Florence’s Cloister of Vows


Three sides of the Piazza della Santissima Annnunziata in Florence are arcaded. The original Brunelleschi scheme for the Ospedale degli Innocenti (described in my previous post) was continued on the opposite side by Sangallo the elder and completed in front of the façade of Florence’s holiest shrine, the basilica della Santissima Annnunziata, by Caccini at the end of the sixteenth century.

It’s what’s directly behind this façade that is the subject of an ongoing restoration of the frescoes that line the chiostro dei voti  –  the cloister of votive offerings given by the faithful for thanks to the Divine for graces, blessings and miracles received. This cloister, designed by Michelozzo and begun in 1497, was so long in a state of increasingly gloomy dilapidation that it was hardly looked at by visitors before they plunged into the ornate glories of the basilica itself with the shrine to the miraculous image of the Annunciation of the Virgin.

Yet it’s this cloister – an atrium really – that represents the greatest examples of late renaissance and mannerist fresco painting in Florence.

Here is a scheme of the paintings and their artists going from left to right in this cloister. On our recent visit I took pictures after or during the on-going restoration of this magnificent cycle of frescoes which should soon rank again as one of the glories of Firenze, restored as far as possible to their pristine condition.

No. Image before restoration

(Click on icon to see image)

Image after or during restoration

(Click on image to see larger view)

Painter Theme Subject Year
01                Cosimo Rosselli Life of Filippo Benizi Vocation of St Flippo’s life 1476
02     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi St Flippo heals a leper 1509-1510
03   Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Punishment of the blasphemers 1510
04     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Liberation of a person from the devil 1509-1510
05     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Death of Saint Filippi Benizi and resurrection of a child 1510
06     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Devotion of Florentines to San Filippo’s relics 1510
07     Andrea del Sarto Life of Virgin Mary Birth of the Virgin 1513-1514
08     Alesso Baldovinetti Life of Virgin Mary Worship of the shepherds 1463
09   Andrea del Sarto Life of Virgin Mary Journey of the Magi 1511
10     Franciabigio Life of Virgin Mary The Virgin’s Wedding 1513
11     Pontormo Life of Virgin Mary The visitation 1514-1516
12     Rosso Fiorentino Life of Virgin Mary Assumption of the Virgin 1517

 

An Innocent Place in Florence

The piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence is not only the city’s most beautiful square. It’s also its most humane. The Spedale degli Innocenti, with its superb Brunelleschi designed loggia, is not only the city’s first truly renaissance building, with its pioneer use of pietra serena stone, classically proportioned arches with between them, those delightful Della Robbia terracottas of babes in swaddling clothes and its characteristic stucco facade. It’s also Europe’s first children welfare institute. Founded by Florence’s silk guild in 1400 the Innocenti’s aim, which continues today with its nurseries, family consultation clinics, child adoption and protection agencies, is to carry out Jesus’ aim to ‘suffer little children to come unto me.’

The Innocenti is what is known in italian as ‘brofotrofio’ which means a place which cares for children whose parents may be still alive and known but whose circumstances do not permit them to look after their offspring properly. This is to be distinguished from an ‘orfanotrofio’, or orphanage, where children may have lost one or both parents.

Attittudes and solutions have, of course, changed over the ages. Finding suitable adoptive families is one answer today for children who have difficulties with their biological parents. Today the situation is even more difficult, as a recent news item revealed when a girl from a strict Islamic family in Florence refused to wear the veil and be forced into a loveless arranged marriage. In other words, she wanted to live the life of just  another normal italian girl in the country where she was born and educated in.

The Innocenti museum, which is not even a year old, is a wonderful example of how a museum can be recreated so that it truly reaches everyone in both mind and heart. It’s a model of how a museum can be truly made live. There is access for all and the modernism of a spectacular lift and staircase merge well with the old:

There are three sections to the museum. The first is historical and, with the help of interactive displays including archive photographs and recordings, traces the changing attitude towards what in England used to be called foundlings and which prompted Thomas Coram to found the UK equivalent of Florence’s innocenti and, again with generous munificence this time from people like Handel and Hogarth, helped improve life for children without proper families.

