One of the main goals of my last trip to Florence was viewing the works of the famous painter Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) that I had not seen previously. Of course it is not always possible to attribute works to this innovative master with certainty, so I had already broadened my scope to works attributed to Giotto’s workshop, with or without involvement of the master himself. The church of San Felice has one such work about which opinions are divided. The work is a large painted wooden crucifix above the high altar. Even locally the opinions about the crucifix are quite divided. The information panels outside and inside the church claim that the crucifix is a work by Giotto’s workshop (Bottega di Giotto). However, near the crucifix itself one can scan a QR code that leads to a website that argues that it is a work by the great master himself. Given the high quality of the work this is a claim that should definitely be taken seriously.
The church of San Felice is located just southwest of the Palazzo Pitti, but it is much older than this famous Renaissance palace. The church is first mentioned in 1066. Between ca. 1457 and 1460 the San Felice was largely rebuilt by the well-known architect Michelozzo (1396-1472), who was also responsible for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi elsewhere in Florence. The simple Renaissance façade and the three apse chapels date from this rebuilding. Visitors entering the church will see a vestibule that is no less than four bays deep. The cross-vault of this vestibule dates from the sixteenth century. After the vestibule comes the church proper, which is just a little bit deeper and has an open roof. Here we find altars from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and tombs from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The church and the adjacent convent were administered by Benedictines between 1153 and ca. 1413. A reminder of their presence here is a fresco on the left side of the church that dates from ca. 1365 (see the image above). The fresco is attributed to the so-called Maestro del Bargello, of whom we know no more than that he was presumably a student of the more famous Maso di Banco and that he painted a fresco in the Bargello in Florence (hence his name). On the fresco we see the Madonna and Child in the centre, flanked by Saint James the Great and Pope Sylvester (314-335). James is recognisable by the scallop on his robes. At Sylvester’s side is a smaller kneeling figure dressed in red. He is the abbot of Nonantola, a town near Modena with a famous Benedictine abbey. It was Benedictine monks from this abbey, which is dedicated to Pope Sylvester, that settled at San Felice and its convent in 1153. These monks were first succeeded by Camaldolese (ca. 1413) and then by Dominican nuns (1557), before the complex became a shelter for poor girls in the eighteenth century and then a free school for the needy. The Dominican nuns were responsible for the construction of a nuns’ choir above the vestibule, which is still visible today. It allowed them to attend mass in the church without mingling with other people.
After the monastic orders were dissolved during the Napoleonic era, the San Felice became a parish church. A fire in 1926 necessitated restorations, which were led by the architect Ezio Cerpi (1868-1958). More restorations took place at the end of the 1970s, and very important was the restauration of the painted crucifix in 1992, which revived the discussion about who had painted the object.
The crucifix above the high altar is of great beauty. We see the crucified Christ with wounds to the hands, feet and side. On the outer edges of the crossbeam the grief-stricken Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist have been painted. Above the titulus with the text IHS NAZAREN REX IUDEORU a mother pelican has been depicted pecking her chest to feed her chicks with her own blood. This is a symbolic representation of Christ sacrificing himself for Mankind.
If you scan the QR code on the information sign near the crucifix, you will be directed to this website. There you can hear about the theory that Giotto painted the crucifix after returning from Padova, where he was active in the basilica of Sant’Antonio (before 1303), the Cappella degli Scrovegni (1303-1305) and the Palazzo della Ragione. We do not know when exactly Giotto painted his frescoes (now lost, unfortunately) for the Palazzo della Ragione, but it may have been from 1312 onwards or between 1315 and 1317. This means that the dating that the aforementioned website gives us for the crucifix, i.e. about 1305-1310, is not inconceivable.
Of course none of this is solid proof that the crucifix was really painted by Giotto himself, and not by his workshop or someone from his school. The claim that the master himself was not responsible for this work is still omnipresent on the Internet. See for instance this article on Italian Wikipedia, which not only assumes that the crucifix is a work from Giotto’s school (scuola di Giotto), but also uses a much later dating (ca. 1330). Nonetheless, we should not rule out the possibility that Giotto himself was at the very least responsible for part of the decorations. Christ’s emaciated body is graceful and anatomically correct, the decorations on either side of his body are beautiful, his face radiates perfect serenity and the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist seem genuinely upset. The aforementioned website, moreover, rightly points to similarities between this Saint John and the Saint John on a crucifix from Padova.
Other things to see
Most of the other decorations in the church that are worthwhile date from the days that the Camaldolese were in charge of the San Felice and the adjacent convent. A good example is a fresco of the Madonna della Cintola by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452). It depicts the story of how the Virgin Mary upon her Assumption handed her belt to the ever doubtful Saint Thomas the Apostle. In 1140 or 1141, thanks to a pilgrim, the belt ended up in the Tuscan city of Prato, where the sacred object is still kept in the cathedral.
Bicci di Lorenzo was from a family of painters. His father Lorenzo was a painter, and so was his son Neri. The San Felice possesses one work by this Neri di Bicci (ca. 1419-1491). It is a rather odd triptych from 1467, with in the middle a small cabinet in which the Body of Christ is stored, i.e. the sacred hosts. Topping the cabinet is a chalice for the Blood of Christ, the sacramental wine. The two saints on the left are Saint Augustinus and Saint John the Baptist, those on the right Saint Julian the Hospitaller and the Burgundian king Sigismund (died 524). In the three lunettes we moreover see an Annunciation and a Pietà. One of Neri’s associates, who has been named the Maestro di Signa, painted several frescoes featuring saints on the counter-façade of the church.
Another interesting work is a sculpture representing the Deposition from the Cross. It dates from ca. 1510 and is attributed to Fra Ambrogio della Robbia (1477-1528). He was a son of Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) and a younger brother of Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529), who have both won much more fame as sculptors. Like Andrea and Giovanni, Fra Ambrogio – who had born the name Francesco before joining the Dominicans – specialised in glazed terracotta. The Deposition attributed to him is a good example of this type of earthenware.
From the days of the Dominican nuns dates a work by Jacopo Chimenti, also known as Empoli (1551-1640). If you have time left, you can try to visit the former refectory. It has a Last Supper by Matteo Rosselli (1578-1650).