I go to Santo Spirito in search of trinkets at artisan markets. I go to Santo Spirito on Sunday afternoons to bask on the sunny steps of the church, with a few good friends and a Gusta Panino. I go when I find myself in an outfit that I am proud to say pushes my preppy comfort zone or for a tourist-free afternoon stroll. I go to Santo Spirito, to simply stop, and breathe. It’s easy to become intoxicated with this artistic, authentic, enchanting neighborhood. Something about the slow pace makes you feel ok about being in Florence, and doing absolutely nothing. Everything about Santo Spirito is positively sublime. However, I am just as guilty as you in overlooking its most obvious treasure – the basilica itself. Santo Spirito is not only the architectural, spiritual, and political anchor of the Oltrarno, but it also houses an impressive assortment of masterpieces by Filippino Lippi, Alessandro Allori, and Michelangelo among others. And (with the risk of offending half of our readers) to top it all off, it looks kind of like the Alamo – right???
So please, do yourself a favor and take a ten minute break from your antique browsing and espresso-sipping one lazy afternoon in the piazza, and pop in to explore the true heart and epicenter of the Oltrarno – Santo Spirito.
Santa Maria del Santo Spirito is located just across the Arno. Head south crossing the Ponte Vecchio. Once across the bridge continue straight on Via de’ Guicciardini. The strada will take you to Palazzo Pitti. Turn right on Sdrucciolo de’ Pitti which runs exactly perpendicular to the piazza. Two blocks later you will find yourself in Piazza Santo Spirito and face to face with the Alamo…ahem, excuse me…the basilica. Hours are more limited than most churches so be sure to reference this before your visit.
Open every day but Wednesday. 9:30 – 12:30 and 4-5:30
Distance: 700 m
Time: 9 minutes
The Augustian Order founded the church in the mid-thirteenth century. Florentines spilled across the river with the construction of the Ponte Santa Trinita, populating the neighborhood around the formerly remote church. With this influx, Santo Spirito became the cultural center of the early Renaissance. In the mid-fourteenth century, Humanists such as Petrarch and Boccaccio met and corresponded with the friars of Santo Spirito regularly. Unfortunately, the brothers’ place of worship came crumbling down in a devastating fire later in the century. Plans to rebuild did not commence until 1396, and the first brick wasn’t laid until 1443 – and we complain about construction today! Perhaps Florentines prophetically knew just what, or should I say who, they were waiting around for – the greatest architect of the Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi.
The austere stucco facade of Santo Spirito is deceptive of the Brunelleschian masterpiece that lies beyond the doors. Brunelleschi originally had greater plans for the face of the basilica. However, his death early on in construction allowed his predecessors to take their own creative liberties with the plan. Student Andrea di Salvi put his own spin on the design in 1483. But like most construction projects in Florence, everybody was burned-out by the time they reached the facade project. Therefore, Salvi’s project, too, was left rough and unfinished until the 18th century. Only then did Florentines throw up their arms and finally slap some stucco over the rough stone exterior.
….I kind of love it though.
Enter the far right door and inside find Brunelleschi’s symphony of architecture come alive. The interior swells with hypnotically rhythmic arches, columns, circles, and squares. Due to one-too-many art history courses, the interior of Santo Spirito looks, to me, like the world’s biggest geometry equation. Brunelleschi’s very Renaissance obsession with order, geometry, and symmetry sculpt the structure. Proportions are anal and measurements are nothing but perfect. The dark pietra serena was chosen to contrast the light stucco, which highlights the hard edges of the geometry like a sharpened pencil against paper.
38 planned side chapels outline the space and deem Santo Spirito the protégé in any art history lesson on the purpose of family chapels in churches. The side chapels were actually a rather genius way for the Augustinians to have beautiful art by Renaissance masters to the church. And the sponsorship of a chaple was a genius way for families to not only promote their name to God, but show off to neighbors. Now that’s a win-win (and the fact that we get to indulge today rounds it out to a win-win-win). Everyone who was anyone in the Oltrarno had a chapel in Santo Spirito. Traditionally, the lots closest to the altar (where the Eucharist is kept) were the prime, most expensive real estate. That should tip you off to head to the front of the church to see the best art.
One of my favorites can be found in the right transept – Filippino Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Saints and Donors. The donors, Tanai de’ Nerli and his wife Nanna can be found kneeling on either side of the painting. Above Nanna stands St. Catherine, to whom the family had a particular devotion. Opposite Catherine is St. Martin (Tanai was a memeber of the Confraternity of San Martino de’ Buonomini). The painting bleeds Florence, with the tower of San Niccolo in the background and arches that mimic Santo Spirito itself framing the figures.
Next to Lippi’s masterpiece is a hauntingly beautiful image of St. Monica and the Augustinian Nuns. Although not definitive, most scholars land on the opinion that this is a work by Andrea del Verrocchio – the master of the masters Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.
There is now a lot of stuff I could say about the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, and catechismicly correct artwork in the sixteenth century, but I can hear your zzzzs across the bandwidth. So let’s cut to the controversial Michelangelo shall we?
Although not universally accepted, it is widely believed that the crucifix displayed in the Sacristy of Santo Spirito is indeed a work of a young Michelangelo. After Michelangelo’s guardian, the great Lorenzo de’ Medici, died, Michelangelo went to reside and study in the convent of Santo Spirito. Here he was given invaluable access to study the corpses at the Santo Spirito hospital. It was thought that this wooden figure of Christ on the cross was completed by the seventeen-year-old Michelangelo while staying with the brothers. The nakedness of Christ, while controversial, is true to scripture which states that Christ’s garments were taken from him.
With that, you hear the bells of the Baccio d’Agnolo bell tower drawing you back to the sunny piazza. Before you are completely consumed back into the land of lattes and lounging, consider checking out the Cenacolo which sits just off of the church. The former refectory now boasts an impressive collection of Romanesque sculptures and the famous Crucifixion fresco by Orcagna.
The art and history of the basilica of Santo Spirito itself makes the enchanting, intriguing, alluring neighborhood even richer. Proudly return to your comrades in the piazza, knowing that during the ten minutes they discussed mustaches and music, you saw a Michelangelo (maybe).