The drawers with the names of individual foundlings and the objects left with them, such as a coin split into two (so that if ever the day came when the child could find his/her family the other half kept by the family might prove that the child was indeed theirs) and the little biographies taken from the old records are truly touching testimonies of hard times.

In the case of Florence the benefactors included such artists as Ghirlandaio and Botticelli who donated some wonderful works to the foundation. These gorgeous paintings form part of the artistic itinerary of the museum and are one of Florence’s finest and most uncrowded picture galleries. Not surprisingly, the main subjects are the Virgin and Child, the Nativity and references to the massacre of the innocents

The third itinerary is the architectural one. With such placidly exquisite cloisters as the two for boys and girls there can be few more wonderful examples of the trancendental change renaissance architecture wrought upon Italian, indeed European, cities.

To crown the museum there’s what must be the most spectacularly placed bar in the city, equalling and perhaps surpassing the cafe at the top of London’s National Portrait gallery for its views:

While we visited this lovely place there were dads and mums taking their toddlers to the various departments the institute still manages today after almost seven hundred years continuous service to children and the community.

In the evening we were even treated to a fine concert of voci bianche (childrens voices) of the maggio Musicale fiorentino. The programme included everything from renaissance songs of springtime to Benjamin Britten. If anyone thinks there is nothing to beat an anglican children’s church choir they should have been at our concert.

It was so wonderful to feel the fluidity of Florentine history through the Renaissance as expressed through its humanity in treating innocent children, in creating new space through its architecture and in envisaging a museum, not yet a year old,  that truly gives honour to the city of the lily. Indeed, the Innocenti is a place for all ages in every sense of the word.

War and Love

On the road from Florence to Pontassieve is what Rudyard Kipling described as a city of silence. It’s the Commonwealth cemetery for those who fell in the campaign to liberate the beautiful country of Italy from the scourge of Nazi-Fascism. I visited it last week during my visit to the city of the Lily. Among the English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish there were many from India and Nepal:

King George V said ‘One Could Truly Say that the whole world is surrounded by the tombs of those fallen in war. I’m convinced that even in the years to come there will be no stronger evidence of the need for peace than this multitude of silent witnesses of the desolation brought by war.’

These words never ring truer than today when over half the news we hear daily is about war. At this moment there are twenty conflicts happening the world which are defined as wars according the Uppsala definition (over one thousand deaths per year). Four of the them have caused over ten thousand deaths last year alone with cumulative fatalities of two million in Afghanistan, one million in Iraq and over half a million in Syria so far.

The cemetery near Florence has a particular resonance, not just because of its silent witnesses but because it collects together Commonwealth soldiers from the allied Fifth and the Eighth armies which worked their way up the Italian peninsula in often impossible situations of steep Apennines and bridge-destroyed rivers. My dad was a tank driver in the Eighth army and was lucky enough to survive although so many of his comrades didn’t make it.

Love and War is an oxymoron of strange power. Indeed, out of war for my father came love as he met and married an Italian Red Cross nurse. I would not be writing this otherwise…

Let us meditate in these difficult times on the names of those who died in these places so that we can today travel and enjoy the wondrous loveliness of Italy in tranquillity and happiness. As I spent my time walking by the lines of tombstones, simply but exquisitely carved out of Carrara marble with the names of those who died and their regiment and some whose name was known only unto God, all lined up in a beautiful greensward between the road and the banks of the Arno, I could only wonder at how the senseless and pitiful activity of war can still continue in so much of the world today.

