On the east side of Piazza di San Pier Maggiore tower the three tall arches of a portico, almost all that remains of the church which gave the piazza its name. San Pier Maggiore was largely demolished in 1784, but we know what it once looked like, thanks to the work of Giuseppe Zocchi (1711-1764). Zocchi was a vedutista, a painter of views. View painting, which reached its apex during the 18th century, was a peculiarly Italian preoccupation, stemming from a strong feeling of civic pride and sense of place.
The names of the view painters Francesco Guardi and Giovanni Antonio Canal (better known as Canaletto) in Venice and Giovanni Battista Piranesi in Rome are familiar to many, but their contemporary in Florence is little known outside his native city.
Zocchi was commissioned by Marchese Andrea Gerini to record all the major landmarks of Florence, which he did in a series of drawings. Twenty-five of the drawings were turned into engravings and published in 1744 under the title Scelta XXIV vedute delle principali contrade, piazze, chiese, e palazzi della città di Firenze. The book is an invaluable guide to 18th century Florence.
The 16th century Chapel of the Popes (Cappella dei Papi), which is part of the complex of Santa Maria Novella, has now opened its doors to the public as part of a guided tour.
The chapel was built in 1515 on the occasion of the official visit to the city of Leo X (r. 1513-21), the first Medici pope. The decoration of the chapel was entrusted to Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio (1483-1561, son of the famous Domenico Ghirlandaio), who, owing to his extensive commitments elsewhere, only managed to paint a single fresco, that of the Coronation of the Virgin.
The authorities turned to a young artist by the name of Jacopo Carucci (1494-1557), better known as il Pontormo, who painted, amongst other things, the beautiful fresco of Santa Veronica, and to Andrea di Cosimo Feltrini (1477-1548), who painted the grotteschi.
The chapel is situated on the first floor of the Chiostro Grande, the largest cloister in Florence, which is also part of the guided tour.
For centuries in Florence, March 25th, not January Ist, was the start of the new year. The city didn't adopt the practise of starting the year on January 1st until 1750.
There is a large plaque in the Loggia dei Lanzi, which records the change. It had been decreed in November 1749 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco Stefano (r. 1737-65).
March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.
Florence abounds with images of the Annunciation, but the most famous one of all takes the form of a fresco and can be found in the church of Santissima Annunziata. (which is dedicated to the Madonna of the Annunciation).
According to legend, the fresco was painted in the 14th century by Frate Bartolomeo. It would, perhaps, be more accurate to say that the fresco was mostly painted by the good monk, for the face of the Madonna is said to have been completed by an angel while he was asleep. Divine intervention gave the image of the Annunciation miraculous powers and Santissima Annunziata soon became an important place of pilgrimage.
The ancient pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella, one of the oldest in the world, has been pedalling pills, potions and powders for centuries.
The pharmacy is now part of the famous Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, which occupies buildings once belonging to the Dominican convent of the same name. The main sales room was once the medieval Cappella di San Niccolo. Nothing remains of the chapel's original decoration, but its small sacristy boasts a well-preserved set of 14th century frescoes.
The frescoes illustrate scenes from the Passion of Christ and were commissioned by the wealthy Acciaiuoli family. They were painted by Mariotto di Nardo (c.1365-1424) between 1385 and 1405.
A member of the family, Angelo Acciaiuoli, who was the bishop of Florence, appears in the scene of the Crucifixion, together with a rather grim-faced lion, a symbol of the family's coat of arms.
On March 6th, 1475, one of the greatest geniuses in the history of art was born. His name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. He is now known, simply, as Michelangelo.
‘I record that today, this 6th of March 1474*, a male child was born to me; I named him Michelagnolo; and he was born Monday morning four or five hours before dawn.’ So wrote Michelangelo's father, Ludovico.
Michelangelo died in Rome on February 14th 1564, less than a month before his eighty-ninth birthday. Although Michelangelo spent the last thirty years of life in Rome, he wanted his mortal remains to be buried in Florence. His body was duly returned, where it was interred in the church of Santa Croce.
*According to the Florentine calendar, when the new year started on March 25th.
Although all three of the original bronze doors have been permanently removed from the Baptistery, the beautiful bronze door jambs and lintels remain in situ.
In 1423 the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) produced a bronze frame for the lintel and jambs of the north portal, which is decorated with reliefs of creeping foliage strewn with flowers, fruits and animals.
The two fictive rings at the corners of the lintel, which appear to support the festoons of foliage, recall the popular custom, during festive celebrations, of hanging wreaths of flowers and fruits above doors.
Ghiberti and his son Vittore fashioned the frame of the east portal between 1449 and 1452, employing a similar scheme to the one they employed on the north portal. The vine creepers on the door jambs climb out of a vases. At the centre of the lintel, we see an eagle, symbol of the Arte di Calimala (the guild which took care of the Baptistery), between two bunches of grapes, symbols of the Eucharist.
In 1452 the guild immediately commissioned Ghiberti to design a frame for the south portal, which was completed in 1466 by his son Vittore. Giorgio Vasari described it as 'the rarest and most beautiful thing that one can see in bronze.'
Ghiberti junior added a number of new elements, such as heads and figures, to his father's decorative scheme. The floral decoration on the jambs sprouts from vases, which are held up by the almost naked figures of Adam and Eve. The lithe beauty of Eve seems to foreshadow the elegance of Mannerist bronzes.
At either end of the portico, in front of the church of Santissima Annunziata, is a shield bearing the profile of a black head set against a white background. This is the coat of arms of the Pucci family, once one of the major clans in Florence, who were patrons of the church.
The white band, which is tied around the head, bears three letter Ts, which stand for the family motto Tempore tempora tempera (Time is a great healer). An earlier motto had been Candida Praecordia (White at heart).
The headband had originally been decorated with three hammers, symbolising, perhaps, an ancestor's membership of the carpenters' guild.
The Pucci family pile, which is one of the largest palaces in Florence, lies near the church.
A few metres from the famous Porta del Paradiso, and ignored by almost everyone, stand two ancient porphyry columns.
The columns were a gift (1107) from the city of Pisa, in thanks for the aid Florence had provided in a naval battle against Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean sea.
The two columns were reputed to possess magical properties, as it was possible to see, reflected in their polished surface, any acts of treason against the state. However, the wily Pisans, before handing the columns over to the Florentines, passed them through a furnace, thus destroying their lustre and, consequently, their magical powers.
The two columns were once freestanding in the space between the Baptistery and the Cathedral, which was known as the paradiso, hence the nickname of Ghiberti's bronze door.
When, in 1410, Baldassare Cossa was elected Pope John XXIII, there was only one small problem, the church already had a pontiff (Pope Gregory XII).
In fact, it had two, as Pedro Martinez de Luna claimed to be Pope Benedict XIII. This was the time of the Western Schism, a spilt within the Roman Catholic Church, which lasted from 1378 until 1417.
Cossa took the name John in honour of Saint John the Baptist, a reliquary of one of whose fingers he possessed. He only remained 'pope' for five years; he was deposed in 1415 and tried for a number of crimes. Baldassare died in Florence in 1419 and is buried in the Baptistery.
Although the Catholic Church regards him as an antipope, the inscription on his tomb (the work of Donatello and Michelozzo) proclaims: 'JOANNES QUONDAM PAPA XXIII'.
When, in 1958, Angelo Roncalli was elected pope, he chose the name John XXIII, thus affirming the anti-papal status of Baldassare Cossa.
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