03 January 2018

The Seven Virtues of Santa Felicità

Temperanza, fresco by Pietro Gerini 1387  Santa Felicità, Florence

The Chiesa di Santa Felicità is a small Oltrarno church whose facade holds up part of the Vasari corridor on its way to the Palazzo Pitti.  During my Florentine stay in 2014, I made repeated visits with the goal of seeing the 14th century Sala Capitolare, the Chapter Room,  in the older part of this former Benedictine convent.
I didn’t mind returning so often, and seeing my favorite Pontormo Annunciation in the Capponi Chapel, and the Poccetti murals in the chapel opposite to it.  I became friendly with the volunteer sitting inside the church who would see me coming in just about every week. She knew my name, because I’d given her my card in February, and she pronounced it Leeee-na. She wrote on a slip of paper “venerdi 13-16h” for me, meaning that between 1 and 4 PM on Fridays the Gothic sections of the building are open, and I kept this bit of paper in my wallet.
But every Friday when I returned, she would then say “oh, non oggi, non possiamo aprire la sala… puoi tornare la prossima settimana...” and then “sorry” the only English word she seemed to know. Apparently more volunteers were needed to escort people back there, and she was minding the door on her own.
The very last Friday of April, at the end of my sabbatical, I showed up one last time, and encountered a different volunteer, but the same rejection, and I was deeply embarrassed when my disappointment turned into tears. Why did I need to see this interior so badly? 

A pair of gilt reliquary busts designed for the relics of martyrs, Santa Felicità, Florence.
Earlier this year (2017) I made another visit, this time in a wheelchair having broken my ankle, and was elated to find the Sala Capitolare open, and two extra volunteers on hand to lay a plank on the stairs.  Erling took something of a running start to push me into the room, to the long-for glimpse of the Gothic painting inside. 

The chapter room of Santa Felicità, with a gothic ceiling and baroque murals
The Crucifixion mural and the ceiling of the Seven Virtues were painted in 1387 by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, a follower of Giotto. Only traces of blue remain, and this is because blue pigments like lapis lazuli are generally unstable in wet plaster, and so are added over a red or brown base a secco, after the fresco is dry.  These tend to be the first to be lost, leaving the reddish color underneath, and as a result these paintings have an overall warm brown look. (In this case the color is further muddied by the fluorescent lights used in this room.)  The fields on this ceiling also show the ghosts of Giotto-style 8-pointed gilt stars.

A Favorite Detail:  The ribbed groin-vault of this ceiling is a painted effect.  What is actually a rather shallow barrel vault was given the appearance of ribbing by the addition of painted geometric boarders dividing the space into sections. A striped border changes direction, and a painted shadow along one side adds relief, making the ceiling feel taller, more graceful, and more substantial.  Other borders have faux-mosaic "cosmatesque" designs which enhance the illusion and act as frames for the panels.

cosmatesque borders flank the "ribs" of the trompe l'oeil groin vault, Santa Felicità, Florence


The allegorical figures of the Virtues, have square or octagonal halos.  This is, I have learned, a convention to distinguish them from angels or saints. Like saints, the figures are depicted with their attributes:  Fides (faith) holds a chalice with the host;  Charitas (charity) nurses a baby and holds a flame in her hand; Iustitia (justice) wields a sword and scales; Prudenza (prudence) is often depicted with a face on the back of her head and holding a snake; Spes (hope) holds up her hands in payer; Fortitudo (fortitude) carries a shield with a pillar.  Temperanza (temperance) (see first image above) puts a finger to her lips in silence and self-restraint.

The Seven Virtues, ceiling fresco painted by Pietro Gerini 1387,  Santa Felicità, Florence
Murals by Cosimo Ulivelli and Angelo Gori, 1665    Santa Felicità, Florence
The Chapter room and its pronaos (porch) had been open to the cloister on one side, and there had been a lot of moisture damage, but in 1615 this area was enclosed. Then in 1665, the artists Cosimo Ulivelli and Agnolo Gori frescoed the walls with murals and quadratura architecture. 
It's possible the older areas were painted over when the room was remodeled, but despite being aesthetically at odds with the ceiling,  the murals do seem to have been designed to work with it.

Santa Felicità was ordered to close on 11 October 1810, when Napoleon suppressed the monasteries of Florence. The murals were then completely whitewashed over, and have only recently been restored.



Let's review:   
Visits- lost count
Years - three
Cosmatesque ornament- check
Tears- twice (once inside the room) 
Virtues - seven.  No, eight - patience is also a virtue!

 



Santa Felicità has a new! website with some nice virtual visit links.


All photos in this post by Lynne Rutter, Florence, 2017.  click on images to view larger.



 

4 comments:

  1. This is beautiful to see! Thank you for sharing.... I am unlikely to ever be near enough to try to get in! To think that the murals were hidden behind white-wash for so long.... the things we are only discovering now! I am moved by the serenity of the Virtues... I have been slowly painting a ceiling in my Castle dollhouse (1:12 scale) with Saints images that I am trying to emulate the style of painting for the fourteenth century... these pictures reinforce my sense of how they should look (even if I can't achieve such beauty)! Thank you for sharing!

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    1. In many ways the whitewashing protected these murals. Although they lost the blue layer. When yo paint your castle, don't forget that blue, it's very important!

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  2. La ringrazie, Lynne. In 2012 I met Cristina at Sta Felicitato where I sought info about the Guicciardini. I'll be taking the Sala Capitolare tour this May thanks to your blog.

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    1. That's great! It's just been restored too!

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