of God (as seen below).

Pontormo, The Annunciations, 1525-28, photo by Professor Zucker

The stained glass window on the wall is a metaphor for the Incarnation. As light passes through glass without breaking it, so Mary is impregnated while keeping her virginity intact. So why does Mary look a little freaked out? Because the Angel Gabriel lets her know of the seven sorrows she will endure if she says yes. She envisions the worst, the death of her son, as she looks off across the chapel to The Lamentation.

Capponi Chapel

Capponi Chapel by Professor Zucker, on Flickr

Now check out the guys in corners twisting anxiously to catch the scene. These are the Evangelists, who watch intently so they can later write it down, pass the word along, and guide Lodovico to his ultimate salvation. Few! Got it all?

Pontormo/Bronzino, Evangelist, 1525 – 28, photo by Professor Zucker

If you’re a Mannerism fan, you’ll be excited to know that you can see the handiwork of baby Bronzino, Pontormo’s favorite pupil, in the chapel as well, especially in the depictions of the Evangelists.

Another way one could conceivably look at this work of art is as Pontormo’s little rebellion against the Renaissance. The artist had enough of the sticky, uptight obsession with ratios, balance and perfection. Instead he thought, “let’s get weird.” Although we aren’t exactly at modern art standards of weird yet, the boneless, disproportionate limbs, wacky colors, and seeming arbitrary lack of gravity would have been quite a statement to the rule-following Renaissance. No Vitruvian Men on these walls!

Although the Capponi Chapel is one tiny corner of a tucked away church in Florence, I believe it is one of Florence’s most unique masterpieces. So in the end let’s give Pontormo a pat on the back for sticking it to the Renaissance and giving us this wacky and awe-inspiring masterpiece you won’t want to miss.

PS – Want to see a self portrait of Pontormo? Check out the guy on the far right in the yellow cloak with the green scarf on his head. Peekaboo!

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7 comments

  1. How I wish that I had had this guided tour of the Capponi Chapel when I first saw it. I would very much have been able to better understand and enjoy it (not that I didn’t enjoy it at the time). Thank you.

  2. As an impressionable schoolgirl 30 years ago this blew my mind! I’ve been back once since and I’m so looking forward to seeing it again in a couple of days time. Thank you for a great blog. I can’t wait to soak up Florence.

  3. Lucy, we’re glad you love it a much as we do! I remember seeing it for the first time when I was studying abroad as an undergrad and was so moved. It’s hard to explain the beauty in a blog, so we are thrilled that you are lucky enough to go back for your third time. Enjoy Florence!

    1. Would you believe it Hannah! There was a funeral taking place … We did get to see it but couldn’t very well turn the lights on & by the time the funeral was over the Chapel closed & we had to leave to catch our plane. Still, it’s a great reason to come back again & I did get to see the Bronzino in Santa Croce which I haven’t seen before. Though had to pay 6 euros, it was worth it 😉 Thanks again.

  4. Oh no! That is so Italy for you though. You never know what to expect. Well I’m glad you at least were able to see “Christ in Limbo.” That is one of my all-time favorites, it really takes you aback when you round that corner doesn’t it? I’m glad you had a good time and hopefully you’ll be back sooner rather than later to see the chapel!

    1. I’ll definitely be back!! 🙂

  5. […] The Capponi Chapel, Piazza Santa Felicita: This little treasure chest is essentially one big Manneristic magic eye. I recommend dropping some coins in the box to illuminate the space. […]

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