WALKS IN FLORENCE: CHURCHES, STREETS AND PALACES
SUSAN AND JOANNA HORNER
Chapter XXIII: Pia Casa di Lavoro – Borgo Allegri – Accademia Filarmonica – House of Michael Angelo – The Villani
Behind the Church of Sta. Croce, and within the second circuit of walls, was the old mint, Zecca Vecchia, where the coinage took place, until the building for the same purpose in the Uffizi was finished. North of Sta. Croce is the Via de’ Malcontenti, appropriately named, since along this street criminals were led to execution beyond the Porta alla Giustizia. They were accompanied by the Black Brothers, Confraternità dei Neri – instituted in 1361, who, like the Misericordia, devoted themselves to acts of mercy; the chief vocation of the Black Brothers was to administer the last consolations to those condemned to die, and they built a chapel beyond the Porta alla Giustizia, where they enclosed a cemetery for the burial of such unhappy persons.
At the end of the Via de’ Malcontenti there once existed two convents, the Monticelli and the Monte Domini; both were suppressed during the French occupation, and the two buildings thrown into one became the Pia Casa di Lavoro, or workhouse of Florence.
The Franciscan nuns of Monticelli had their convent first outside the walls, on a rising ground beyond the Porta Romana, whence the name; it was destroyed during the siege of 1529, to make room for the fortifications; the nuns were then conveyed within the town, and called their new habitation Monticelli. It was in the old Convent of Monticelli that Piccarda Donati, the sister of Corso Donati, and a cousin of Gemma Donati, the wife of Dante Alighieri, took the veil as Sister Costanza. Piccarda became a nun to avoid a marriage with Messer Rossellino della Tosa; but her father Simone Donati and her brother Corso carried her forcibly from her refuge, and insisted on her union with della Tosa. No sooner had the marriage ceremony ended, than Piccarda threw herself on her knees before the crucifix, entreating for protection, when she suddenly became so ill that her father was constrained to yield to her request, and to send her back to her convent, where she died in eight days. Dante has placed Piccarda in Paradise, in the moon, or lowest heaven, reserved for those who, however involuntarily, had broken their vows. The description of Piccarda is one of the most beautiful passages in the “Paradiso.” To the question –
Grazioso mi fia, se mi contentiPiccarda replies –
Del nome tuo, e della vostra sorte?
Io fui nel mondo Vergine sorella!The Convent of Monte Domini, like that of Monticelli, was formerly outside the walls, and was removed hither during the siege of 1529. When the French converted both buildings into a workhouse for the aged and infirm, the name of Piccarda’s convent was suppressed, and the Pia Casa di Lavoro is known as the Monte Domini; a school for indigent children has been lately added. The institution was in a neglected state under the late grand-ducal government, but the praiseworthy exertions of the Florentine municipality have made it a real charity, and the order, cleanliness, and cheerful, wholesome life within its walls render it worthy the attention of all interested in the subject of workhouses.203 No able-bodied man or woman is admitted; work, according to the ability of each individual, is required from all; a pleasant garden within the cloisters of the old convents is used for their recreation, and a playground is set apart for the young. Boys and girls receive a good education, and workshops are attached to the institution, which supply the means for teaching each child some branch of trade, before he is sent out to earn his own livelihood. The director, who has his office in the building, is ready at stated times to see any of the inmates, and to listen to complaints, with a view to redress every well-founded grievance. The person appointed is an educated gentleman, and he is assisted by a council. The fund for the support of the Pia Casa di Lavoro is supplied by the municipality.
E se la mente tua ben mi riguarda
Non mi ti celerà l’ esser più bella;
Ma riconoscerai ch’ io son Piccarda
Che posta quì con questi altri beati
Beata son nella spera più tarda.202
Paradiso, canto iii.
The Via Ghibellina was thus named in 1261, in commemoration of the Ghibelline victory at Montaperti. The large building nearest the walls is the Murate, now the prisons of Florence, but formerly the convent of those nuns who left their hermitage on the Ponte all Grazie to seek a more commodious dwelling. When Catharine de’ Medici was a child of seven years of age, she was brought to the Murate, and placed under the protection of the nuns, during the siege of 1529.
A narrow, straggling, dirty street, crossing the Via Ghibellina, bears the pleasant name of Borgo Allegri; here the car was once kept which carried the Sacred Fire from San Biagio to the Canto dei Pazzi and to the Cathedral, on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. In this part of the borough, beyond the second circuit of walls, between San Pietro Maggiore and Sta. Croce, were gardens, in which, according to tradition, Cimabue had his first workshop or studio. Here he painted his Madonna enthroned, now in St. Maria Novella, a wonderful picture for the time; and here the painter was visited by King Charles of Anjou, when in Florence on his way from France to Naples. The story is thus related by Vasari: “Cimabue painted on panel a picture of our Lady, for the Church of Santa Maria Novella, which work was of greater size than any yet executed…. Whence it excited so much wonder in the people of that age, that it was borne in solemn procession with rejoicings and with trumpets from the house of Cimabue to the church, and he received great rewards and honours. It is said, as may be seen in records of the old painters, that whilst Cimabue was painting this panel in certain gardens near Sta. Croce, King Charles the Elder of Anjou passed through Florence, and, among the entertainments to do him honour by the people of the city, he was taken to Cimabue’s picture; as no one had until then obtained a glimpse of it, a vast crowd of men and women collected making great signs of rejoicing whilst it was exhibited to the king, and pressing upon one another; and because of the joy this occasioned in the neighbourhood, the district was called Borgo Allegri (Joyful Borough).”
