The small city of Fiesole rises high above the much larger city of Florence in the valley. Fiesole was known as Vipsul in Etruscan times and founded perhaps as early as 700 BCE. Situated on a hill at a height of some 300 metres, it was easy to defend and became an important centre of power in this part of Italy. In the early third century BCE, the Etruscans had to give way to a new power in Italy, the Romans. The Romans renamed the city Faesulae, and suffered a sharp defeat here against a marauding Celtic army in 225 BCE (at least according to Polybius, but the battle most likely did not take place here). The city of Florence was only founded in 59 BCE as a colony for Roman army veterans. The settlement was named Florentia, but despite the growth of this colony, Faesulae remained an important city. During the Middle Ages, Fiesole – as it was now called – was a fierce rival of Florence and the two cities vied for power and fought many wars against each other. Fiesole’s power was ended for good in 1125, when the city was conquered by the armies of Florence and the “daughter” had finally defeated her “mother”.
Nowadays, Fiesole is a charming city that draws many tourists who want to escape the bustle and noise of Florence and admire the spectacular panoramic view from up here. From the Piazza Mino da Fiesole, named after a fifteenth century sculptor, the steep Via San Francesco leads to the top of the hill where once stood the ancient citadel of Etruscan Fiesole. It was here that, in 1399, the Convento di San Francesco was built for the Frati Minori of the Franciscan Order. The convent replaced an earlier chapel and a small house that had been built around 1330 to accommodate a congregation of Benedictine nuns. The Convento di San Francesco was expanded over time and now consists of a church and three cloisters, as well as cells for the monks and the Museo Etnografico Missionario, which can be visited for free (a small donation is appreciated). The most famous inhabitant of the Convento was San Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), a Franciscan missionary who became Guardian of the complex in 1418.
The church of the convent, dedicated to Saint Franciscus of Assisi, is very simple. It has a mostly undecorated Gothic facade with a rose window and the interior is also Gothic in style. The church has a single nave, which is separated from the sanctuary by a balustrade. Behind the balustrade is the altarpiece, a Crucifixion by Neri di Bicci (ca. 1419-1491). Coincidentally, the church also has a much more complex triptych by Neri’s father Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), whose work we have previously seen in Rignano sull’Arno. The triptych shows a Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints. The Saints on the panel are, from left to right, Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297; note the French fleur-de-lis on his robes), Saint Franciscus of Assisi (1181-1226), the Portuguese Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231; with perhaps Saint Anthony’s Fire in his hand) and the fourth century Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey.
Although the church interior is quite sober, a few interesting paintings adorn the walls. Apart from an Adoration of the Magi by an unknown fifteenth century painter and a Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine attributed to Cenni di Francesco (active between 1369 and 1415), we can admire works by Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522) and Raffaellino del Garbo (died ca. 1527). The former executed his Immaculate Conception somewhere between 1507 and 1516. The painting is intriguing for its many scrolls with texts about Maria and its depiction of six saints in the lower part, who can be identified as Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, Franciscus of Assisi, Jerome, Thomas of Aquino and – apparently – Anselm of Canterbury. In the upper part, we see God, the Virgin Mary and angels.
Del Garbo was a student of Filippino Lippi, and assisted him with the decoration of the Carafa Chapel in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. His Annunciation in the Chiesa di San Francesco in Fiesole is simple but colourful. Apart from a somewhat curious depiction of the Holy Trinity – the Dove of the Holy Spirit has the head of Baby Jesus – we see the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah in the two tondi in the upper left and right corners. I do not know who the man at the bottom is. Presumably he is the cleric who commissioned the painting.
Visitors should definitely also see the largest of the three cloisters, which is open to the public. It is truly a peaceful and serene spot, with a lovely convent garden in the middle. You can take the stairs to the first floor and see some of the cells that the friars, including Bernardino of Siena, used to contemplate, pray, read, write and sleep in.
The Convento di San Francesco is interesting because of its architecture, art and quietness, but the real reason many tourists visit this complex, towering high above the city of Florence, is the amazing view. I have been to Fiesole three times now and always climb up the hill again to see Florence lying in the valley below. Even on a cloudy day you can clearly see all the famous buildings of the city, from the Duomo to the Santa Croce, and from the San Lorenzo to the Palazzo Vecchio. The view is truly breathtaking, a feeling impossible to share by means of a picture. This is something you have to experience yourself.