The church of Santa Felicita stands close to the famous Ponte Vecchio. Its history goes back to the early Christian age, but in its current form the Santa Felicita dates from the eighteenth century. The most interesting art in the building is older, with most tourists visiting the church because of the frescoes by Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557). Even older artworks can be found in the fourteenth-century chapterhouse, the only remaining part of the medieval church before it was remodelled in the eighteenth century. A Crucifixion by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini (died ca. 1415) is no doubt worth a look, but unfortunately the chapterhouse is usually closed. In the sacristy we can admire work by Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1300-1366) and other fourteenth-century masters, but the sacristy too is often closed to the public. During my last trip to Florence in April of 2023 I found the doors shut tight on multiple occasions. And that is why, with regard to the art of the Santa Felicita, this post will focus on Pontormo’s frescoes in the Capponi chapel and those by Bernardino Poccetti (1548-1612) in the Canigiani chapel on the other side.
The church is dedicated to Saint Felicitas of Rome. She is said to have been martyred in the second century during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). A Christian cemetery has been in existence on this spot from early on. If you walk into the alley next to the church, you will notice a lapidarium with a couple of texts in Greek. At the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century a large basilica was built on the terrain. As it was situated outside the city, it was vulnerable to attack, and the church was presumably destroyed during the Gothic or Longobard invasions. In the eleventh century a Romanesque church was built in its place. Documentary evidence from 1055 proves that a convent of Benedictine nuns was established next to the Santa Felicita by that year at the latest. It is possible that the Romanesque church was consecrated in 1059 by Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061). In the same year this Gérard de Bourgogne, the former bishop of Florence, consecrated the famous Baptistery of Florence.
As was already mentioned, the chapterhouse next to the church dates from the fourteenth century. The sacristy was completed in 1473. Then the next important event for the church took place in 1565. In that year Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici instructed his trusted architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) to build the famous Coridoio Vasariano. This is a covered passageway, about one kilometre long, that connects the Palazzo Vecchio in the centre of Florence to the Palazzo Pitti, which had become the Medici family residence in 1549. The Coridoio Vasariano runs right through the church of Santa Felicita.
In 1735 the Benedictine nuns decided to thoroughly remodel their church. They commissioned the architect Ferdinando Ruggieri (1691-1741), who worked on the project between 1736 and 1739. An important element of the renovation was that Vasari’s corridor was connected to the nuns’ choir. If you enter the church, take a couple of steps forward and then turn around, you will notice a balcony above the entrance. The Grand Duke could get onto the balcony from the corridor and thus attend mass in the church. On either side of the balcony windows with grilles are visible. The nuns, who were members of an enclosed order, could follow the religious services from behind the grilles without having to mingle with others. Around 1808, during the Napoleonic era, the presence of the nuns at the Santa Felicita came to an end after more than 750 years. Their order was suppressed and the Santa Felicita became a parish church.
Pontormo and Poccetti
The interior of the church is grey and boring. The two chapels against the counter-façade are, however, of great beauty. This especially holds true for the Cappella Capponi on the right. The chapel was built between 1419 and 1423 for the Barbadori family, after a design by the famous architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). In the sixteenth century the Capponi family took over the chapel and commissioned Pontormo to decorate it with frescoes and an altarpiece. Unfortunately not all of his work, made between 1525 and 1528, has been preserved. The fresco on the vault was lost during the renovation of the eighteenth century, but on the pendentives we do still see four tondi with the four evangelists. In painting the evangelists Pontormo was assisted by his student Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572).
On the back wall we see Pontormo’s fresco of the Annunciation. The master painted his Virgin Mary in striking colours: with her light skin and red hair she could easily pass for an Irishwoman! The stained glass window between the archangel Gabriel and the Virgin was made by the Frenchman Guillaume de Marcillat (1470-1529). It represents a Deposition combined with the Transportation of the body to the tomb (the cross is visible in the background). The window that visitors see is, by the way, a copy. Already during the renovation of the eighteenth century the original was moved to the Palazzo Capponi alle Rovinate, elsewhere in Florence.
Visitors who want to see the beautiful altarpiece in the Cappella Capponi, a prime example of Mannerism, will need to make sure they bring along enough coins to turn on the lights in the chapel. If the lights are switched off, you are bound to miss much of the bright colours of the altarpiece. Pink and blue are the most conspicuous colours of the work. The altarpiece depicts a Deposition or Pietà, or something in between. The cross is, in any case, notably absent. In the top right corner a man with a beard and some sort of green turban has been painted. It is generally accepted that this is Pontormo’s self-portrait.
Opposite the Cappella Capponi we find the Cappella Canigiani. In 1589-1590 Bernardino Poccetti painted his Miracle of Santa Maria della Neve, Our Lady of the Snow, on the back wall of this chapel. The name of the fresco obviously refers to the foundation legend of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. After a miraculous case of snowfall in August, Pope Liberius (352-366) and a certain John the Patrician decided to build a basilica on the spot where the snow had fallen. It is likely that Poccetti included a portrait of Giovanni Canigiani, the man who had commissioned the work, in the fresco, as well as a self-portrait. Canigiani is probably the man in blue staring at the viewer. Behind him we see a bearded man in the red robes of a cardinal who is the spitting image of Poccetti.