The “Palazzo Comunale” of San Gimignano

In the heart of the historic center of San Gimignano, in the central Piazza Duomo (Cathedral Square), is the Palazzo Comunale (Municipal Palace), also known as Palazzo del Popolo (“Palace of the People”) or Palazzo Nuovo del Podestà (“New Palace of the Chief Magistrate”). It stands between the Torre Grossa to the right (“Big Tower”- with its 54 meters is the tallest tower of San Gimignano, built between 1300 and 1311), and the Loggia del Comune to the left. The palace was built between 1289 and 1298 on the remains of a preexisting building, and it was enlarged during the 14th and 15th centuries. From its construction until today, the palace has been the house of the Municipality of San Gimignano and since 1852 also the seat of the Civic Museum.

The Painting Gallery on the 2nd floor preserves important artworks by Florentine and Sienese artists from the 13th to the 16th century; among the most famous: Coppo di Marcovaldo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippino Lippi and Pinturicchio.

Among the various rooms of the palace, on the first floor is the hall of the Council, also known as “Hall of Dante”, to honor the poet Dante Alighieri who was here in 1300. He came to the city as ambassador of the Florentine Republic to create a Tuscan Guelph League, with the purpose of uniting all the supporters of the Guelph Party and fight the Ghibelline enemy.

Inside the room is a fresco cycle of the late 13th century attributed to a Florentine painter, Azzo di Masetto, and it represents tournaments of knights and hunting scenes dedicated to Charles of Anjou, who is depicted sitting on the throne on the wall in front of the entrance, while some personalities pay homage to him presenting a falcon. On the right wall is the magnificent Maestà (“Madonna Enthroned”) by Lippo Memmi of 1317, inspired by that of his brother-in-law Simone Martini in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena: Mary is represented sitting on a throne, surrounded by angels and saints.

THE COLUMN OF SAINT ZANOBI

In the Piazza San Giovanni (“St. John’s Square”) in Florence, more or less in front of the North Door of the Baptistery, stands a column with a cross on top: this small monument is connected to a Florentine story about one of its most important citizen: a saint, who was the first bishop of the city, Saint Zanobi. He lived around the 4th-5th century, much loved by the people, and when he died, he was buried in what became the first cathedral of Florence, the church of San Lorenzo. After a few years the title of “cathedral” was transferred to the nearby (but this time within the city walls) church of Santa Reparata (future Santa Maria del Fiore), and thus the remains of the first bishop had to be transferred from one church to the other. From San Lorenzo, thus, the procession took the street called “Borgo San Lorenzo” and entered St. John’s Square. Here there were some elms that were dry at that time of the year: it was January 26th, close to the so-called “giorni della merla” (lit. “the days of the female blackbird”, which are the last three days of January), the coldest days of the year. Tradition tells that, passing near one of these trees, the coffin, carried on the men’s shoulders, touched one of them, and suddenly, as if by magic, this bloomed. This episode was interpreted by everyone as a miracle of Saint Zanobi, attracting thus people from every corner of the city into the square, trying to grab at least a twig of the miraculous tree. Nothing survived of the elm, eventually; the city of Florence, however, wanted to remember this important event, and at the same time celebrate the memory of the saint, and so a columns was raised in the exact spot where the elm once stood: this column is today called “The column of Saint Zanobi”. The original one, dating back to 430 ca., was destroyed by the devastating flood of 1333; the column we can see today dates from the 14th century, with a marble cross on top of it, surrounded by a wrought-iron garland, while a small bronze tree is placed in the middle of the trunk.

Today, every January 26th , supposedly the day of the miracle, Florence celebrates its saint placing a garland of flowers at the base of the column.

GIOVANNI DA VERRAZANO: A FLORENTINE IN NEW YORK!

I would like to go back to the Age of Exploration, and thus to another important Florentine navigator that deserves a great tribute: Giovanni da Verrazano, who lived between 1485 and 1528, and who has become famous for discovering the New York Bay and the Eastern Coast of the United States of America.

There is no much information about the life (and death) of this navigator, but we know for sure where he was born: in the castle that bears the name of his family, deep in the Chianti hills near Greve, in 1485. Like other Italian explorers of that Age of Discovery, from the Genoese Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) to the Venetian Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) and the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, Verrazano was also forced to leave his land to pursue his dreams of adventure in “foreign land”, that means, to accomplish his feats at the service of other European countries: in his case the France of King Francis I.