 

Salt waves shall break but I won’t catch their sound:

the peace that comes to cease all war, all strife

will be a limpid lake in sacred ground

where flowers bud with sempiternal Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florence’s (and the World’s) Beautiful Game

Do you love Florence? Are you interested in football? If so have you visited the football museum located at Coverciano in that city? It’s where the Italian Football Association has its headquarters, its training centre and where Pier Luigi Nervi’s architectural masterpiece is located – the first reinforced concrete football stadium ever built, dating from 1931 and where, besides memorable matches, such immortal singers as David Bowie also have given concerts.

Italy boasts a proud history of the beautiful game and has been world champion no less than four times: in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. ‘Gli Azzurri’ (or ‘light blues’ as they are called from the colour of their football jersey) are truly this country’s pride and joy and fully deserve this very well laid-out museum with helpful staff and an excellent archive.

The Museo Del Calcio, which I finally visited last week, is laid out in a historical sequence, starting from the late nineteenth century when athletic clubs used football to develop their members’ skills. The origin of football teams from these clubs is also apparent in the UK in such names as Charlton Athletic, our local south London team which was a firm favourite of the great Italian writer Italo Svevo (‘The Confessions of Zeno’)  when he was managing a paint factory near the college where I taught for a quarter of a century.

It’s so fascinating to follow the history of the Italian national football team and also to gaze in wonder at the jerseys of such greats as Pelé and Maradona.

It’s equally sad, too, to follow the tragedies of Italy’s magnificent international team: for example, the Superga disaster of May 1949 when an aircraft carrying the ‘Grande Torino’ football team, which included most of the country’s international players, crashed in thick fog on the side of the Superga hill near Turin killing thirty one persons, including the great Valentino Mazzola.

I should also mention that my grandfather, an avid sportsman, was a trainer of Inter football team in the years before World War One – something mentioned with pride in his obituary. Inter was founded in 1908 as ‘Foot-Ball Club Internazionale’ since the existing Milan team (originally known as the Milan cricket and football club) did not encourage foreign players. I am old enough to have recorded my grandfather’s account of Inter’s friendly game against Bayern Munich in 1910 (they lost but were applauded for their tenacity against a rather better funded and equipped German team.)

Although the modern history of football stems from England don’t forget that the game actually originated in Italy in mediaeval times. The official rules of the ‘Calcio Storico Fiorentino’ – a heady mixture of football, rugby and wrestling – were first laid down in 1580 by Giovanni de’ Bardi, a Florentine count. This fact is remembered in Florence’s annual traditional ‘Calcio Fiorentino in costume’ which is played on June 24th on Florence’s feast day for its patron saint, St. John the Baptist. Four teams fight it out for the grand finale:   Santa Croce Santo Spirito, Santa Maria Novella and San Giovanni. It’s also a great occasion for putting on one of the city’s most spectacular historical pageants.

Whether it’s the modern game you’re interested in (and especially if you’re a supporter of ‘Fiorentina’ la viola, Florence’s own football team – at present happily eighth in serie A – or whether you like to revel in the Calcio storico Fiorentino played out in the square before Santa Croce church your Florentine experience would certainly not be complete if you haven’t been present at one of the two versions of this emperor of all sports.

The Museo Del Calcio’s web site, including how to get there and opening times, is at:

http://www.museodelcalcio.it/

Easter Pilgrims

We were parked by the road side and thinking about the great lunch we’d just had when Sandra suddenly remarked to me that she thought she could see two mediaeval pilgrims approaching us. I had my doubts about the apparition she described but I need not have doubted her. Soon we were talking to two Franciscan pilgrims who had walked all the way from Sicily.

Talking to them we discovered that the pilgrims’ task was to reach every region of Italy. Brother ‘Fratell’ Biagio Conte belongs to the Mission of Hope and Charity of Palermo. He’d already walked across the terrible areas hit by the central Italian earthquakes of last year. His companion was from Hungary.

Fratello Conte told us his mission was to bring peace and serenity to all people, especially who have been hit hardest by adversity. ‘We mustn’t lose hope whatever else happens’, he advised us. ‘Especially in these times when too often people shut themselves in, build walls and exclude others’.

