The church of Santa Maria a Ricorboli is not mentioned in any travel guide. There was a considerable chance that I would never have visited it, had it not been discussed on the best website about churches in Florence, the unrivalled The Churches of Florence. The article there mentioned a work by the great Florentine master Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) or his school. And since I wanted to see as many works by Giotto as possible during my last stay in Florence, there was every reason to walk all the way to Ricorboli. Ricorboli used to be a small settlement just outside the walls of Florence. Its name probably derives from that of a little stream – the Rio Corbulo – that ended in the river Arno nearby. The settlement was situated on the road from Arezzo to Florence, which was used extensively by pilgrims and other travellers. From the Porta San Niccolò, an old gate in Oltrarno, one reaches the church of Santa Maria on foot in about ten minutes.
There have been presumably been a hermitage (romitorio), an oratory and one or more hospices at this location since the twelfth or thirteenth century. Travellers to and from Arezzo could make use of these facilities. Two important Florentine families financed the hospices, the Mozzi – from whose ranks came the bishop of Florence Andrea dei Mozzi (1287-1294) – and the Ardinghelli. From the second half of the fourteenth century (and in any case since 1365) the oratory was administered by Benedictine monks. These were suppressed during the pontificate of Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447) and replaced with hermits (Eremitani) of Saint Augustinus. In 1478 a small church, dedicated to Santa Maria, was built on the orders of the Bardi di Vernio family. Since 1585 this church was administered by a lay fraternity, the Compagnia della Natività della Gloriosa Sempre Vergine Maria, or Compagnia di Ricorboli for short.
In 1785 Grand Duke Leopold I (1765-1790) decided to suppress the monastic orders. As part of this action the lay fraternity was dissolved as well and the Santa Maria a Ricorboli became a parish church. In the meantime the population living outside the Porta San Niccolò had grown substantially, so there was a great need for parish churches. The population continued to grow, and at the beginning of the twentieth century it was concluded that the Santa Maria a Ricorboli had become too small. For this reason between 1906 and 1926 a new and larger church was built behind the existing one. The architect involved was Enrico au Capitaine (1843-1909), of little fame, who unfortunately died before the project had been completed. A few years after completion of the new church, in 1930, the old church was demolished. This old church stood on the terrain between the façade of the present church and the fence on the street side. The old campanile has been preserved, as has a tabernacle with the old high altar that was placed here in 1931. Pictures of the old church can be found on the website of the church.
Madonna del Rifugio
The façade of the Santa Maria a Ricorboli is entirely made of stone. Decorations are completely absent. The interior of the church is plain and simple as well, although the stained glass windows made by the Polloni family are of high quality. The artistic highlight in the Santa Maria is undoubtedly the Madonna del Rifugio, the Madonna of the Shelter. This is a small panel (81.5 by 66 centimetres) with the Madonna and Child enthroned, surrounded by four angels. The panel was probably once the central part of a triptych or polyptych. The big question is, of course, whether the Madonna del Rifugio is really a work by Giotto himself. On a somewhat dated information panel in the church we may read that it is a work from his school from about 1335. But since a restoration in 2005 opinion seems to have shifted. The caption near the work now claims that the Madonna is a work by Giotto himself and his workshop, so basically a co-production. It was supposedly painted between 1334 and 1336, so after Giotto’s return from Naples and just before the death of the great painter in 1337.
This website gives a number of arguments in favour of personal involvement by Giotto. The article we find there compares the Madonna del Rifugio with the so-called Polittico di Bologna and with a Maestà from the Bargello which were both definitely painted by Giotto and his workshop. In the case of the polyptych from Bologna this certainty is based on the fact that Giotto signed this work with his name in Latin, ‘Ioctus’. The article refers to the great beauty of certain elements of the panel in the Santa Maria, especially the head of the Christ child and the left hand of the Virgin that supports the child. On the other hand, it does not deny that assistants from Giotto’s workshop were probably heavily involved in painting the panel. At the time Giotto must have been in his late sixties. By the standards of those days he was an old man. Nobody would have blamed him for delegating ever more work to talented assistants.
The Madonna del Rifugio has been venerated for many centuries. The most important visitor who came to pray before the Madonna and Child was Pope Pius VII (1800-1823). This Barnaba Chiaramonti had been elected pope at a time when the papacy was in turmoil. His predecessor Pius VI had been arrested by the French and had died in exile in Valence in 1799 (see Rome: Galleria Corsini). Pius VII was not elected pope in tumultuous Rome, but in Venice, under Austrian protection. His relationship with the French, especially with Napoleon Bonaparte, was troublesome. In 1804 Pius was summoned to Rome to attend the coronation of Napoleon and Joséphine as emperor and empress of the French. In the end, on 2 December 1804, Napoleon performed the coronation himself and only allowed the pope to bless the crowns. In 1805 Pius returned to Rome, and on his way to the Eternal City, on 10 May, he visited the Santa Maria a Ricorboli. On that occasion he issued a decree that whoever visited the church would receive a plenary indulgence.
In 1808 Pope Pius VII got into a new conflict with the French. In January of that year French troops occupied the Eternal City and in 1809 they arrested the pope. Napoleon had not ordered the pope’s detention, so one can understand that he was not amused. The emperor ultimately instructed his men to take Pius from Grenoble to Savona in Liguria, where he would reside until 1812. In that year Napoleon moved the pope to Fontainebleu to force him to sign an agreement (concordat) with the Holy Chair. The pope, now a broken man, agreed to the concordat in 1813, but tore up the document just a little later. In 1814, a few months after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig, Pope Pius VII was able to return to Rome, where he arrived at the end of March. When he died on 10 July 1823 the papacy was in a much better state than when he ascended the throne of Saint Peter 23 years previously. In the Santa Maria a Ricoboli we can admire a painting that depicts Pius VII together with a parish priest and an altar boy. In the background the Duomo of Florence is visible. The canvas was painted in 1928 by Baccio Maria Bacci (1888-1974) from Florence. The painting has a large square hole above the pope that originally held the Madonna del Rifugio.
 For the papacy of Pius VII, see John Julius Norwich, The Popes, chapter XXIV.