Prato: Santa Maria delle Carceri

Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri.

A ghastly prison once stood next to the castle of Prato, which was discussed previously on this website.[1] On 6 July 1484 a miracle is said to have taken place there. On one of the walls of the prison there was a fresco of a Madonna and Child. An eight-year-old boy saw how the Madonna suddenly came to life, worshipped the Child and cried. After several more miracles the Prato city council decided to build a church at the prison. This would become the Santa Maria delle Carceri, Our Lady of the Dungeons. These dungeons have disappeared long ago, but the church is still standing. It is a charming building in the shape of a Greek cross that was designed by the Florentine architect Giuliano da Sangallo (ca. 1445-1516). Prato had been subjugated by Florence in 1351, and it was the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who gave the job to his favourite master builder.

The Santa Maria delle Carceri was built between 1486 and 1495. The church is said to have been based on the Cappella Pazzi, a chapel designed by Filippo Brunelleschi that was erected next to the church of Santa Croce in Florence. The year 1495 only saw the completion of the interior of the church. Work on the exterior decorations continued, but was suspended in 1506. Ultimately some parts of the exterior would be left undecorated, while the upper part of the western façade was not added until the end of the nineteenth century. For these decorations the builders made use of two types of stone that are very popular in Prato: green marble (marmo verde di Prato or serpentino) and pietra alberese. Pietra alberese may turn brown after a while, but in the case of the Santa Maria delle Carceri the change of colour is not that conspicuous, especially if we compare this church to, for instance, the Duomo of Prato or the church of San Francesco. The bell-tower of the Santa Maria was added in the eighteenth century. It was built between 1777 and 1780 in the neoclassicist style by Giuseppe Valentini (1752-1833).

Castello dell’Imperatore and church of Santa Maria delle Carceri.

Interior of the church.

Window by Ghirlandaio.

Having been built in the shape of a Greek cross, the Santa Maria delle Carceri is perfectly symmetrical. The highlights among the internal decorations are the works of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) and Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525). The former is primarily known as a painter, but he also designed stained glass windows. The four stained glass windows in the arms of the Santa Maria delle Carceri are attributed to him and dated to 1491. They represent the Visitation, Annunciation, Nativity and Assumption. Around the same time Andrea della Robbia made four glazed terracotta medallions for the church. The medallions feature the four evangelists and have been attached to the pendentives of the dome, which indeed resembles that of the Pazzi chapel in Florence. On the high altar we find a frame with the miraculous fresco of the Madonna and Child from the fourteenth century. The Madonna and Child are flanked by Saints Leonard of Noblat and Stephen. Given its religious importance, the fresco has obviously been preserved, unlike the rather horrible prison. Thank the Lord for that!

Medallions featuring the evangelists John (left) and Mark (right).

Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Florence and Tuscany, Italian Wikipedia and the Città di Prato website.


[1] The prison was called ‘Le Stinche’. The name has nothing to do with the verb ‘to stink’, although the prison was no doubt smelly. ‘Le Stinche’ actually means ‘the shins’, but I have not been able to discover the origins of the name. Florence had a prison of the same name. Niccolò Machiavelli was incarcerated there for a while.

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