Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Ceiling mosaics of the baptistery

John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence and his day of celebration is coming up very soon, on the 24th June, a public holiday for the Florentines. You can recognise St John the Baptist in visual imagery as he is depicted as an ascetic, typically wearing a camel skin and holding a staff. He is often holding a scroll (reference to he being the last prophet) with the words ecce agnes dei often written, the words he pronounced upon seeing seeing Christ ‘behold the lamb of God’. He was the son of Zacchiarias and Elizabeth, the older cousin of Mary, making Christ and John second cousins and it is traditionally held that there are six months between them in age, John being slightly older.
The baptistery of Florence is situated over the remains of a wealthy Roman house during the time of the Latin city Florentia in Antiquity. This family paid extra taxes for fresh water to be brought to their home from the nearby aquaduct in order to have a private bath structure. The baptistery was later built on top of the ruins of their dwelling, conveniently using the already existing channels of fresh water, the fundamental element in sacred rites symbolising the washing away of original sin, and water being the traditional symbol of the giving of life. The mosaics from the floors of the Roman house are still visible through a grate on the floor of the baptistery.
John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci
The early Christian structure was replaced with the current magnificent Romanesque style building in the eleventh century when Pope Nicholas II, a Florentine, supported the funding. The Romanesque style, characterised by the round headed arch and a compact sold structure, is given a particular individualistic trait in Tuscany with the geometric patterns and decorative format of the green and white local marble. Moorish inspired, this decorative use came through the great maritime republic of Pisa which had the means of seeing many Islamic buildings. Symbolically, it is octagonal in structure as in Christian numerology it refers to the eighth eternal day after the seven earthly days and the figure eight, when placed on its side, becomes the symbol for infinity.
Visitors to Florence often skip a visit inside the building - wrong! It is wonderful: the mosaics on the ceiling, begun in the early 1200’s, are stunning. The intricate detail given to the stories from the old testament from creation through to the story of Christ are delightful and the Last Judgement representation is up to its usual imaginative medieval genius.
Not the biggest baptistery in Italy - size was a serious display of importance - as Pisa beats it, I believe, but certainly it is worthy of the epithet  'the most beautiful'. Considered thus for centuries, Dante refers to it as 'il mio bel San Giovanni', and we can't argue with him. It is still used for baptisms, on the last Sunday of every month as long as you are Florentine!
The octagonal Baptistery of San Giovanni
Happy Saint Day John! 

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Have a light lunch or a drink in one of the coolest gems in Florence - it's neither chic nor fancy, but local, historical and tranquil, and Brunelleschi’s dome feels so close it's almost as if you can touch it!  It's the cafe on the top floor of the public library on Via dell’Oriuolo 26, situated behind the cathedral. The library and cafe are inside an age old structure which once had quite a different purpose. This was the nucleus of the hospital founded by Folco Portinari (the father of Beatrice, Dante’s muse) in 1285. The female nurses, a religious group called oblate, were housed on this site and the church connected to the hospital was called Santa Maria. Shortly afterwards, a male equivalent was begun across the road and called Santa Maria Nuova, which still exists today as the main hospital in the historical centre of Florence. The original space (now the library complex with the coffee bar on the top floor) was left for the female convent. I have always loved Italy for the way that the old is reinterpreted into the new, and this is a perfect example. The centuries old structure now houses the council library and is always full of students. The top floor is where this little bar is located and the rest of the space has tables and chairs where friends meet and chat, use their computers and/or read. It is a wonderful little respite stop to remember when passing through the city or living in it, as I do.
 In the evenings they do a Happy Hour aperitivo which costs 8 euros and there is a little accompanying buffet. The bar is open according to the schedule of the library, closed Sunday, open Monday 2pm-7.30pm, Tuesday-Saturday 9am-midnight.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Ospedale degli Innocenti
Florence is the home of the first orphanage in the world. A structure entirely dedicated to the care and maintenance for the foundlings, or the ‘Innocents’ of the city. In the early fifteenth century two of the six hospitals  (San Gallo and Santa Maria della Scala) took care of the orphans, but only as part of the greater care that they offered to all sections of society. In the Piazza del Duomo, the Misericordia (Society of  Mercy) and the Society of the Bigallo provided hospitalization for the foundlings, but not  the raising of these numerous children of all ages abandoned in the countryside and the city. In 1410 Francesco di Marco Datini, a very wealthy merchant from Prato (the nearest town to Florence) left a considerable sum of money in his will to Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence in order to create a specific section for the care of orphans. He had already created a similar 'section' in his hometown and wanted to inspire the Florentines to do the same. After much discussion and little action over many years, it was decided to create a whole separate structure, not attached to the hospital, but an orphanage, dedicated to the care, education and well being of the Innocents of Florence and surrounding territory. Land was acquired from a wealthy family, the Albizzi, in the present Piazza Santissima Annunziata and the silk Guild (one of the seven major merchant guilds) was entrusted with the responsibility of being patrons for the entity. Filippo Brunelleschi, now hailed as the first renaissance architect, was commissioned the construction of the Ospedale in 1419. His structure is one of the first buildings built in the new Renaissance style, based on a modular design creating a structure of proportion and balance – a perfect ambiance for little ones to grow in security and safety after their traumatic beginning. 
The first orphan entered on 5th february 1445. She was called Agata Smeralda. By 1468, there were 400 orphans being fed outside the institution and 300 in the hospital. In 1553 there were 2000 mouths to feed -  the babies nursing, the weaned ones and the older boys and girls. Many of the nameless were given the surname Innocenti, a common surname in Tuscany today.
Window in loggia where babies were left
Under the famous front entrance loggia of the Ospedale, an almost iconic symbol of fifteenth century Renaissance architecture, is where the babies were left by their parents when unable to offer care. Initially they were left in a marble basin sheltered in an enclave in the wall of the loggia. Later, they were placed through an iron grated window, still visible today, built into the left side wall of the loggia. The babies were passed through the grate and placed in a basket on the other side. Some babies had distinctive objects attached to their wrist, around their neck, or a particular item of clothing, often halves of something, so that if the parents came back to retrieve their children they would be identifiable. These items (coins cut in half, particular symbols on necklaces etc.) were noted down by the head foster mother (in Italian: a soprabalia). In the museum on the second storey of theOspedale there is a little glass display case with some of these ‘markers’. 
The Madonna by Domenico del Michelino
Also in the museum are some beautiful paintings commissioned to some of the most important painters of the day for the orphanage’s church, Santa Maria degli Innocenti. The superb ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1488) painting by Domenico Ghirlandiao was on the high altar, and a beautiful enthroned Madonna and child (1493 ca.) by Piero di Cosimo, commissioned by Piero del Pugliese, an extremely wealthy silk merchant in the city, for his private family chapel inside the same church. There is also a canvas painting by Domenico del Michelino of the Madonna (1440 ca.) holding her cloak out wide protecting the foundlings gathered around her. This, it is thought, could have been used as a processional banner.  In the foreground, the littlest ones are swaddled and in the background, the older ones are wearing the black cloth uniform of the orphanage with their badge, a swaddled child, attached to the front. The building today has medical services for children, a day-care centre and offices for UNICEF, as well as this very fascinating little museum.  Check it out!  Open Monday – Sunday, 10am-7pm, admission fee: 5euro.
Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Ghirlandiao