It was a truly wonderful moment to meet these pilgrims on Maundy Thursday, the day before Christ suffered his Crucifixion. And it seemed that meeting these persons was almost coming across another age when Faith was greater. Seeing and talking to them decorated with the shell of Saint James, long-bearded, garbed in green and carrying our Saviour’s cross truly made our day.

‘Brother Biagio said ‘some people give us bad looks – others tell us to go to hell but it doesn’t matter to us what they think. We are bringing the Easter message of peace in the confidence that hope shall never die. Today we’ve come from Arezzo and now we’re heading for Florence.

‘What wonderful ingenuity and, indeed, bravery’, I thought. How many of us would love to discard all the clap-trap of so-called civilized life and head for the road with blind faith and a smile on our lips whatsoever may happen to us!

With this thought I wish all my devoted blog readers and their friends a VERY HAPPY EASTER!

 

 

What’s Easter but resurging earth

beyond dark season’s blight;

reliving flesh, unseeding birth,

the new day over night.

 

Soil’s primal violence, cracking roots,

holds shaking of the skies,

tumescence of fresh shoots,

inconsolable eyes.

 

And must they fall upon this day

that ripped the veil in two?

And shall world’s peace still yet betray

and ever war be through?

 

The people weep when they might joy

at life anew refound;

could love reform what hates destroy

as Christ rose from the ground?

 

Sins fall like bombs upon the heart

and tear away its breath:

where is the strength, so far apart,

to conquer living death?

 

 

My Wife’s Illustrious Ancestor

As part of the continuing series of’ lezioni’ or lectures given by the Bagni di Lucca branch of Unitre, the University of the Third Age, I’m giving a talk at 4 pm today at the library of ex-Anglican church. The subject is ‘Giovanni Battista Cipriani – un pittore Toscano in Inghilterra’. The lecture will be delivered in Italian so you are warned. However, even if your knowledge of the world’s most beautiful language is limited you can still enjoy the afternoon as there will be plenty of pictures to illustrate the artist’s work.

(Giovanni Battista Cipriani 1727 – 85)

Giovanni Battista Cipriani was one of a distinguished group of Italians who made the United Kingdom their home, particularly in the eighteenth century, that age of enlightenment. They included such notable persons as Francesco Xaverio Geminiani, the Luccan composer (see my talk on him at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/lets-celebrate-francis-xaverio-geminiani/) and Giacomo Leoni, the Venetian architect who introduced Palladianism to England and whose masterpiece, Clandon House, owned by the National Trust, was so tragically gutted by a fire in 2015.

Among his considerable achievements Cipriani is especially noted for the following:

  • He raised the art of interior decoration and architectural embellishments to new heights
  • He improved graphic arts immensely especially with regard to posters, invitations and certificates
  • He was a co-founder, with Sir Joshua Reynolds, of Britain’s premier artistic institution, the Royal Academy
  • He collaborated with Robert Adam in producing some of the most exquisite furniture ever seen
  • He was a superb painter in his own right and contributed to the beautification of several English country houses

(Cipriani’s Decorations for Trafalgar House’s Music Room)

  • He painted the Gold state Coronation and the Lord Mayor’s coach

(H.M. The Queen’s Golden State Coach)

Last but not least Giovanni Battista Cipriani was an ancestor of my wife, Alexandra Antonia Cipriani, no mean artist herself and whose presence will grace my talk.

(Alexandra Antonia Cipriani – descendant of Giovanni Battista Cipriani)

So if you are in the area do drop in to Bagni di Lucca’s ex-Anglican Church, now library, at 4.00 pm and soak in the talent of an Italian – and a Florentine to boot – who did so much to raise standards of design and cultured living in eighteenth century England.