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MARIO ROMOLI AND PORTA ROMANA IN FLORENCE

At the end of the 19th century, the avenues surrounding the historic center of Florence were built, almost completely destroying the last medieval city walls by Arnolfo di Cambio. Despite this, some evidence still survive in the city gates, that were part of these walls, and that are still visible along the avenues. The south gate, called “Porta Romana” (“Roman Gate”), because it leads to Rome, is also the one that preserves a section of the 14th century walls, and that can give a better idea of how this medieval fortified city was. Each entrance gate welcomed us into Florence, and it was decorated with frescoes, often with religious subjects, and sometimes by the hands of important artists. Unfortunately, not many original examples reached us, due to problems of external preservation of these artworks, and so sometimes they were painted again centuries later.

Porta Romana (formerly Porta San Pier Gattolino, from the name of the nearby church) has become an entryway to Florence that contains more than one “welcome artwork”: the first and most visible one when arriving from the south, is the contemporary sculpture that decorates the roundabout in front of the gate, by Michelangelo Pistoletto, named “Dietrofront” (“Turn around” 1981-84). This represents a woman that leaves Florence going toward the future, but at the same time coming back into the city, looking toward the past; another meaning is that her soul refuses to leave the magnificent cultural past of Florence. In the gate itself is a fresco with the “Virgin Mary and Saints” (including the patron saint of the city, St. John the Baptist), a 16th century work by Franciabigio, that probably replaced a fresco of the 14th century. After walking through the gate, immediately in front of us, the façade of a building located in the crossroad between via Romana and via dei Serragli houses another contemporary artwork: a fresco.

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Amerigo Vespucci: a Florentine in Seville

History gives us different versions, depending on who teaches it, and, above all, where we study it. In the Spanish classrooms students learn that the date of the discovery of America is 1492, a date that cannot be forgotten, as the protagonist of this feat: Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus). In Italy, things are viewed from another perspective, without diminishing Columbus, but giving more credit to the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, a figure that is instead ignored in Spain; Americans, however, know very well whom they owe their continent’s name.
The Vespucci were a Florentine historical family, who arrived in Peretola, today a suburban district of the city, and settled in the center of the city, in the Ognissanti area. They did the most popular jobs of that time: they were notaries, bankers and merchants. Part of the family had more success and fortune, that of Pietro Vespucci, Simone di Pietro Vespucci (the founder of the hospital “San Giovanni di Dio”) and Marco Vespucci, who will marry the beautiful and mythical Simonetta, muse of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings, of whom we will write in another article.
Our Amerigo descended from the other less fortunate branch of the Vespucci family. He inherited his name from his grandfather, and was the third of the five children of Nastagio and Lisa. His father Nastagio was a notary, but had several drinking problems, so Amerigo was educated by Giorgio Antonio, Nastagio’s younger brother, who made him study Latin, Mathematics, Geometry and Astronomy. Giorgio Antonio was a humanist and passionate of maps, friend of Marsilio Ficino and, thus, close to the Medici circle: this allowed Amerigo to take refuge with his uncle in the Villa del Trebbio during the plague of 1476. This villa was owned by the secondary branch of the Medici family, that of Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, where another uncle, Bernardo, worked as accountant. And Amerigo was always in connection with this side of the Medici family, becoming the right-hand man of Lorenzo, son of Pierfrancesco, called “il Popolano” (“of the people”); Amerigo took care of Lorenzo’s business and properties, and this brought him to Seville.

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JULY 26: ST.ANNE FEAST DAY

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.

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THE “PALIO DI SIENA”

Risultati immagini per palio di sienaThe famous horse race of Siena, called Palio di Siena, is a very important and heart-felt event, it is not just a mere historical commemoration, but it is an integral part of the people of this city, since the contrada (the city district) is like a larger family, and the contradaioli (the district’s members) are primarily friends.

