On a beautiful Spring Saturday, my art history professor, Sara Fabbri, took us to explore two lesser-known churches in Florence, Santa Trinita and Chiesa di Ognissanti. These two churches, just a short 5-minute walk from each other close to the Arno River in the historical center of Florence are similar in some ways, as you'd expect from two Catholic Churches. But they represent two completely different eras of architecture and art and each have their own place in Florentine history.
Sana Trinita, located steps from the bridge of the same name, borders Florence's luxury shopping district that runs the length of Via de'Tornabuoni. The piazza of the same name, which it faces, is usually packed with tourists, who may stop to admire the facade designed by Bernardo Buontalenti in 1593. (Buontalenti is better known in Florence as the inventor of gelato, but his work as an architect and designer is sprinkled throughout Florence. He's also known as the creator of the romantic grotto nestled in the Boboli Gardens.) The church is much older. It dates to the 11th century. Once inside the door, the medieval origins become more clear. Although like many churches of its age, it has been renovated and restored many times over. But turn to face the entrance and you can see some of the original stonework dating to its earliest incarnation.
The star of Santa Trinita is the Sassetti Chapel, which features a series of frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Painted in the late 1400s, at the behest of Francesco Sassetti family, these frescos honor his namesake, Saint Francis. The Sassetti's were a well-off Florentine family who served as bankers for the Medici bank. Francesco rose to the highest position in the bank available to someone outside the family. His donations to the church would help guarantee his family's eternal salvation.
Ghirlandaio's frescos are notable for the way he places religious scenes in modern everyday life. For example, The Miracle of St. Francis depicts a (for Ghirlandaio) modern-day Florence of the late 1400s. The unadorned facade of Santa Trinita, as well as Ponte Santa Trinita, is easily recognizable in this scene. His scenes also feature notable Florentines, friends and family members of the Francesco Sassetti, and even the painter himself. Despite the fact that St. Francis would have been dead for more than 250 years at the time of the incident depicted in the painting, he helpfully appears in a golden blaze from above to conduct his miraculous resurrection.
In the Adoration of the Shepherds considered the Sassetti Chapel's finest work, Ghirlandaio's work is influenced by the Flemish school of painting, which the features of the shepherds made to look especially harsh and lifelike. Again, the painting is set in Ghirlandaio's Florence, with the old city walls and hills of nearby towns in the distance. Even better, Ghirlandaio has painted himself into a position of prominence as the shepherd closest to the Christ child. He gestures to himself both figuratively and literally in the painting.
In contrast to Santa Trinita, stands Chiesa di Ognissanti (The Church of Every Saint). This church was one of the first to bring the extravagant Baroque style of architecture to Renaissance Florence when it was rebuilt in 1627.
The church is known for its association with the Vespucci family, whose most famous member, Amerigo is credited with "discovering" that the continents of North and South America were not, as Christopher Columbus had asserted, India.
The Vespucci family chapel is located to the right of the altar. It is also the burial location of Sandro Botticelli, who was said to be enamored with the beautiful young Simonetta Vespucci, wife of Marco Vespucci. A renowned beauty, Simonetta, is said to have been a muse of sorts for Botticelli. Some consider her to be the inspiration for Venus is The Birth of Venus and Spring in Primavera, but art history scholars don't agree that this is true. Despite the continued debate, Botticelli is buried mere feet away from the famous beauty, who died at the tragically young age of 22.
The chapel itself features bright and elaborate scenes. Angels and saints look down from above on the final resting places of the Vespucci family. Constructed from plaster (rather than marble) and embellished with gold leaf, the extravagance of the era is on full display.
Above, the ceiling uses the di sotto in siù effect to create a heavenly sky when viewed from below. This elaborate type of trompe d'oeil is used in nave as well.
Despite this elaborate reliance on baroque styles and techniques, the most stunning piece of artwork in this church is the recently restored crucifix, attributed to early Renaissance master, Giotto.
The bright gold border contrasts with vibrant blue paint derived from the lapis stone. Hanging above the apse, it glows. It's brilliant colors and carefully detailed subjects majestically reign among the gaudy baroque embellishments.
Walk under the crucifix and you can enter the former monastary, now a small museum. To visit, you'll need to plan ahead because the museum hours are extremely limited. But in the former refectory, you can see Ghirlandaio's Last Suppe fresco, as well as the early sketches upon which it was based.
Santa Trinita | Find it in Florence: Piazza di Santa Trinita, 50123 Firenze FI
Ognissanti | Find it in Florence:Borgo Ognissanti, 42, 50123 Firenze FI