The Accademia Filarmonica and the Pagliano Theatre – the largest theatre in Florence – occupy the site of the Stinche Vecchia, the old prison, which succeeded that of the tower called Il Pagliazzo, in the Piazza di Santa Elisabetta. The Stinche was built in 1301, on ground which had belonged to the same Ghibelline family of Uberti who sold the land on the Arno to Altafronte. Just as the building was ready for use, the Florentines had subdued a powerful family or clan, at some distance from the city, whom they brought captives to Florence, and these were the first occupants of the prison, which was thenceforward called by the name of their castle, the Stinche. In later times, only debtors were confined here, and finally all prisoners were lodged in the Bargello. Among the men of note who were imprisoned in the Stinche was Carnesecchi, when he wrote a piteous appeal for the means to provide himself with sufficient food, addressed to the Grand-Duke Cosimo I., already mentioned in the National Library.
On the staircase of the Accademia Filarmonica are the remains of a singular old fresco, supposed to have been painted by Giottino, called the Scimia della Natura. It represents an allegory of the Expulsion of the Duke of Athens, whose portrait is the tall figure to the right; St. Anna enthroned is supported by angels on either side; she points to the Palazzo Vecchio, represented as it then stood. The saint presents the banners of the city of Florence to the new guardians, who, clothed in armour, kneel and do her homage. The dethroned duke tramples on the symbols of justice and law, and clasps a monster emblematical of treason, a hoary human head with the tail of a scorpion, - the usual symbol of the Gentile or heretic, and significant of the hatred with which the tyrant was regarded.
A tabernacle outside the Accademia Filarmonica, at the corner of the street, refers to the former prison; it is a good example of the powers of Giovanni di San Giovanni, and represents a Florentine merchant bestowing alms on the prisoners, who are looking through the bars of the windows; the Saviour and two saints stand beside the charitable donor, and angels hover above.
Near the Filarmonica a street crosses the Via Ghibellina, called the Via del Diluvio – the Street of the Flood – a continuation of the Via del Fosso. All this quarter was subject to floods from the Arno, when the Piazza di Santa Croce formed a peninsula, or island, in the river. In the Via del Fosso, the Palazzo Conte Bardi is an interesting specimen of Florentine architecture, and was probably an early work of Brunelleschi; twelve slender columns support round arches in the court. The external ornaments on this palace are among the earliest specimens extant of the mural painting peculiar to Florence.204
Behind the Pagliano Theatre is a small piazza in front of the Church of San Simone, which was built by the Benedictines of the Badia, in 1209, on the site of a little oratory which stood in their vineyard; the church was restored in modern taste in 1630. Here was buried the Florentine painter, Raffaellino del Garbo. An ancient record informs us that in 1294 the Commune assigned twenty lire for deepening the fosse from the Porta Ghibellina to the Porta San Simone, which stood near the present church. In the piazza is the Palazzo Serati, one of the old buildings of Florence, with its steep Middle-Age staircase. It belongs to a lady who is the last representative of the family.
Nearly opposite the Pagliano Theatre is the house of Michael Angelo Buonarotti. A small ivory bust of Michael Angelo, on a pedestal of lapislazuli, resting on a column of Oriental alabaster, stands in the centre of the first room. At the further end is the mezzo-relievo of Hercules and the Centaurs, a subject which was suggested by Politian, and executed by Michael Angelo with so much ability as to astonish all who beheld so near an approach to the antique. The sculptor himself set a high value on this relief, and would never part with it, but even in old age took pleasure in its contemplation.205 In the gallery beyond, the events in the life of the great sculptor are commemorated by frescos. The subjects on the ceiling are allegorical. A fine seated statue of Michael Angelo by one of his scholars is placed near the entrance, and in the centre of the room, preserved under glass, are casts of his wax models for the statue of David, the “Day” of the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, &c. The room beyond is surrounded by frescos representing the ancestors of the sculptor. A female portrait here is supposed to represent Vittoria Colonna. The most interesting part of this house is a light closet, the existence of which had been forgotten until it was accidentally discovered by the wife of the last Buonarotti. This cabinet appears to have been the study of Michael Angelo, and where we may suppose him to have written his noble sonnets, and designed his great works in sculpture; his crutch is on the wall, but his slippers, which were once exhibited, have been removed.
