The San Salvatore al Monte – sometimes with the addition “alle Croci” – is located on the same hill as the San Miniato. Tourists who make the climb up the hill to go and see the latter church should also pay a brief visit to the former. There are marked differences between the two buildings with regard to style and works of art. The San Miniato is a medieval Romanesque church, much older than the San Salvatore and richly decorated. The San Salvatore, on the other hand, is a Renaissance church, simple in style, austere even. It has few works of art, and the most interesting ones disappeared long ago.
The history of the San Salvatore starts in 1417 with the last will of a certain Luca di Jacopo del Tosa. Del Tosa bequeathed some of his property to a community of Franciscan friars (Frati Minori). A complex with a garden and a Franciscan chapel was built here in 1419, and work on the first proper church was completed around the year 1435. The great Franciscan missionary San Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) spent some time at the complex. According to a leaflet written by the San Salvatore monks, in 1456, the Florentine nobleman Castello Quaratesi wanted to enlarge the church and tore down the original building, which may have been of questionable quality anyway. Quaratesi died in 1465, well before the work had even started.
Ultimately the Florentine cloth merchants guild – Arte di Calimala – stepped in and hired the architect Simone del Pollaiolo (1457-1508) to kickstart the project. Del Pollaiolo was related to the artists Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo, who worked on the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in the nearby San Miniato. He was nicknamed “Il Cronaca”, “the Chronicle”, for his detailed descriptions of ancient ruins in the city of Rome. Del Pollaiolo completed the San Salvatore between 1490 and 1498, and the church was consecrated in 1504. The church suffered badly during the Siege of Florence in 1529-1530, and apparently things did not get much better afterwards. In 1571, the Franciscans were given the church of Ognissanti on the other side of the Arno river when the Humiliati order administering it was suppressed. Initially the friars seem to have used both complexes, but in 1665, they left their dilapidated complex in the hills for good. Their place was taken up by Spanish Franciscans. Today, there is still a Franciscan presence at the church and convent.
The church is very, very sober, both on the inside and on the outside. Its simple Renaissance facade is mostly undecorated, apart from the image of an eagle in the tympanum. The eagle appears in the coat of arms of the Quaratesi family, but is was also the symbol of the Arte di Calimala, as we have seen at the San Miniato higher up the hill. The interior of the church is also extremely simple. The San Salvatore has a single nave and the walls are mostly devoid of decoration, while the floor is downright ugly. Nevertheless, the church and the adjoining cloister seem to have pleased the great artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). He called the San Salvatore “la mia bella villanella”, which translates as “my beautiful country girl” (the San Salvatore was, strictly speaking, in the country, as it was outside Florence’s city walls).
Works of art
Although after reading the previous sentences one might think otherwise, the San Salvatore does have a few interesting works of art. It must have been better once though. Regretfully, two of the most interesting works were removed from the church when the religious orders were suppressed in the nineteenth century. The so-called Raczyński Tondo (ca. 1478) – a tondo by Botticelli depicting a Madonna and Child with Angels – ended up in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. An Annunciation by Fra Angelico also disappeared. Among the objects that can still be admired are two works by Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529), a Pietà made shortly before the artist’s death (ca. 1528) and a lunette showing the Deposition of Christ (ca. 1509).
Also of interest is a panel by Neri di Bicci (ca. 1419-1491). The panel is an example of the use of distemper on wood (i.e. no egg was used as a binder for the paint) and like Della Robbia’s late work, it shows a Pietà. In Italian, the painting is called Vergine con Cristo in pietà e santi. The Virgin and the Dead Christ are of course easily recognisable, but it is not completely clear to me who the saints are. The one on the right is undoubtedly Saint Franciscus of Assisi, which makes sense in a Franciscan church.
The saint on the left is in royal attire. He is wearing a crown and a sceptre, so he may be a canonised king or prince. He could be King Louis IX of France. Louis died in 1270 and was canonised by Pope Bonifatius VIII in 1297. Although he may not have been an actual member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, he is honoured as one of the Order’s patrons and certainly supported the Franciscans. His appearance in a Franciscan church is fitting. However, I have some doubt, as Louis is usually portrayed without a beard and the familiar French fleur-de-lis seems to be missing altogether. Perhaps the saint can be identified as Saint Minias, who in the nearby San Miniato is called the “King of Armenia”.
Do not forget to take a look at the stained-glass windows of the church, which are attributed to Pietro Perugino (ca. 1446-1523) and were probably executed after 1506. Three of his windows are on the left side of the church, while one is on the right. A fifth and final one can be found in the square apse. The windows feature God the Father, Saint Franciscus receiving the stigmata, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint John the Baptist.
 By the way, a ‘pollaio’ is a hen-house…
Sources: for this post I have used a variety of sources. Helpful sources were the Italian Wikipedia entry about the church, the website The Churches of Florence and the leaflet provided by the Frati Minori.