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  • Writer's pictureArchie Cornish, PhD

A Brief History of Sant'Ambrogio in Florence

What is Sant'Ambrogio?

Sant'Ambrogio is a medieval church dedicated to Saint Ambrose that contains artworks by leading lights of the Renaissance.


Sant'Ambrogio History

This charming, unobtrusive church tends not to feature in the itineraries of visitors to Florence, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s often squeezed aside by the more storied Santa Croce, just a few minutes’ walk away. Second, it’s a medieval building – the church dates from the 10th century, but evidence suggests a previous Christian establishment, perhaps a convent, on the site held to be the stopping place of Saint Ambrose (Ambrogio in Italian) on his visit from Milan.

In a city synonymous with the early Renaissance, medieval culture is easily forgotten; or, like Santa Croce, it serves as a kind of warm-up act for the big names to come. Sant’Ambrogio, which has stood in some form for a millennium, deserves our time. It’s also full of great paintings from the late 15th century (the apex of Florence’s Renaissance) reminding us that, for all our tidy categorising, buildings do not belong to a single period.

Ambrose, one of the early Church’s great Fathers or ‘Doctors’, died in 397. He’s venerated by Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions alike; among many grander honours, he’s also the patron saint of beekeepers. Alongside the three other Doctors (Gregory, Jerome and Augustine) he’s depicted here in Cosimo Rosselli’s splendid towering fresco. Rosselli painted the church’s interior in the 1480s, by which point the building had only been encompassed by the city proper for two centuries, after the city walls had been extended under the direction of Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century.

Despite its location on the margins of the city, the church became the centre of attention for pilgrims after a well-publicised miracle. A few days after Christmas in 1230 the parish priest – one Uguccione – forgot to clean a Communion chalice after administering Mass. The next day, Uguccione discovered a chalice full not of crusted wine but of blood – declared immediately to be the miraculous, healing blood of Christ. It was poured into a dedicated vessel, known as an ‘ampoule’, and prized as a relic by pilgrims. The church tells its own story in the Chapel of the Miracle, where Mino da Fiesole’s grand sculpture shows Uguccione demonstrating the miracle to astonished nuns. Elsewhere, you’ll find something equally rare, one of the few Renaissance depictions of a breastfeeding woman. The fresco of the Virgin Mary feeding the infant Christ is attributed to the workshop of 14th-century artist Orcagna. It’s a tender scene for which there are no direct comparisons in Florence.

Some of Sant’Ambrogio’s art achieved such renown that its original home was deemed too modest. The principal altar once was adorned with Filippo Lippi’s painting of the Virgin being crowned on entry into heaven. Known today as the Maringhi Coronation, named after its patron, it now lives in the Uffizi. The crowd of onlooking children, witnesses to the sacred event, are said to be modelled on the young ones of Florence. The children might have moved away, but Sant’Ambrogio deserves some similarly reverent attention.

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