The Palio is run twice a year: the first one, which takes place on July 2, is called Palio di Santa Maria in Provenzano (“Palio of Saint Mary in Provenzano”), a church in Siena on whose main altar is a bust of the Virgin Mary,that, based on a legend, has no arms.Risultati immagini per palio di siena The second Palio is run on August 16, the day after the feast of the Assumption of Mary, and therefore named Paliodell’Assunta (“Palio of the Assumption”).

The name “Palio” comes from “drappellone” (“drape, banner”),also known as “cencio” (“rag”), which is a finely worked piece of silk, the prize of the competition. It is presented one month before the race, and it is the artwork of great artists: a Sienese artist is called to paint the drappellone for the July Palio, and the subject must be the Madonna di Provenzano; while for the August Palio, it is an international artist that has to represent the iconography of the Assumption; among them some famous names of the past:Botero and Guttuso. Continue reading

DON LORENZO MILANI

In these days we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Don (Father) Lorenzo Milani, a priest that for many years was considered a thorny figure, and therefore often marginalized and left alone by the Church; recently, though, a reconciliation has been attempted, as shown by the visit of Pope Francis to his tomb.

My words here below are meant to be an introduction to the life, character and activity of Don  Lorenzo Milani, that I invite you to explore further through writings by and about him, to discover the unique and special man he was.

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JUNE 24: ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PATRON FEAST

On June 24, Florence celebrates one of its most important holidays: its patron saint day, St. John the Baptist. It is on this date, in fact, that the Church celebrates the Nativity of this saint considered the Forerunner of Christ, and the one that introduced baptism in the water as a form of purification.
Many events take place in the city during this day. But: why is St. John the Baptist so important for Florence?

The city’s worship of this saint is clearly visible in many artworks, where the classical iconography depicted him either as a child, the so called “Giovannino” (“Little John”), together with the Virgin Mary and the Child, or as an adult, clothed with camel’s hair, to remember his life as an ascetic in the desert. In Florence, the main monument dedicated to him is, indeed, the Baptistery of St. John, located in the square with the same name, in front of the Cathedral; this has become therefore the center of the festivities dedicated to him.

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MONTELUPO CERAMICS

Every year in June MontelupoFiorentino, a city in the province of Florence, dedicates a few days to its most important and famous product, ceramic, organizing a festival dedicated to it: Montelupo Ceramics Festival.

On this occasion,  the organization provides many visits to factories and workshops, meetings with ceramists and artisans, and  in-depth examinations of the history, life and production of this ancient art.  Of course, all this is combined with other events, like music, shows and games for children and adults.

Since the Middle Ages, this small city distinguished itself as a ceramic production center, especially of majolica (enamelled ceramic), and the moment of greatest production was in 1400 and 1500. In 1406, in fact, Florence conquered Pisa, and this allowed the Montelupo’s artifacts (and not just them) to open up a new sea route; moreover, this gave the artisan the opportunity to compete with the Spanish ceramics, that imposed on Montelupo a qualitative increase in its production activity: in fact, from this moment on, it began to specialize in the Spanish-Moorish-style majolica (with a prevalent use of blue and green).

Essential in these centuries were also the Florentine commissions by private families as the Medici, as well as by important institutes like the Old Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella, orcommercial carriers  like the Antinori family, all elements that allowed the Montelupo’s Majolica to be shipped all over the world through the Arno river and the ports of Pisa and Livorno:  remnants of these artifacts, in fact, were found in Central America, in the Philippines, and in many European countries.

This city became thus the heart of the ceramic production in the Florentine territory, becoming the main activity of the local families, so that in those centuries more than fifty manufactures could be countedwithin the city walls, most of them with its own distinctive brand.

Even today ceramic processing is a symbol of this place, and there are still workshops and factories devoted to this production, that, in some cases, today as in the past, is able to create real works of art.

The city of Montelupo has reconstructed the entire history and development of this specific tradition in the MuseodellaCeramica (Ceramics Museum), where more than thousand pieces are displayed, most of them found during some excavations in the historic center of Montelupo. There are pieces that were destined to the Medici family, as revealed by the presence of their emblem, to the Medici Pope Leo X, and other members of the Roman Church. One of the most important artworks is the famous “Rosso di Montelupo” (“Red of Montelupo”), a basin dated 1509, decorated with grotesques on a yellow and red background, named after the particular red pigment in its decoration, which composition is still mystery today.