Chiesa Ognissanti - All Saints Church
(Italian pronunciation: kee-ay-zah  oh-nyee-sahn-tee)

Borgo Ognissanti
08:00-12:00; 16:00-19:00
Refectory open: MTSa, 09:00 to 12:00
Entrance: Borgo Ognissanti, 42

Church of Ognissanti was first erected between 1252 and 1255, and then reconstructed in baroque style in the XVII - XVIII century.  The bell-tower only is still original. The façade done by Matteo Nigetti in 1637 is one of the earliest examples of Florentine Baroque. Ognissanti was the church of the merchant family “Vespucci”, whose most famous member was Amerigo: inside the church there is a fresco-painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio showing the whol e Vespucci family.  The refectory houses a number of works, including Botticelli's Saint Augustine in his
Studio, and Domenico Ghirlandaio's Saint Jerome and one of his Last Suppers.

1256: built by Umiliati, Lombard monks who founded the wool industry
· order was so rich that it commissioned Giotto to paint the Maestà for their high altar (now in Uffizi)
· Umiliati in charge of Ponte alla Carraia, oldest of medieval bridges
· Carraia = “cart road” from carri which hauled wool across to San Frediano, where most of the wool workers lived
· campanile from 13th century – second only to Badia campanile in age
· in Vespucci territory (wasp = Vespa = Vespucci coat of  arms)
· Vespucci family made its fortune in silk – later wool, banking, wine, and Far East goods
· owned houses on Borgo Ognissanti
· Franciscans replaced Umiliati in 1561
· Once housed the cloak of St. Francis with the stigmata stains
· Botticelli buried here in right transcept


Ghirlandaio, Madonna of Mercy, c. 1493

· shows members of Vespucci family, including perhaps Amerigo (young boy in pink), under the protection of Mary
· Father Batazzi says that Amerigo’s grandfather, father and older brother Bernardo are also represented in the fresco

The young Amerigo had an excellent tutor in his Dominican friar uncle Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, and frequented the Platonic Academy [almost directly across from the American Episcopal Church] where he met a man who would determine his future, Paolo Toscanelli. An expert in astronomy, medicine, astrology and geography, Toscanelli wrote to a Portuguese priest in 1474 that he believed the shortest way to reach the Indies was by crossing the Atlantic to the west. Columbus, who traveled extensively in Spain and Portugal, knew of Toscanelli’s theory, which confirmed his own. During the 1490s Vespucci was also in Spain, working at the Medici bank in Seville, when he decided to study navigation.

In 1497 he undertook the first of four voyages to the New World, and was the first to set foot on the actual continents, not just the outlying islands. Whether Amerigo exaggerated his accomplishments is open to dispute; yet in 1507 cartographer Martin Waldseemüller gave his name to those lands. Cirigliano, Italy Daily, 9/28/01

St. Jerome and St. Augustine

· these two frescos are treated as pendants – both saints are exemplars of divine learning
· both saints are sitting in their cells, rectangular boxes entered through a doorway
· both arrested in the act of writing, surrounded by books and instruments found in studies of scholars

The Umiliati had originally been vowed to earn their living by the labor of their hands – they were traditionally supposed to have introduced the art of spinning and weaving woolen cloth into Florence. But at a general congregation held at Mantua in 1436 they rejected their old rule and adopted that of Saint Benedict, which lays great stress on study. It is this change in the vocation of the order that is probably the ultimate explanation of the frescoes. But Botticelli evidently thought the example of Jerome and Augustine likely to be thrown away on the Umiliati as he knew them. The left page of the open book behind the clock includes among its problems of Euclid and lines of scribble, words mocking their vagabond indiscipline, which he had perhaps caught up from a conversation going on between two of the brethren below the painter’s scaffold: “Where is Fra Martino?” “He has slipped out.” “Where has he gone?” “He is outside the Porto al Prato.” Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli

Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome (1480)

· accomplished with excessive ease
· superficial and full of objects that suffocate and impoverish its impact
· direct inspiration probably from small picture by Petrus Christus (Flemish), “St. Jerome in His Study,” listed in inventory of Lorenzo il Magnifico
· inscription is a prayer in simple rhyming distich, not in elegant elegiacs like the sixteenth century inscriptions. It begs the saint, that radiant lamp, to enlighten us.

