Pistoia is sometimes called ‘little Florence’. The basilica of the Madonna dell’Umiltà may be largely held responsible for that nickname. It has a dome that closely resembles the famous dome that Brunelleschi built for the Duomo of Florence. Rather unsurprisingly, the dome in Pistoia was designed and built by a man who spent a large part of his life in and around Florence: the painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). The basilica of the Madonna dell’Umiltà is a remarkable building. It comprises a rectangular vestibule that has been more or less ‘glued’ to the dome. One can get an excellent view of the edifice from the bell-tower of the Duomo of Pistoia. The entrance to the basilica is in the narrow Via della Madonna. There the visitor can take a look at the church façade, which was never completed and remains largely undecorated.
On the spot where we now find the vestibule of the current basilica a church known as the Santa Maria Forisportae or Forisportam used to stand. It was founded at an unspecified moment during the Middle Ages. The name of the church makes clear that it stood outside one of the gates of the city, which at the time cannot have been more than a large village. In 1382 the then bishop of Pistoia, Andrea Franchi (see Pistoia: San Domenico), commissioned a fresco of the Madonna and Child for the church. The name of the painter has unfortunately not been recorded. Since this Madonna sits quite humbly with the Christ child on a pillow on the ground, she is called the Madonna dell’Umiltà. On 17 July 1490 this Madonna dell’Umiltà supposedly performed a miracle. During an internal feud between two families, the Panciatichi and Cancellieri, the Madonna was said to have secreted certain fluids (probably sweat). Afterwards several miraculous cures were reported.
Construction of the current basilica started in 1495. Initially Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516) was hired as the lead architect, but when he proved to be unavailable, the project was entrusted to Pistoian-born Ventura Vitoni (1442-1522). The street to the left of the basilica was named after him. In 1563 Vasari started construction of the dome and five years later the lantern that tops it was completed. The dome has a height of 59 metres, although the basilica itself likes to claim that it is 63 metres high. It has a diameter of 20.5 metres, which is less than half the diameter of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. In 1579 the church was completed and the fresco of the Madonna was taken to the new altar. Finally, in 1582, the basilica of the Madonna dell’Umiltà was consecrated.
In the narrow corridor which links the vestibule to the church the visitor will find information about the building in many languages: Italian, English, French and even Dutch. Very convenient for blog authors who want to write a post about the basilica! The vestibule has a nice barrel vault and a kind of pseudo dome – no dome is visible on the outside of the building – that is decorated with four large shells. The shells refer to Saint James the Great, patron saint of Pistoia, and the pilgrimages to Compostela, where the apostle found his final resting place after he was beheaded in Judea. Eight large frescoes from the eighteenth century have been attached to the walls. Four of these were painted by Giovanni Domenico Piastrini (1680-1740). They tell the story of the miracle of the Madonna dell’Umiltà and of the construction of the basilica. An interesting detail is the fact that the frescoes make clear that the fresco of the Madonna had been painted onto the wall of the old church and had to be chiselled out before it could be moved. Piastrini’s third fresco features the architect Ventura Vitoni.
In the dome, which is the actual church, we see the Madonna dell’Umiltà on the high altar that was made by Pietro Tacca (1577-1640). There are six secondary altars. Five of these have a painting as an altarpiece, while the final one has a crucifix. The paintings were made by different artists from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and all deal with the life of Christ or the Virgin. I did not spot any masterpieces, but that does not alter the fact that the basilica of the Madonna dell’Umilta is a very special building indeed.
This post was largely based on information to be found in the church itself. Additional information came from Italian Wikipedia.