In the north of Florence there used to be a large monastic complex administered by Camaldolese nuns. This complex of Sant’Apollonia, dedicated to a saint who had all of her teeth pulled out, was founded in 1339. The convent was disbanded in the second half of the nineteenth century and nowadays the various buildings of the complex are used for a variety of purposes. The church, which has its entrance in the Via San Gallo, is now for instance a conference hall. It is probably closed to the general public, which means that those interested cannot see the frescoes by Bernardino Poccetti (1548-1612). The large cloister – Chiostro della Badessa – is currently in use as a mensa (dining hall) for the University of Florence. The most famous building of the complex is the former refectory (cenacolo), which has been used as a museum since 1891. The most prized possession of the museum is the immense fresco of the Last Supper by the painter Andrea del Castagno (ca. 1421-1457). The entrance to the museum can be found in the Via XXVII Aprile, at the corner of the Via Santa Reparata.
The Last Supper
In 1440 the convent of Sant’Apollonia was expanded on the orders of the abbess Cecilia di Pazzino Donati. Among other things the expansion involved enlarging the refectory. It was presumably Cecilia’s successor Apollonia di Piero di Giovanni Firenzi who commissioned Andrea del Castagno to embellish the back wall of the dining room with frescoes, including a scene of the Last Supper. This fresco was previously dated to 1445-1450, but recent research suggests that it was executed between July and December of 1447. The Camaldolese nuns were members of an enclosed order. Because the women lived secluded from Florentine society and did not allow outsiders onto their premises, the fresco of the Last Supper remained unknown for centuries. After its discovery in the nineteenth century the fresco was initially attributed to Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). Quickly, however, Andrea del Castagno came into the picture. He was a painter from the Mugello who died of the plague at a relatively young age and has therefore not left a large oeuvre.
The Last Supper was a well-known theme in the refectories of convents in Florence. See for instance the fourteenth-century frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1300-1366) in the refectory of the Santa Croce and by Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368) in the refectory of the Santo Spirito (the latter is very fragmentary). Andrea del Castagno’s fresco is nevertheless considered to be very innovative. Or, as an information panel in the museum puts it:
“With this work Andrea created the first Renaissance Cenacolo in Florence, giving us one of the greatest masterpieces in Florentine painting, defined by critics at the end of the nineteenth century (…) as the most surprising illusion of reality in all of Renaissance civilization for unity of light, plasticity and spatial handling.”
The Last Supper in the Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia is older than Ghirlandaio’s similarly-themed fresco in the refectory of the Ognissanti (1480) and much older than the Leonardo’s famous fresco in Milan (1495-1498). An important difference with the frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi and Andrea Orcagna is that in those works the Last Supper is actually not the central scene: in both cases the Crucifixion of Christ has the most prominent position. Now it should be noted that above Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper we also see a fresco of the Crucifixion (which is in far less satisfactory condition), but this fresco does not take centre stage, on the contrary.
Andrea’s fresco of the Last Supper is truly immense: it measures 453 by 975 centimetres. Jesus and the twelve apostles share a long table covered with a white tablecloth. All men are seated on a long bench, except for Judas, who sits on a stool on the other side of the table. He has the features of a satyr, a figure from Greco-Roman mythology viewed by Christians as a representation of Satan and evil. Most of the apostles can easily be identified by the “name tags” they have at their feet. The only ones without such tags are Judas and the two apostles on the short side of the table. Quite conspicuous are the two sphinxes at the ends of the bench. They are also figures from Greco-Roman mythology. In the classical tale of Oedipus the sphinx is notorious for the riddles she poses to travellers. In the case of the Last Supper the riddle is obviously which one of the apostles will betray Jesus.
Other things to see
Above his Last Supper Andrea del Castagno painted, from left to right, a Resurrection, a Crucifixion and an Entombment. These frescoes were no doubt once of similar quality, but unfortunately their condition is now poor. The museum also has a Crucifixion by Andrea, which comes from the convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, as well as a Christ with two angels, also by Andrea. And then there are the scant remains of frescoes from the church of Sant’Egidio. These frescoes about the Life of the Virgin were started by Domenico Veneziano (ca. 1410-1461), who was assisted by Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492). Andrea del Castagno continued the cycle, which is apparently the reason that the remnants of the frescoes were put on display here in the Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia. After Andrea, Alesso Baldovinetti (1425-1499) and Giusto d’Andrea (1440-1496) worked on the cycle, which must have been completed around 1470. The frescoes were almost completely destroyed when the Sant’Egidio was renovated in Baroque style. What little has been preserved can be viewed in the Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia. I must say it is a sorry sight.
In the vestibule of the refectory we can admire nice works by Paolo Schiavo (1397-1478) and Neri di Bicci (ca. 1419-1491), which come from the former church and convent. Paolo Schiavo’s Crucifixion dates from 1447-1449. At the foot of the cross ten nuns are kneeling, Camaldolese I assume, and two more women fully dressed in white who do not have their heads covered. The prolific Neri di Bicci first of all painted a Madonna and Child with Saints in 1472-1473. The saints on the right are Apollonia and Catherine of Alexandria. As was already mentioned above, Apollonia had her teeth pulled out, which is why she is depicted with a pair of pliers. Catherine can of course be identified by her breaking wheel. The male saints on the right are Louis of Toulouse and Benedictus (the Camaldolese follow his rule). In the same vestibule hangs Neri’s Coronation of the Virgin with Saints Michael the Archangel and Stephen (1473). The work has a number of fine details. Note for instance the angels playing different kinds of musical instruments and Saint Michael weighing the souls.
The Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia can be visited for free. When I entered the building, I met with a custodian who was a man of few words. He merely pointed at the guestbook which visitors are supposed to sign. Then he pointed in the direction of the entrance to the museum. Donations are obviously highly appreciated. When I left again and deposited a few coins on the man’s desk he finally opened his mouth and uttered a sincere “grazie”.