Once upon a time in Florence, there was a small oratory (church) dedicated to the Compagnia dei Disciplinati di San Giovanni Battista (Confraternity of St. John the Baptist), a group founded in 1376.
The tiny facade of the Cloister of the Scalzo in Florence, on present day Via Cavour, was built as the entrance to that now-destroyed church. Buildings that served the Confraternity were called “dello Scalzo” because the cross-bearers in the Confraternity’s processions walked with bare feet as a sign of humility, and scalzo means barefoot.
The brothers belonging to the Confraternita dressed in long, simple, black robes with a cowl. Their garb is depicted in the della Robbia style glazed-terracotta lunette above the entrance portal to the chiostro.
The emblem of the confraternity is the bust of Saint John the Baptist wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. He is depicted with a halo and holds a golden cross. In the lunette over the entrance, the saint is in the center, with 2 brothers, one on either side. The saint was intentionally represented in a larger scale than the brothers, as a sign of of his relative importance.
The brotherhood lasted until 1786, when the property was sold. The small oratory was destroyed in the 19th century, to make way for the modern Via Cavour.
Fortunately for posterity and lovers of art in particular, the Chiostro was saved. The Accademia delle Belle Arti used it for a while, but it was opened to the public in 1891.
While the small cortile, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, is a lovely little piece of Florentine Renaissance architecture in and of itself, with its harmonious proportions and lovely use of pietra serena, it is the fresco cycle on the four walls of the cloister that make it a must-see for any art lover.
This fresco cycle was painted by Andrea Del Sarto (Andrea Vannucchi, 1486-1530), and shows episodes from the Life of St. John the Baptist. With the 12 main scenes presented in large, horizontal frames, subdivided by grotesque style motifs, the beautiful cycle is complete. Unlike the more famous places in Florence, such as the Uffizi and the Accademia, one can visit the chiostro in a quiet and relaxed manner, and often have the entire venue to yourself. I highly recommend a visit to this exquisite, almost secret, gem.
Here, in all its quiet glory, is the cloister interior:
It is believed that Andrea del Sarto painted the entire cycle, including the paintings in the decorative bands, with one exception which will be discussed below.
In addition to the large panels depicting the saint’s life, four tall, vertical paintings represent the Virtues on the sides of the 2 main axes: Charity (1513), Faith (1523), Justice (1525) and Hope (1523).
The 12 distinct moments from life of Saint John include his birth, the famous dance of Salomè, and the beheading of the saint. The scenes also include the baptism of Jesus and the preaching in the desert. Curiously, the sequence of the scenes is not presented in chronological order on the walls.
We know that the paintings were created over a relatively long period, from 1509-26. This is a bonus for the world of art history, for the stylistic evolution of Andrea del Sarto can be followed, starting with the Baptism of Christ, c. 1509-10. This painting bears the clear influence of the quattrocento Florentine masters.
Self Portrait, Andrea del Sarto
The later scenes, painted when he had achieved his maturity as an artist, reveal the increasingly dynamic sculptural clarity of Andrea’s figures, which he borrowed from Michelangelo and which has the manneristic foreshadowings for which Andrea is noted. In The Capture of the Baptist painted in 1517, we see a more dynamic composition, probably inspired by the work of the very popular Michelangelo and other peers like Andrea’s friend, Franciabigio.
The frescoes painted in the decade of 1520 were made during Andrea del Sarto’s maturity, and we notice the much more solemn and majestic figures. Their heroic proportions run parallel with the era’s then dominant michelangiolismo.
The Baptism of the Multitudes, painted in a sumptuous almost Mannerist style, is both harmonious and complex: it is full of moving figures, many nude, and filled with pictorial virtuosity. This would inspire the entire next generation of artists.
Interestingly enough, Andrea del Sarto himself was a member of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist and practiced a lifestyle based on the sober and spiritual edicts of the group. He was thus a direct messenger of the spiritual values of simplicity shared by his brothers, which is why, perhaps, this spartan approach of monochromatic frescoes were chosen. Certainly, these paintings were less expensive to paint than fresco decorations with gold leaf and precious color mineral pigments. I don’t know why the chiaroscuro palette was chosen; perhaps it was a combination of the two influences.
Not only was Andrea del Sarto a member of this confraternity, but he lived nearby of the current Via Gino Capponi and Via Giusti. You can see his house pinned in red on the map below. Note how close the Chiostro is, located on the upper left side of the map. They are about a 6 minute walk from each other.
The plaque below marks the former home of Andrea Del Sarto.
The coat-of-arms on the corner of the house in which Andrea lived tells us clearly that this section of town was part of Medici territory. It makes sense, the house and Chiostro are very near San Marco.
The photo below shows how close Andrea lived to the Duomo of Florence. He lived, like so many Renaissance artists, in its shadow.
Andrea reached extraordinary stylistic and technical skill and is important, as well, because he played an important role in the complex artistic events of Florence at the beginning of the 16th century. He also played a critical role now recognized as fundamental to the development of Mannerism.
Two of the scenes, the Departure of John the Baptist for the Desert, and the Blessing of the Baptist, were actually painted by the artist’s friend and collaborator, a man known as Franciabigio (Francesco di Cristofano, 1482-1525). Franciabigio was asked to paint these 2 panels because in 1518 Andrea was absent from Florence.
In fact, Andrea had been summoned by King François I to the French court at Fontainebleau. The king personally invited Andrea join the Fontainebleau school, for his fame of being the “faultless painter” (as Vasari would say) had gone beyond the borders of the Italian peninsula. The elegance and balance of Andrea’s figures were considered to have no match among any living painters.
However, Andrea returned to Florence a year or so later and finished the Cloister’s fresco cycle himself.
Admired by Michelangelo, Del Sarto was also teacher to Giorgio Vasari, who later became his biographer, describing him as the faultless painter or “painter without errors.” Del Sarto played an important role now acknowledged as fundamental to the development of Mannerism. Sarto’s style is marked throughout his career by an interest in the effects of color and atmosphere and by a sophisticated informality and natural expression of emotion.
Incidentally, the terracotta bust in the cloister represents bishop Saint Antonino Pierozzi who, as archbishop, sanctioned (in 1455) the birth of the Compagnia dello Scalzo. The Confraternity became increasingly more popular in Florence, as witnessed by an official document in 1631. The chronicles refer to a large community of brothers composed of a Governor, a council held by two elder brothers, an accountant, a copyist, six nurses, a dozen of specialized clerks, a priest, a doctor, and a servant.
The frescoes in the cloister were exposed to weather and thus deterioration for centuries. In the early 1960s, the frescoes were detached from the walls for restoration and were finally returned to the cloister to be reopened for public viewing in 2000.
Andrea del Sarto’s fresco cycle is certainly among the most important of Florentine painting of the early 16th century. Many experts consider this cycle to be his masterpiece.