When he was a young man, St. Jerome (c. AD 347-420) had a nightmare in which he found himself before God's seat of judgment. Asked by God who he was, Jerome replied, "A Christian," to which God responded: "Liar, you are a Ciceronian" [one who places literature and philosophy above faith]. So moved was he by this nightmare that Jerome, a classically trained scholar, abandoned for good "the books of men" to devote himself passionately to God's books. His dedication would in time produce a translation of the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Latin that remains the most cited and authoritative of its kind.

Soon after completing a revision of the Latin Gospels commissioned by Pope Damasus in AD 382, Jerome began his translation of the Old Testament into Latin, a labor that would occupy him for the next 20 years. At this time, nearly all Christians read the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, and Rome's status as heir to ancient wisdom demanded the official preservation of the classical language. But Jerome believed otherwise. Latin was the spoken language and was slowly gaining acceptance among priests and theologians in the West.

Not willing to rely solely on this Greek version, Jerome translated from the original Hebrew and even sought the advice of rabbinical scholars for sections of the Book of Job. To some Christians, among them St. Augustine, this recourse to the original Hebrew was a denigration of what they considered the inspired texts of the Greek Septuagint.

In addition to the opposition of prominent members of the Church, Jerome struggled with the difficulties posed by Latin itself. The Old Testament contained religious terms for which there were no equivalent in Latin's more fixed vocabulary, forcing Jerome to Latinize some Greek terms or make certain Latin words bear new and deeper meanings. His translation of the Old Testament reflected his belief that any translation worthy of its original must carry the meaning forward while also displaying the strength and beauty of the new language.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

St. Augustine by Botticelli (1480)
fresco (transferred to canvas), 184 x 119 cm

· first surviving dated fresco, also Botticelli's greatest
· probably painted in warmer months when weather more favorable to fresco painting
· illusionistic art – notice open drawer on side of book rest
· Vespucci shield is present

The Adoration which was painted for Guasparre del Lama already shows the certainty and confidence the young artist felt when dealing with the theme of the painting. It is also apparent in the fresco of St. Augustine, which Botticelli painted in 1480 for the Vespucci family. It spent most of its life in Ognissanti, the church of the order of Humiliates, where it was placed, together with the picture of St. Jerome by Domenico Ghirlandaio, at the side of the entrance to the monk's choir. Ghirlandaio's fresco was on the left side, and Botticelli's picture was opposite it, so that both saints faced each other. Indeed, both pictures form a narrative whole.

In Botticelli's picture, there is a clock on the right side above St. Augustine; its hand is between "I" and "XXIV", XXIV being the hour of sunset. The fact that Augustine is shown in his cell at a precise time of day, just before sunset, shows that this is not only a representative portrayal of the saint, but an account of a certain moment in his life. In an epistle ascribed to the saint and widely distributed during the Renaissance, Augustine writes that he was sitting in his cell one day during the last hour before sunset and was meditating on the fame and fortune of the saints. He was about to pick up his quill in order to inform Jerome of his reflections, when the saint appeared to him in a vision and explained to him that it was impossible to describe the sense of rapture if one had not experienced it oneself, as he had at that very moment - the hour of St. Jerome's death. Botticelli has captured St. Augustine's vision in his fresco. St. Jerome appears in the opposite fresco, by Ghirlandaio. Augustine is reaching for his inkwell and quill, in order to write down his thoughts for Jerome, and at that very moment he sees the vision. He is sitting up and looking upwards, and holding his right hand over his heart in a gesture of humility. His forehead is still creased by mental effort, and the light that is shining on him represents the rays of the vision, his "illumination". Botticelli has captured an instant in time between two successive moments in this painting, and by doing so has brought the narrative force of the picture to a climax. Toman, Rolf, editor, The Art of the Italian Renaissance (277-278)

The link between the two frescoes is even closer than has been suspected. It has long been realized that Saint Augustine lifts his eyes toward the golden rays of light that dart toward him from behind the capital of the left pilaster, but these rays have generally been interpreted as symbolizing divine inspiration. The time marked on the clock suspended behind Augustine’s head tells a different story. The clock’s face is inscribed right to left from the bottom center – our counterclockwise – with the numbers I to XXIV for the hours of the twenty-four-hour Italian clock. According to this system one o’clock was not the first hour after noon or midnight but the first hour after sunset. Since the clock-hand points to the twenty-fourth hour, the time it indicates is more or less sunset. This ingenious way of telling us the hour in an interior with no opening to exterior light also tells us the true subject of the fresco, which is Saint Augustine’s first vision of Saint Jerome.

