Digging deeper: Ognissanti, Firenze. Botticelli, Ghirlandaio & Amerigo Vespucci

Ah, Firenze: the more I discover, the more I learn I know almost nothing. It’s even hard to find the right metaphor to describe Florence.

But, let me try: Florence is like a puzzle, ready to shape itself in many different levels such as beginner’s, intermediate, and mature.  Within each of these categories are almost infinite gradations.

For example, you can slip together the main sites of the city to form a large, easily managed puzzle for children. The beginners.  Most tourists are satisfied with this strata.

But, for the truly curious, digging deeper in any particular area will reward in spades. Case in point: the Baroque church of La chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti, better known simply as the Ognissanti in the Borgo Ognissanti quartiere.  Yesterday I posted twice about this fine church, and still I find I haven’t gone below the surface level.  So, today I am back with more.


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The Chiesa di Ognissanti or All Saints’ church, as it is now known, was founded in 1256 by the Umiliati, a Benedictine order that played a very significant role in the development of the wool industry in Florence.

The Umiliati moved into the city in the 13th century, bringing with them from Germany techniques for improving the quality of cloth, and they established their workshops next to the Arno, a short distance from their convent (in Italy, the word “convent” is used to describe what an American would call a monastery).

You can see on the map above just how close Ognissanti is to the river.  Commerce such as wool drove the Florentine economy, helping to make the city great.  Any important guild, such as the wool guild, would sponsor the creation or improvement of the religious orders and church building within the city.

The Umiliati, by the dedication and probity of the lay brothers and sisters, gained a solid reputation in Florence. Important works of art began to accumulate in their severely simple church.

For example, Giotto’s celebrated Madonna and Child with angels (now in the Uffizi), was painted for the high altar of the church, and it is thought that the same master painted the Crucifix now displayed in the church’s left transept.

Other signs of devotion and wealth are the nave chapels frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli. Below is Botticelli’s 1480 Saint Augustine in His Study,
representing Augustine of Hippo:


While Domenico Ghirlandaio’s similarly composed frescoed Saint Jerome in his Study faces the Botticelli in the opposite chapel

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There’s a shallow chapel dedicated to the Vespucci family, frescoed (c. 1472) by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his brother Davide.



The central fresco is a Lamentation:



Above the main fresco is a Ghirlandaio painting in this chapel is the lunette containing the fresco of the Madonna della Misericordia.  The Madonna is shown holding open her cape to envelope and protect the members of the Vespucci family. There is reputedly a portrait of Amerigo Vespucci as a child within this fresco. And we all know that Amerigo Vespucci would be of great importance for the later designated western continents.


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The young boy, whose head appears under the Virgin’s right arm, between her and the man in the red cloak, is thought to be a portrait of the explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. A plaque marking his tombstone can be seen in the floor to the left of the altar.

This Vespucci was, of course, an Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to Old Worlders. Colloquially referred to as the New World, this second super continent came to be called “America,” deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of Vespucci’s first name.

Moreover, when Amerigo Vespucci would come upon a bay in what would later become Brazil, he named it San Salvatore di Ognissanti, which in Portuguese is San Salvador de Todos os Santos: this is the origin of the name of the city of Salvador and Bahia de Todos os Santos. Could Vespucci have been thinking of his old neighborhood in Firenze?  I think so.

But, perhaps the greatest of Ognissanti’s frescoes is Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper in the refectory between the two cloisters, a work with which Leonardo was intimately familiar. So important is this fresco that I will write a separate post about it.



During the 16th century, the Umiliati declined in energy, and the Franciscan order assumed control of the church in 1571, bringing precious relics such as the robe Saint Francis of Assisi wore. The Franciscans remodeled the church to conform with the newer Baroque style and the church was re-consecrated in 1582. It was renamed San Salvatore a Ognissanti (St. Saviour at All Saints)

In 1571 the Franciscans brought from this other church their most precious relic, which is still to be seen at Ognissanti: the habit worn by St. Francis of Assisi when he received the sacred Stigmata on Mount Verna in 1224. As far as I can tell, the Ognissanti relic is no longer accepted as true; no stone is left unturned in Florence: https://www.livescience.com/1855-tunic-worn-saint-francis-identified.html

But we do know that Domenico Ghirlandaio painted frescoes of the Madonna of Mercy and the Pietà (1470-72) over the Vespucci altar. Ognissanti,_cappella_vespucci_2,_ghirlandaio_01


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