The Spirit of the Oltarno
Piazza Santo Spirito is the centre of Oltrarno life. Sleepy in the morning, except for a few market stalls under the plane trees and a quiet café or two, in the evening the bars fill until the early hours with people who meet and chat in the piazza and on the steps of Santo Spirito.
The original church and monastery were begun by the Augustinians (who are still in situ) in 1252 when the Oltrarno was sparsely populated. It soon became a centre of learning, a Studium generale and ran a home for former prostitutes in the 14th century. It also held regular gatherins of early Humanists, including Greek scholar Leonardo Bruni, a good friend of Cosimo il Vecchio and Bocaccio, who left his library to Santa Spirito when he died.
When Florence defeated Milan in 1397 during the second Milan war on St Augustine's feast day (28 August), the city fathers decided to celebrate the victory by rebuilding the church in his honour. A few decades later, Brunelleschi was chosen for the task.
He designed Santo Spirito in 1440 and lived to see only one column erected of what would be his last and perhaps greatest church. His followers, however, were faithful to his elegant plan for the interior, hiding behind a plain 18th-century façade.
This is done in Brunelleschi’s favourite pale grey pietra serena articulation, a rhythmic forest of columns with semicircular chapels gracefully recessed into the transepts and the three arms of the crossing. The effect is somewhat spoiled by the ornate 17th-century baldacchino by Gherardo Silvani, which sits in this enchanted garden of pure architecture like a 19th-century bandstand.
Most of the good paintings in Santo Spirito were sold off over the years. The best that remain are Filippino Lippi’s beautiful Madonna and Saints (or the Pala de' Nerli, with a scene of the Oltrarno's Porta San Frediano in the background) in the right transept and Verrocchio’s jewel-like Santa Monica and Nuns, an unusual composition and certainly one of the blackest paintings of the Renaissance, pervaded with a dusky, mysterious quality; Verrocchio, who taught both Leonardo and Perugino, was a Hermetic alchemist on the side.
The fine marble altarpiece and decoration in the next chapel is by Andrea Sansovino; the elaborate barrel-vaulted Vestibule and octagonal Sacristy, entered from the left aisle, are by Giuliano da Sangallo, inspired by Brunelleschi.
Look up to see a painted wooden Crucifix, discovered in the church in 1963 and believed by most scholars to be a documented one by a 17-year old Michelangelo.
The contrapposto position of the slender body, and the fact that only Michelangelo would carve a nude Christ weigh in favour of the attribution. It's his only known work in wood. The story goes it was a present from the sculptor in exchange for allowing him to dissect corpses in the hospital once run by the monastery.
Santo Spirito's adjacent Refectory with the famous *Cenacolo and Crucifixion by Orcagna are now part of the Fondazione Salvatore Romano.
Piazza Santo Spirito
Hours 9.30am-12.30pm and 4-5.30pm, closed Wed.
+39 055 287043