In a room (numbered five) Michael Angelo’s model for
the statue of David, with several others of inferior interest,
are exhibited; such as that for his group of Hercules and
Cacus, which he was not allowed to execute; also a copy of the
antique group, now under the Loggia de’ Lanzi, and of which
there is a replica in the Palazzo de’ Pitti, representing Ajax
supporting the body of Patroclus. In all these little
models we can perceive the true comprehension of the grand in
nature, and the powerful invention as well as skill of the
great artist. A collection of pictures and Etruscan
remains are likewise exhibited in these rooms.
Returning to the first room, a door to the left of the entrance leads to the apartment containing architectural and anatomical drawings, as well as plans for the fortifications of Florence. No. 15 is a Madonna and Child, in which the artist has combined grace and tenderness with his usual strength of treatment. No. 13 contains sketches for his Last Judgment.
In the court below is a slab of sandstone with the figure of an Etruscan warrior in relief, nearly nude; his hair hangs loosely down his back; he holds a spear in one hand, and a lotus flower with a little bird on a stalk in the other; this slab was discovered at Fiesole, and, from the Egyptian rigidity of the figure, it may be supposed to belong to a very early period.
Leaving the house of Michael Angelo, the visitor arrives at a small street between the Via Palagio and the Via Ghibellina called the Via Giraldi, in which are the remains of the Church of SS. Procolo e Nicomede, one of the oldest in Florence; it belonged to the monks of the Badia, but was suppressed by the Grand-Duke Pietro Leopoldo. Opposite were the houses of the Villani family, where lived the celebrated chroniclers of that name. Their residence is now included in the Palace of prince Borghese in the Via Ghibellina.
Giovanni and Matteo Villani were born early in the fourteenth century; the elder brother filled many honourable offices in the State, such as Master of the Mint, and Commissioner appointed to superintend the construction of the Gates of the Baptistery, and the Campanile of the Badia. He was, however, falsely accused of peculation, and thrown into prison. Though acquitted and released, it was only to meet with fresh misfortunes: he became a partner in the mercantile house of Buonaccorsi, which was involved in the bankruptcy of the Bardi and Peruzzi, occasioned by Edward III of England repudiating his debts, incurred for his invasion of France. In 1339, Edward issued a decree suspending all payments to creditors of State, not excepting his “beloved bankers Bardi and Peruzzi of Florence.” The debt was accordingly never paid.206 Giovanni Villani died of the plague in 1348. His Treatise on the Gold Florin is little known; his most famous work is his Chronicle, the first ten books of which bring the history of his country down to the year 1303; but he had not completed more than two books of the second part when his death interrupted the work. The best edition is that of 1587, made by Baccio Valori, whose house and bust have been described in the Via degli Albizzi. Giovanni’s son Matteo made a copy of his father’s work, which became the property of the celebrated translator of Tacitus, Bernardo Davanzati, and is now in the Riccardi Library of Florence. Another Matteo, the brother of Giovanni, continued the Chronicle until 1363, when he also died of the plague. His son, Filippo Villani, who wrote a commentary on the “Divina Commedia” of Dante, added forty-two chapters to the Chronicle of his father and uncle, bringing the history down to 1365. The Chronicle has not only the merit of being a minute and faithful record of the times in which the Villani lived, but it is considered a model for elegance of style and purity of language; in both of which, however, Filippo is greatly inferior to those who preceded him. The remains of Giovanni, of his brother Matteo, and of his nephew Filippo, repose side by side in the vaults of Sta. Croce.
The last division of the Via Ghibellina, opposite the Bargello, where once stood the residences of the formidable Counts Guidi, bears the name of Via del Palagio. This powerful family were expelled from their possessions in the Casentino by the Florentines in the year 1400. The district of the Casentino, behind the mountains of Vallombrosa, contained the principal cities of the Guidi – viz., Palagio and Montemezzano; they were united in one community, under the name Palagio Fiorentino, and annexed to the Republic.
Athens, Duke of, driven from Florence 1343
Buonarotti, Michael Angelo, born 1475
Buonarotti, Michael Angelo, died 1564
Cimabue, Giovanni, born 1240
Crecy, Battle of 1346
Donati, Corso, died 1308
Edward III. Of England began to reign 1327
Edward III. Of England, died 1377
Ghibelline, Via, named 1261
Guidi, Counts, conquered by Florentines 1400
Montaperti, Battle of 1260
Monticelli, Convent of, founded 1269
Poitiers, Battle of 1356
San Simone, Church of, built 1209
San Simone, Church of, restored 1630
Villani Giovanni died 1348
Villani Matteo died 1363
Villani Filippo died after 1404
“Grateful ‘twill be to me, if thou content me203 The philanthropist, the Marchese Carlo Torrigiani, took especial interest in the welfare of this institution, and left money for the supply of good beds for the inmates.
Both with thy name and with you destiny?”
“I was a Virgin Sister in the world,
And if thy mind doth contemplate me well,
The being more fair will not conceal me from thee;
But thou shalt recognize I am Piccarda
Who, stationed here among these other blessed,
Myself am blessed in the lowest sphere.”
Chapter XXIV: Sta. Maria in Campo – Banca Nazionale – San Michele dei Visdomini – Palazzo Dino Campagni – Hospital Sta. Maria Nuova – Sant’ Ambrogio
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