Florence: Cenacolo di Santo Spirito

Cenacolo di Santo Spirito (left) and the Santo Spirito itself (right).

The old refectory (cenacolo) of the Santo Spirito complex houses a very special museum, administered by the Fondazione Salvatore Romano. In the museum we can see the personal collection of the art dealer and collector of ancient art Salvatore Romano (1875-1955). Romano was originally from the town of Meta on the Bay of Naples. He studied shipbuilding in Genoa and sold violins before switching to collecting and selling works of art. In the 1920s Romano settled in Florence. In 1946 he donated about 70 items from his collection to the city of Florence. These were to be put on display in the refectory of the Santo Spirito and the way they were set up – a contractual clause stipulated – was never to be changed. Salvatore Romano never parted from his collection: after his death in 1955 he was laid to rest in an early Christian marble sarcophagus from Ravenna, dating from the fifth or sixth century. This sarcophagus occupies a prominent spot in the refectory.

The rectangular refectory with an open roof dates from the fourteenth century. The building was spared during the great fire that largely reduced the complex of Santo Spirito to ashes in 1471. Before the dining room was abandoned at the end of the sixteenth century, the Augustinian friars of Santo Spirito ate their meals here. In order to provide them with spiritual inspiration during the meals a large fresco was painted on the eastern wall of the refectory between ca. 1360 and 1366. It is attributed to Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368), his brother Nardo di Cione (died ca. 1366) and their assistants. The brothers had previously worked together on the decorations in the Cappella Strozzi di Mantova in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. For the refectory of the Santo Spirito they painted a large fresco of the Crucifixion, with a Last Supper below it. The last gathering of Jesus and his apostles was flanked by frescoes of two Augustinian saints.

Interior of the Cenacolo di Santo Spirito.

Detail of the Last Supper, with Matthew and Thaddeus. The saint on the right may be Nicholas of Tolentino.

Unfortunately a substantial part of the fresco was destroyed when an opening was made in the eastern wall in the nineteenth century. The opening has been bricked up again, but the lower part of the Crucifixion is gone forever and of the Last Supper only two apostles (on the right) and two haloes of other apostles (on the left) remain. The two surviving apostles are Matthew and Thaddeus. The saint to the right of them may be Nicholas of Tolentino. On the other side all that is left is a mitre, presumably belonging to Saint Augustinus. Together with Taddeo Gaddi’s Last Supper in the refectory of the Santa Croce (ca. 1350-1355) Orcagna’s fresco is among the oldest surviving depictions of the Last Supper in Florence. It is therefore such a pity that so much of the work has been obliterated. Fortunately a large portion of the Crucifixion is still intact, although the fresco has suffered from heavy discolouration. In fact, the rather apocalyptic sky used to be azure blue. The dozens of figures in the scene give a good idea of the fashion and armour in fourteenth-century Florence.


Detail of the Crucifixion.

Detail of the Crucifixion.

Some objects in the museum date from (late) Antiquity. An example is the aforementioned early Christian sarcophagus from Ravenna, which is decorated with a chi-rho symbol, the letters alpha and omega (beginning and end) and peacocks, symbols of eternal life. A remarkably large sculpted feline head also dates from Antiquity: it was made somewhere between the first and fourth century. Regarding its provenance the information card indicates that it is from Caserta in Campania, but unfortunately information about what kind of building it once adorned is missing.

Most objects date from the Middle Ages. Of course it would be impossible to discuss each and every item – that would probably discourage a visit to the museum as well –, so I will confine myself to mentioning a couple of highlights. Two sculpted sealions are from Naples and date from the thirteenth century. A marble caryatid and an angel are attributed to the sculptor Tino di Camaino (ca. 1280-1337) from Siena. And then there is a Madonna and Child, made of painted stucco, from Bologna. It is attributed to the workshop of Jacopo della Quercia (ca. 1374-1438), who like Tino di Camaino was from Siena. A relief with the image of Saint Prosdocimus is attributed to the great Donatello (1386-1466). It comes from Padova, the city where Prosdocimus was said to have been the first bishop.

Tino di Camaino, Jacopo della Quercia and Donatello are, I think, the biggest names in the collection of the museum. There is, however, a lot more to see, for instance a relief from the eighth or ninth century featuring the grape harvest. From Palermo comes a relief of Christ before Pilate, attributed to a follower of Domenico Gagini (ca. 1420-1492). Lastly I would like to mention an object from the Renaissance, a fountain attributed to Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511-1592). The Cenacolo di Santo Spirito does not seem to draw hordes of tourists. In April of this year I was the only visitor. At the time the museum could only be visited on a combination ticket that also gave access to the Brancacci chapel. It is possible that this arrangement is still in place.

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