Of course, Italy today continues that great tradition of inspiring the improvement of so many cultural facets in the United Kingdom, whether it be in fashion, food, film or music. It is, therefore, a real tragedy that a group of mal-informed, and largely philistine, members of the British populace, through their apparently freely cast votes, have initiated a path that can only lead to greater isolation and ultimate perdition of all that the United kingdom was once famous for – the unconditional welcome of talented people from the continent – and other parts of the world – who have done so much through their effort and genius to contribute to the enhancement of the proudly eclectic nature of artistic and social life in those island.

Make it an Interesting Journey from BDL to Florence

The journey should be part of the joy of travelling from the Lucchesia to Florence. How many of us going by car just head for the Autostrada del Mare, Italy’s second oldest motorway dating back to the 1920’s, and speed along until we reach the city of the Lily?

Of course, if one is in a hurry that’s the best route to use. But there are luscious alternatives – and plenty of them. One of my favourite routes to get to Florence from Bagni di Lucca is to follow the Val di Lima to the Lima junction. From thence you either take the main route to Le Piastre which goes through San Marcello Pistoiese and over the Monte Oppio pass, or via Cecafumo and Prunetta. From Le Piastre it’s a pleasant descent into the Arno Valley and if you really want to take the Autostrada you can do so at the Pistoia toll-gate. Pistoia, with its gorgeous sights, merits at least a few hours to visit, especially as it’s this year’s city of culture. Otherwise, you could take strada regionale 66 (evocative number…) with a welcome break at Poggio a Caiano to visit the wonderful Medici villa there.

To return there’s nothing better than taking the FI-PI-LI, strada di grande comunicazione, from Florence but exiting at Lastra a Signa. Here you could stop and visit Caruso’s Villa (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/the-greatest-of-all-singers-his-villa/)

and thence travel along one of the Arno’s most picturesque stretches. This is where the river cuts through a gorge known as ‘La Gonfolina’. The road shares this part of the river course with the main Pisa to Florence railway.

Why is this area known as the Gonfolina? It’s perhaps because the word ‘Gonfio’ means swollen and it was this part of the Tuscan landscape that divides the Arno into two stretches. In ancient times the river would swell up in the upper stretch until it formed a lake which would overflow and cascade down to form a second lake.

There is still a part of the huge boulder which once damned this part of the Arno in Cainozoic times.

It’s this stone which appears in an engraving by Giuseppe Zocchi in 1744.

It’s also this stone which has inspired many folk tales.

On the stone there’s a plaque with an inscription by the great and curious mind of Leonardo da Vinci:

This reads:

“La Gonfolina, Sasso per antico unito co’ Monte Albano in forma d’altissimo argine il quale tenea ingorgato tal fiume in modo che, prima che versassi nel mare era dopo a’ piedi di tal Sasso, componea due grandi laghi de’ quali el primo è là dove oggi si vede finire la città di Firenze insieme con Prato e Pistoia”

Translated this is “Gonfolina, A rock, in ancient times forming part of the Monte Albano  which once divided the river into two stretches before it reaches the sea, each stretch forming a lake of which the first one reaches out to the city of Florence together with Prato and Pistoia”.

After this delightful part of the Arno the road takes one to Montelupo Fiorentino, famous for its terracottas and ceramics. From thence one could stop and have lunch at Empoli and visit the sights of this somewhat neglected but characterful town, including the Piazza degli Uberti with its fine church, the Pretorian palace the Pinacoteca and composer Busoni’s house.

Then it’s across the Arno valley, heading for Fucecchio, Bird-watcher could make a slight detour to the Padule di Fucecchio, one of Italy’s largest wetland areas and which provides some of the best bird observations in Italy. Thence it’s to Altopascio, another fascinating town with its Templar hostel and mythical bread. From Altopascio one can either head for Lucca or go to Marlia, the Serchio valley and Bagni di Lucca.

So do make the journey part of your delight in visit Florence from the Lucchesia. And there are still umpteen more routes to discover!

 

 

PS I’ve just realised we did this route more years ago than I care to remember – on our way to Empoli and San Miniato Tedesco, by bicycle from Florence. Ah those were the days!