The legend of this vision is first found in an apocryphal epistle from Saint Augustine to Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, seemingly composed at the end of the thirteenth century. Together with its companions, two other apocryphal epistles attributed to Saint Eusebius, which we shall encounter later, it was immensely popular. The three were often added, either in the original Latin or in Italian versions, to works about Saint Jerome, and between 1475 and 1500 they were printed again and again both in Italian and in Latin. In the passage that is the source of the fresco Augustine relates how he was vouchsafed his first vision on the day of Jerome’s death. Around compline, the last canonical hour of the day before sunset, at the moment when Jerome was dying in Jerusalem, he was sitting in his little cell at Hippo meditating the nature of the glory and bliss enjoyed by the saints who rejoice with Christ, before composing a short treatise on the subject for Sulpicius Serverus of Gaul. He took up paper, pen and inkwell to write a brief letter to Jerome asking for his opinion on this abstruse question and had just begun its first words when an ineffable light, accompanied by an odor of ineffable sweetness, entered his cell. Stupefaction struck Augustine, who of course was unaware of Jerome’s death, when a voice spoke from the light and told him that he might as soon enclose the ocean in a small vessel, as soon clasp the whole earth in his fist, as soon halt the movement of the heavens as describe the beatitude of the saints without having experienced it, as he who spoke was now experiencing it. With trembling voice Augustine inquired who spoke, and the voice answered that it was Jerome. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli

[In the head of Augustine Botticelli has represented] the profound cogitation and sharpest subtlety that is customarily found in persons of deep sense who are continually abstracted in the investigation of things that are very high and very difficult.” Vasari, Lives of the Artists

We know that the saint has been sunk in profound meditation because, as he raises his face in surprise at the rays of divine light, his brows are still knitted in intensity of speculation. Thus the physical language of feature is made to speak a psychological sensation, that of being wrenched from our inner thought to an external object. The pose of Augustine’s left hand, with thumb and finger holding the inkwell, another finger resting on the board and two flexed beneath, cunningly expresses his absorption: it is just such an arrested action as we let the hand keep when our minds become otherwise absorbed. The saint presses his right hand to his breast. The incompleteness of the gesture indicates that he has been startled, while the gesture itself is one of reverence for the rays of divine light and the voice that speaks from them. His lips are parted, no doubt in question to the voice.

Here, then, we see how acutely Botticelli had come to note the signs and actions by which our faces and limbs reveal what passes within our minds. We know from Alberti and others the high regard that was felt in the quattrocento for artists who could make the poses and features of their figures express the movements of the mind. Alberti earnestly recommends his readers to study the external signs by which nature indicates mood: the slow action and paleness of the sad man; the knitted brow and languid neck of the melancholy man; the swollen eyes, red color and bold gesture of the angry man; the free movement and pleasant bodily inflections of the cheerful man. From Alberti, who learned it from ancient authors, Botticelli may also have learned that the painters of antiquity had excelled in representing the inner movements of man’s mind. If so, he could feel that he had outdone them, for in his Saint Augustine he has represented not a single state of mind but the breaking in of one state of mind upon another. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli


Ghirlandaio, Last Supper

It was originally a celebrated work. . . The scene is ample and characterized by vivid, animated lines, . . . but it draws on the structural organization that was characteristic of Andrea del Castagno. The spirit is typical of Ghirlandaio, who as ever remains psychologically superficial and uninterested in any form of dramatic expression. Jesus and the disciples are not particularly characterized and seem peaceful and rather at ease; even Judas, who though seated on his own in front of Christ, according to tradition, has a serene countenance and composed posture. However, the overall effect is agreeable and there are some ingenious touches. The lunettes offer an easy opportunity to the expert painter: - a view of trees in a Tuscan garden beyond the wall; fruit-trees, cypresses, and an isolated palm tree that appears rather incongruous in the surroundings. To the right, a peacock perches on a windowsill, while other birds flutter around in crystalline air. The table is covered by a white tablecloth with blue embroidery. Plates, decanters, glasses, salt-cellars and knives are carefully arranged in front of each table-guest, as are the bread and cherries. It might even be the realistic and serene representation of a Florentine table of the period. Micheletti, Ghirlandaio.

