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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of Santissima Annunziata in Florence

What is Santissima Annunziata?

Santissima Annunziata is a basilica founded in the 13th century whose restrained façade conceals a sumptuous interior.


Santissima Annunziata

Santissima Annunziata History

According to tradition, in 1252 a miracle occurred on the site of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata. The friars of the Order of Servite, who had banded together to dedicate their lives to serving and honouring the Virgin Mary, had recently built the Oratory of Cafaggio and commissioned Friar Bartolomeo to decorate it with an artwork dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin. For Friar Bartolomeo, the pressure of rendering the Virgin’s beautiful face with perfection led him to despair. After hours anguishing in the realisation that he was unable to do her features justice, Bartolomeo fell asleep, exhausted from trying to achieve the impossible. When he awoke, the friar was astonished to find that the Virgin’s face had been completed and that her features had been breathtakingly filled in. Bartolomeo concluded that an angel was responsible.


Ever since, the painting has been known as the ‘Miraculous Annunciation’. Even the great Michelangelo considered it to be an object of divine creation. The news of the miracle spread and soon the painting was considered to be a devotional object, something through which pilgrims could direct their prayer and worship to the Virgin Mary. People from all over Italy flocked to see it, leaving votives in the form of wax, plaster and wood sculptures, some of which were life-sized. The painting became so venerated that in 1444 the Gonzaga family from Mantua financed a special tribune with radiating chapels to house the painting. Although Michelozzo, the brother of the Servite Prior, was given the initial commission, the Gonzaga family particularly admired Leon Battista Alberti and so it was transferred to him.


Alberti conceived of a domed circular space flanked by altar niches, but sadly did not live to see the church completed in 1481. 120 years later, the church was embellished with a mock-Renaissance façade added by the architect Giovanni Battista Caccini that was designed to imitate Filippo Brunelleschi’s classical façade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, across from the basilica on the same piazza. For the votives a cloister was created, and although these no longer remain in place, as they were melted down for wax candles in the 18th century, the cloister houses beautiful frescoes created by Alesso Baldovinetti, Cosimo Rosselli and Andrea del Sarto. The interior of the church is sensationally Baroque in style and presents a stark contrast to its classically restrained mock-Renaissance exterior. Pietro Giambelli executed the golden ceiling based on designs by Baldassare Franceschini in 1644 and as a centrepiece depicted the Assumption of the Virgin.


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