A Brief History of Sant'Apollonia in Florence
What is Sant'Apollonia?
Sant'Apollonia is a former Benedictine convent with magnificent Renaissance frescoes, including a famous scene by Andrea del Castagno.
Often the best discoveries are hidden away, off the beaten track. Sant’Apollonia, a former Benedictine convent just north of the centre of Florence, is such a place. Much of what was one of the largest convents in the city, founded in 1339, is now gone, but the Cenacolo (or Refectory), just a few steps from the busy Accademia Gallery and the Piazza San Marco, remains in place and is home to exceptional frescoes. The Last Supper scene, painted by Andrea del Castagno in the 1440s, is one of the earliest examples of an artist using perspective to create the illusion of space. Andrea del Castagno’s extraordinary work was unknown to the outside world until 1808, due to the convent being off limits to anyone but the nuns who lived here. The frescoes were also covered for many years by a thick layer of plaster until they were restored in the 1950s.
The fresco depicts Christ and the Apostles sitting around a long table (with a fine white tablecloth and elegant glassware) in an unusual loggia, decorated with bright marble panels. Judas is dressed in a red-purple robe on the viewer’s side of the table. The robes are depicted softly, which contrasts with the portraits of the subjects, who are instead bold and even harshly rendered. Above the Last Supper are three further scenes by Andrea del Castagno, accompanied by angels in flight: the Resurrection, Crucifixion, and Entombment of Christ.
The Last Supper – Christ with his disciples before the crucifixion – is the most common scene displayed in the eating rooms of convents and monasteries from the 15th century onwards because, symbolically, the inhabitants of the religious order eat with Christ. His sacrifice is an ever-present reminder, represented in the bread and wine. There is often a pulpit present in these refectories as meals were usually eaten in silence, with someone reading from the Bible. The first representation of the Last Supper is also located in Florence, a fresco by Taddeo Gaddi at the Franciscan church of Santa Croce.
Also on display in Sant’Apollonia are further frescoes by Andrea del Castagno, as well as artworks by Neri di Bicci, Paolo Schiavo and Raffaello da Montelupo.
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