Thank God our Last Supper was detached for restoration 13 days before the ’66 flood, says Father Arturo Batazzi, a 75 year old Franciscan who refused to leave his duties at the refectory when his order was transferred several years ago, as he points out the original under drawing (sinopia) which was also removed at that time and later placed on the refectory’s side wall.

Using egg tempera, one of the first things that Ghirlandaio did was the faces, he continues. One of Ghirlandaio’s strengths as an artist in fact was his portrayal of visual expression. Apart from Christ, the individual personality of each Apostle is clear, as well as their psychological introspection.

It is a moment when Jesus announces that someone at the table will betray him. St. John leans on his shoulder to ask who it is, while to the left of Christ, Peter wields a knife, foreshadowing when he could cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. The other Apostles, apart from Judas who is seated directly facing Jesus, are questioning themselves and the others.

Look, Ghirlandaio made the fresco part of the existing architecture – the vaulted ceiling of the refectory also acts as the ceiling of the Last Supper. The geometric composition is set up according to the perspective canons of the day, with the figures arranged around an unusual horseshoe-shaped table. A sense of depth is provided by the receding floor tiles and an additional painted curving section of the vault, distinguished from the real one directly above by its crimson hue and gold, filigree-like border.

The colors are understated yet marvelous, with tunics and drapery in tones of plum rose, saffron, sage green, raspberry, grays and whites. To the extreme right and left, respectively, a brass vase and brass plate are depicted, right over where the brothers actually would wash their hands before sitting down to eat.

In contrast to the apparent calm of the scene below, the lunettes are alive with flora and fauna. Cypress, pomegranate and lemon trees in addition to a rather incongruous palm are silhouetted against a muted sky. Above the treetops a wild frenzy of birds – falcons and quails – are flying as if in apprehension of an approaching storm. Cirigliano, Italy Daily, 9/28/01

Sinopie for Last Supper and Pietà

Palazzo Lenzi Busini
Piazza Ognissanti, 2

· one of finest 15th century palaces
· erroneously ascribed to Brunelleschi
· early 16th sgraffito work
· seat of French Institute of Grenoble University.

San Giovanni di Dio
Borgo Ognissanti, 20

One of the Vespucci houses was made into a hospital in 1388 by Simone Vespucci, which later was given the name San Giovanni di Dio – today the hospital or day clinic incorporates all the original Vespucci holdings

Bach in Florence, great uncle Simone di Pietro Vespucci, who is buried in the Ognissanti church, opened the hospital initially called Santa Maria dell’Umiliatà (1380) on Vespucci property. The hospital’s great fortune was to be managed from 1587 onwards by the brothers of the Spanish order San Giovanni di Dio, named for its founder, a saint of Portuguese origin whose mission lay in making hospitals more humane.

By this time the importance of the wool industry in Florence was eclipsed due to competition in Flanders and England. The friars who stayed at San Giovanni di Dio until 1868 were popularly known as the “Fatebenefratelli,” the “do good brothers” as was their cry when they begged alms.

Its imposing Baroque vestibule, designed in the early 18th century by Carlo Marcellini, distinguishes the former hospital. This lobby, the nucleus of the first tiny hospital, contains the coat-of-arms of the Vespucci family, with their vespe, wasps. Statutes of Faith and Hope are on either side of the circular staircase, with San Giovanni di Dio and Charity in sculpted stone at the top. The rooms upstairs witnessed innovative operations, especially heart surgery. There is a collection of 19th century surgical instruments preserved under glass and a series of floral portraits once placed above each patient’s bed.