When walking through the Piazza del Duomo, most visitors walk right past a white marble column on a base of three stairs, just to the north of the Baptistry. The column is topped with bronze and capped by a cross.
Overwhelmed by the magnificence of the other monuments in the square, few people give the column more than a passing glance.
But, once upon a time, a miracle supposedly took place on this very hallowed spot.
I first noticed this column myself, although I’ve walked through this piazza at least a zillion times, last January 27th. It was the flowers that attracted my attention. Red and white bedding plants surrounded the base.
I thought it was just a post-Christmas attempt to liven the place up. Boy, was I wrong. I suspect pretty much everything I take for granted in Florence has a deeper significance. It is my mission to uncover some of them. Mission accepted!
It turns out that every year on January 27, Florentines commemorate the anniversary of a particular miracle by decorating the base of the column with flowers and greenery.
The miracle was this: supposedly in 429 CE (although some scholars say it was much later, probably in the ninth century), the relics of the much loved and venerated first bishop of Florence, San Zanobi (337-417 CE), were transferred from the Church of San Lorenzo where he had been buried, to the new cathedral, the Church of Santa Reparata (the remains of which can still be seen today under the Duomo).
As the procession moved from borgo San Lorenzo into what was then the open field of Piazza San Giovanni, the bier brushed against the leafless winter branches of an elm tree. At that mere touch, the tree is said to have burst into bloom. Hence, the bronze relief on the column represents a tree in full leaf. Above it, the now fairly indecipherable Gothic script recounts the wondrous story.
So, who was Zenobius? Born into a noble Florentine family, Zenobius was the first in his family to become a Christian. Once ordained as a priest, his fame as a preacher soon spread. Pope Damasus I (366-86 CE) called him to Rome and, among other missions, sent him to Constantinople.
After the pope died, Zenobius returned to Florence and was made the city’s first bishop. He evangelised the city and surroundings, including Scandicci (he was named its patron saint in 1983). Renowned for his great humility and charity, he was known as the Apostle of Florence.
He is also said to have performed many miracles, including one in which he resurrected the dead child of a French pilgrim. This event is recorded on a plaque in Latin on the wall of Palazzo Valori-Altoviti in borgo degli Albizi, where the miracle is said to have occurred.
The saint’s relics now rest inside the Duomo in an urn inside a silver shrine, a masterpiece made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor responsible for the ‘Gates.’
It is uncertain whether the trunk of the famous reblooming tree was used to make the cross currently found in the Church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri in via San Gallo or whether the Maestro del Bigallo used it for his painting of Saint Zenobius with saints Eugene and Crescentius, today housed at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Not surprisingly, many other artists depicted episodes from the life of the saint, including Sandro Botticelli, whose paintings of Zenobius grace the walls of the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The original marble column was destroyed by the flood in 1333 and replaced in 1334; the inscription was added in 1375. In 1501, the cross fell to the ground and shattered. The replacement column has benefited from public policy since the area surrounding the Duomo was made into a pedestrian zone in October 2009.
In May 2012, the landmark was restored through the Florence I Care (FLIC) project, a public-private partnership to preserve not only the cultural heritage of Florence but also some of its important buildings. The restoration, paid for by a private company, took three months and cost 20,000 euro. It required a series of delicate operations to remove the effects of centuries of exposure to soot and smog.
After you find the column, look up above the central doorway of the Duomo.
You will see a statue of an elderly man with a beard, dressed in bishop’s vestments and mitre and holding a crook. That is San Zanobi, seemingly keeping an eye on his column.