I love finding hidden gems in Florence and recently I added a new one to my list, the Del Giglio chapel at the Maria Maddelena dei Pazzi church in borgo Pinti.
The chapel was constructed in the early 1500s paid for by money donated from the Del Giglio family, inserted in the large portico in front of the church of then Cistercian monastery. Its purpose was to provide a prayer and medative space for women as they were allowed inside this church only twice a year. The Cistercian monks moved to the Oltrarno in the 1620s literally doing a swap with the Carmelitan nuns and their church Santa Maria degli Angeli in the area of San Frediano by order of Pope Urban VIII (Barberini). The nuns brought with them the uncrrupted body of their famous nun the Florentine nobilewoman turned nun Maria Maddelena. When Maria Maddelena dei Pazzi (of the important Florentine family, Pazzi) was canonised in the 1660s by Pope Clement IX the nuns renamed their church after her.
However, as mentioned above, the chapel was built before the arrival of the female Camelites and was built as a domaine for women who at the time of the Cistercian occupation had limited access to the church. This explains the chapel’s location in the portico in front of the church immediately on the right upon entering from the street.
The Del Giglio family were the patrons of the chapel’s construction as well as the altarpiece painting by Cosimo Rosselli of the coronation of the Virgin, a suitable subject for a place where women worship. This painting is now located inside the church in the second side chapel on the left.
In 1598 the chapel was passed to Nereo Neri who was the physician to the Grand duke Ferdinand I e Medici. He embarked on a large decorative program of the room which was reflected both a personal theme and that of the monastic order. The altar piece was replaced by one painted by Domenica Passagnano depicting the martyrdom of Achilleo and Nereo (the patron’s name sake).
For the walls he commissioned Bernardo Poccietti one of the artists most in demand in Florence at the time for the fresco decoration of both interiors and exteriors of large palatial homes in the city. Poccietti worked for the Medici grand dukes at Pitti Palace (in the palace as well as the decoration of the Grotta Grande in the Boboli gardens). His work can be seen still today in many places for example one of his great works was the façade of the Palazzo of Bianca Cappello on via Maggio commissioned by the Grand duke Francesco I for his mistress the blond Venetian, Bianca.
The chapel space is composed of two areas both square in shape, one larger than the other. The larger section was destined for the worshippers and the smaller square is the altar for the priest. In the smaller altar area the lateral walls depict the martyrdom and baptism of Achilleo and Nereo (matching the altarpiece painting).
The walls of the larger area are dedicated to Saint Filippo Neri (1515-1595) on the right side when facing the altar and Saint Bernard of Clairveux on the left. Saint Filippo Neri featured because once again, he shared the same name as the patron, this time though it was the same surname, Neri. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux featured because he was one of the key leaders of the first Cistercian monastery founded in the 1100s.
Saint Philip Neri was a Florentine priest who lived in the 1500s. He studied at the San Marco monastery in Florence (the reformed Dominican order) but afterwards most of his life was spent in Rome where he dedicated his time to helping the poor. Contemporaries often referred to him as the second apostle of Rome because of his work with pilgrim hospitality and the poor. He was the founder of the congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip, more simply called the Oratorians. It was an order which didn’t require following a strict rule as most others, it was more a confraternity, and composed of a group of priests who lived together and shared the same mission of devotion to the underprivileged and particular interest in the youth. They held frequent meetings with the public and would combine religious discussion and lectures with music and singing which they called oratorios. The Oratorians wore black like priests often did. The frescos in the chapel show Filippo Neri dressed in black with a vision of the Virgin Mary and another receiving a vision of the nativity, donkey and all.
On the opposite wall is Saint Bernard of Clairvaux dressed in his characteristic white robes (they are one of the few monastic orders which dress in white instead of black). He was one of the founders of the monastic order in France founded in the eleventh century at Citeaux. The name they gave their order, Cistercian, refers to the Latin name for the town of Citeaux, Cistercium. The two scenes depicting Saint Bernard are opposite the two scenes of Saint Philip Neri. One depicts a miracle that happened to the saint and the other a vision.
Legend has it that Saint Bernard received some milk sprinkled on his lips by the Virgin. This was interpreted into art with the Madonna taking a pause whilst nursing the Christ baby and literally squirting the milk to Saint Bernard, often shown at quite a distance.
The ceiling was beautifully frescoes with the coronation of the Virgin which returns to the theme of the chapel being the place for women. Directly underneath the virgin being crowned both by God and Christ are three depicted larger than life female saints: Saint Cecilia (shown with an organ), Saint Catherine of Alexandria (shown with a broken wheel) and Saint Barbara (shown with a sword and chalice held by a cherub at her feet).
Today the chapel is used daily for prayer by the Augustinian friars who have been in the church and monastery since 1926 when the Carmelite nuns moved to just outside the historical centre to Careggi. When not being used by them the chapel remains closed. However, if you ring their door during the times that the church is open they may just open it up for you……