A Brief History of the Ognissanti in Florence
What is the Ognissanti?
The Ognissanti is a Baroque church that houses the tomb of renowned Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli.
‘Or was it rather the Ognissanti?’ asks Robert Browning in his poem Old Pictures in Florence, mixing up this church with ‘the dim San Spirito’. If you’ve made the same mistake, you don’t have far to go; walk up to the Arno from Piazza Santo Spirito – the students’ favourite evening haunt – cross the Ponte Santa Trìnita, turn left and stroll along the Lungarno until you reach another piazza. Here you’ll be met by the handsome Baroque façade of the Chiesa San Salvatore di Ognissanti, known more commonly as the Ognissanti (or All Saints).
A church was first built here in the mid-13th century by the Umiliati, an offshoot of the Benedictine religious order associated with the European wool trade. Its architecture expressed the order’s devotion to simplicity and humility, but the income they received enabled them to fill the church with beautiful works of art including Giotto’s Madonna and Child altarpiece, now in the Uffizi Gallery; recent analysis has revealed his hand at work here also in the transept’s crucifix, newly restored to luminous blue and gold.
In 1571, the Umiliati found themselves suppressed by papal bull and soon disbanded (though their women’s branch endured into the 20th century). The Franciscans took over the church, and a few decades later carried out its remodelling as one of Florence’s first Baroque buildings. Architect Bartolomeo Pettirossi carried out the work in 1627; ten years later the bold and richly ornamented façade, with its blue-glazed lunette above the entrance, was completed to designs by Matteo Nigetti.
The Umiliati were outlasted by the many beautiful frescoes and paintings they had commissioned. Luckily, the Franciscans saw no reason to remove these. A member of Giotto’s circle, Taddeo Gaddi, painted the Crucifixion to be found in the sacristy. The church also contains significant relics, including fragments of a robe said to have been worn by Saint Francis. Another claim to fame, by contrast, is connected to the advent of modernity: Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Madonna della Misericordia shows the Madonna protecting members of the Vespucci family, merchants connected to the manufacture of silk and supporters of the Medici. One of the figures in Ghirlandaio’s painting is believed to be Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine explorer-for-hire who posited a new, non-Asian continent from Columbus’s discoveries, and whose first name inspired that of America.
Ghirlandaio, one of the great artists of the late-15th-century Renaissance, will always come second here, because it’s in the Ognissanti that his fellow painter, Sandro Botticelli, is buried. A round stone bearing the coat of arms – a gold lion rampant – of the Filipepi, Botticelli’s family, marks the spot. Botticelli enjoyed close links with the Vespucci family, whose coat of arms beats his for novelty: punning on the Italian word vespa, theirs displays wasps. Botticelli’s great artistic contribution to this church is his Saint Augustine in his Study. The great church father peers up from his Bible, lost in thought, with geometric doodles in the margin of the manuscript behind him. From across the nave, Ghirlandaio’s Saint Jerome gazes at him, similarly contemplative. The time shown on Augustine’s clock alludes to a vision he is said to have had, in which he heard the voice of another early Christian figure – Saint Jerome.
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