The church of Sant’Ambrogio adjoins a charming little square full of bars and terraces. I happened to pass by the church on a lovely evening, when many people were sitting outside on benches or on the steps of the church. A band was playing enthusiastically, but unfortunately it got a rather lacklustre response from the crowd. In order to create a bit of an atmosphere, the band members were at one point even forced to applaud for their own performance. The church was closed that evening, but I definitely wanted to visit it, if only because of the beautiful fresco by Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507) about the miracle that supposedly took place in the church almost 800 years ago.
The Sant’Ambrogio is obviously dedicated to Saint Ambrosius (ca. 340-397), the famous bishop of Milan in the last quarter of the fourth century. According to tradition Ambrosius visited Roman Florence (Florentia) in the year 393 or 394. Between Easter and August he is said to have lived on the spot now occupied by the church. It should be noted that this spot was way outside the city at the time, and this would remain the case for another thousand years or so. We do not know when exactly the church was built. It may have been as early as the seventh century, but it is in any case first documented in 988. Tradition dictates that on 30 December 1230 a miracle took place in the church. The old priest Uguccione had not cleaned the chalice used for mass well, leaving a few drops of wine inside. The next day these had miraculously changed into drops of blood. The blood was poured into a crystal vial, and the precious relic is still kept in the church, in a tabernacle by Mino da Fiesole (ca. 1429-1484). Thanks to the Miraculous Chalice, the popularity of the Sant’Ambrogio was given a boost.
In order to accommodate the flow of people, the church was enlarged and renovated in the Gothic style at the end of the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the church was embellished with works of art, some of which can still be admired in situ, while others have been moved to museums. Among the lost works is a co-production of Masolino and Masaccio from ca. 1424-1425. This panel painting of the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (the mother of the Virgin) is currently in the Uffizi. The same holds true for the Coronation of the Virgin (1441-1447) by Filippo Lippi and the Pala di Sant’Ambrogio (ca. 1470) by Sandro Botticelli. At the end of the century (1481-1483) the aforementioned Mino da Fiesole made the tabernacle for the chapel to the left of the high altar. The sculptor died shortly after completing it and was buried in the Sant’Ambrogio. Other famous Florentines were buried in this church as well, for example Leonardo’s teacher Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) and Simone del Pollaiuolo (1457-1508), nicknamed “Il Cronaca” (see Florence: San Salvatore al Monte).
The altars with arches on either side of the church were created at the end of the sixteenth century. They give the interior of the Sant’Ambrogio a certain stylistic unity. During this intervention many frescoes from the fourteenth century disappeared behind plaster. In 1716 the architect Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652-1725) worked on the apse of the church, which was remodelled in the style of the Baroque. The triumphal arch and high altar are also by Foggini. Sant’Ambrogio’s rather boring Neogothic façade dates from 1880. Apart from a weathered fresco above the entrance the façade is undecorated. After the infamous flood of 1966 an attempt was made to give the church back some of its original medieval Gothic appearance. This also led to the rediscovery of several late medieval frescoes that had been covered up in the sixteenth century.
Things to see
The Sant’Ambrogio has a single nave, which results in a great open space. The chapels on either side are basically no more than altars. The two proper chapels of the church are situated on either side of the high altar. The left one is known as the Chapel of the Miracle of the Sacrament (Cappella del Miracolo del Sacramento). It is here, in the tabernacle of Mino da Fiesole, that the vial with the Sacred Blood is kept, and it is here that Cosimo Rosselli painted his beautiful fresco of the Miracle of the Chalice (Miracolo del Calice) on the left wall.
The tabernacle is beautifully decorated. On the lower part we see how the priest Uguccione hands the crystal vial with the blood to the abbess of the Benedictine nuns who were at that time residing in the convent next to the church. In the middle segment the relic is kept behind a metal door. On either side of the door we see Saints Ambrosius and Benedictus, the two saints closely associated with the church and convent. Above the door the dove of the Holy Spirit has been depicted, below it a chalice supported by two angels. From the chalice rises Christ giving his blessing. Mino placed his signature below the left angel, OPVS MINI (“work of Mino”). The top part of the tabernacle features God the Father giving his blessing. The tabernacle must once have been gilded, but little has been preserved of the gilding.
The frescoes on the wall behind the tabernacle and on the vault are the work of Cosimo Rosselli, but his masterpiece is undeniably the fresco on the left wall. The subject is, as was already mentioned, the Miracle of the Chalice. On the far right we see a cleric holding the crystal vial while being surrounded by Benedictine nuns and kneeling men. The scene is clearly set on the steps of the church and the little square in front of it. The painter added some lovely details to his work. Note for instance the cat in the windowsill in the top left corner: the animal is preying on a bird. In the background we see the green hills of Florence and in the foreground is a girl with two children looking at the viewer. She is probably not a real person, unlike the man with the black beret on the far left: that is Cosimo Rosselli himself. To the right of him is a group of three men. These are the humanist philosophers Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and the poet Poliziano (1454-1494). The fresco was restored in 2016 and is therefore in excellent condition.
In the chapel to the right of the high altar we find a triptych that is attributed to Lorenzo di Bicci (ca. 1350-1427). The Madonna and Child in the centre are flanked by the twin brothers Cosmas and Damianus. The four saints on the side panels are difficult to identify, and this website even attributes the triptych to Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), the son of Lorenzo di Bicci. The triptych is not the only work in the Sant’Ambrogio about which there is discussion concerning authorship. In the arch of the second altar on the right we see a fresco of a breastfeeding Madonna, the Madonna del Latte, from ca. 1365-1370. The Madonna is flanked by Saints John the Baptist and Bartholomew. The work is variously attributed to the school of Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368) or to Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1350-1396), but the information panel in the church ascribes it to the Maestro della Cappella Rinuccini. This Cappella Rinuccini is in the sacristy of the Santa Croce in Florence, and the anonymous Maestro can probably equated with Matteo di Pacino. Below the fresco of the Madonna del Latte, and below Saint Bartholomew to be more precise, we see a small piece of an older fresco (ca. 1320-1330). The saint depicted is Ambrosius, and the caption reads SANTO AMBROGIO.
Also quite interesting is a large detached fresco that has been hung on the right wall at the front of the church. The fresco represents a Deposition from the Cross, and the painter was Niccolò di Pietro Gerini (died ca. 1415). The sinopia of the work has been preserved as well. Also on the right wall is a panel painting by Giovanni di Bartolomeo Cristiani (ca. 1340-1398). On the panel the Madonna and Child have been depicted with Saint Anthony the Abbot and Saint James the Great. The latter can be seen introducing a man wearing an expensive looking red mantle with an ermine hem. The man is evidently the sponsor of the work, but unfortunately I have not been able to establish his identity. Lastly, on the left wall (next to the copy of Masolino and Masaccio) we find a weathered fresco of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. It is attributed to Pietro di Miniato (ca. 1366-1430) and was rediscovered in 1888.
 A copy of the work hangs on the left wall of the church.
 If you want to get an idea of what the tabernacle must have looked like in the past, visit the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome. It has a gilded holy oil cupboard, which is also an OPVS MINI.