Today, July 26, is St. Anne Feast Day. Saint Anne was the mother of Mary, and grandmother of Jesus; but she is also one of the patron saints of Florence, along with the main one, St. John the Baptist, and the others, St. Reparata and St. Zanobi. The devotion to Saint Anne in Florence dates back to a specific episode of the 14th century, that occurred in a decade that will prove to be quite tormented for this city, and that has the church of Orsanmichele as the protagonist.
But: who is St. Anne firs of all? Despite her important relationship with Mary and Jesus, and the strong worship in Christian religion, the information we have about her and her life don’t come from the official Gospels, but through the so called “apocryphal Gospels”; the Church, however, has welcomed her worship. The story of Anne and her spouse Joachim is often narrated in famous fresco cycles representing the Stories of the Virgin Mary, that we can also find here in Florence: Anne and Joachim are a happy and very devoted couple, but without children due to the sterility of Joachim. This “dishonor” causes the High Priest to forbid him to make sacrifices in the Temple, expelling him badly. Humiliated, Joachim takes refuge in the desert, for a period of retreat, when an angel appears to Anne announcing her future pregnancy. The same angel appears in Joachim’s dream, to deliver the same message. Joachim then returns to the city, where the famous “Meeting at the Golden Gate” takes place: one of the most represented kisses in art, starting with Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua!
In Tuscany, a typical representation of Saint Anne becomes the so called “Sant’Anna Metterza”, where “metterza” stands for “mi è terza”, an ancient Tuscan expression that means that she is “put in the third position”. The image, in fact, portrays three generations together: St. Anne behind her daughter Mary, that holds her baby son Jesus on her knees. Two illustrious names famous for representing this particular iconography? Masaccio, whose altarpiece is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and Leonardo da Vinci, whose artwork is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The worship of St. Anne in Florence, in particular, originates from a political episode occurred on July 26, 1343: the expulsion of the Duke of Athens. We are, as we said, in a decade that will prove to be very troubled for Florence (the banking companies of the two important Florentine families, Peruzzi and Bardi, will go bankrupt, then the Black Death of 1348, and all after the flood of the Arno river in 1333).
Who was the Duke of Athens? This was the noble title of Walter VI, Count of Brienne, a noble Frenchman linked to the House of Anjou, who was called to Florence by the Signoria in 1342, to become its Lord and thus end the continuous internal power struggles. But its government will turn out to be a tyranny: he takes advantage of the acquired power, antagonizing the middle class composed of the Major Guilds, in favor of the people of the working class. This was a terrible mistake in a city of merchants, but most of all of firm supporters of their independence! His government lasts barely one year: on July 26, 1343 he is forced to flee from the Palazzo dei Priori (now Palazzo Vecchio) using a small door built by him. This door is still visible on via della Ninna, and it’s called “Door of the Duke of Athens”. At this point the Florentines, in order to celebrate their new-found “libertas” (freedom), run to Orsanmichele, the granary-loggia building that was already somehow dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to thank her for helping the city through her mother’s intercession, St. Anne, traditionally celebrated on this day.
And it was right in Orsanmichele, about to become a church-granary, that an altar dedicated to St. Anne was erected: today we can still admire the 16th century statue by Francesco da Sangallo called “Sant’Anna Metterza”. And it was no coincidence that the Saint was linked to this building, that combined the religious and civic aspects of Florence: it was a way to celebrate the new patron saint of the “Comune” (Commune), also called the “Saint advocate of the city’s freedom”.
And this union between civic and religious values is also reflected in the festivities for this Saint: this date, July 26, immediately became a solemn feast, and celebrations took place in Orsanmichele, decorated for the occasion with the flags of the Guilds, while people brought offerings to the Saint. Later a procession was also introduced, that took place between Orsanmichele and the Monastery of Verzaia, on the other side of the Arno river, dedicated to St. Anne.
Today, celebrations are entrusted to the Corteo della Repubblica Fiorentina (“Parade of the Florentine Republic”), where the historic 7 Major Guilds and the 14 Minor Guilds, along with the Proconsul, are represented, while their standards still decorate the church of Orsanmichele. The procession begins in the evening, at about 08:30 p.m., and starts from the Palagio di Parte Guelfa, heading towards Piazza della Signoria, to gather the civil authorities; from here the procession proceeds towards Piazza Duomo, to welcome the religious authorities, and all together they finally reach the church of Orsanmichele. Here at 10:00 they celebrate the Blessing and the “Delivery of the Candle”.
Today Ponte a Signa, a district of Lastra a Signa, near Florence, is also celebrating its patron saint!
One last curiosity: where can we see the representation of the famous expulsion of the Duke of Athens? The most famous artwork is a fragment of a fresco attributed to the 14th century painter Orcagna, originally in the “carcere delle Stinche” (a Florentine Medieval prison), now in Palazzo Vecchio. Here we can see St. Anne holding the insignias of Florence, of the Popolo (people), and of the Commune in one hand, while the other hand is stretched out as to protect the city; next to her we can see the Palazzo dei Priori, now Palazzo Vecchio, and to the right the Duke in person that escapes, turning around to look at an angel. Another representation, this time of the 19th century, is displayed in the Modern Art Gallery in the Pitti Palace in Florence: it is a large painting by Stefano Ussi.