Florence: Santo Spirito

Santo Spirito.

There is a lot to see in the basilica of Santo Spirito in Oltrarno, and there is a lot more to tell about the building, but unfortunately it is difficult to tell this story and simultaneously show images. The main reason is that it is strictly prohibited to take pictures inside this church. Visitors will see a sticker with the familiar “no photo” symbol at practically every altar and every other attraction. And no, this does not mean that photography is tolerated as long as you do not use flash, which is sometimes the case in other Florentine churches. Taking pictures is only allowed in the cloister next to the church and – oddly enough – in the refectory adjoining this cloister. As I hardly have images of my own of the church interior, this post will, perforce, be a lot shorter than usual.


The history of the Santo Spirito goes back to 1250, when the hermits of Saint Augustinus settled in Oltrarno. In the second half of the thirteenth century they built a church and convent, which were completed around 1292. In 1434 Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was commissioned to build a new church. The actual construction did not start until ten years later, in 1444, which was shortly before the death of the great architect. This makes the Santo Spirito his last church. The project was continued in 1452 by Brunelleschi’s student Antonio Manetti (1423-1497) and a couple of others. A big setback was a large fire in 1471, which destroyed part of the old church and the convent. Only the old refectory survived the inferno unscathed. It can therefore be considered the last surviving part of the old Santo Spirito. The relatively unknown architect Salvi d’Andrea (ca. 1438-1503) provided the new church with a dome (1479-1481). Shortly after completion of the dome the church was consecrated. Upon the completion of the sacristy in 1489, to a design by Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516), the project to rebuild the Santo Spirito was concluded.

Santo Spirito, seen from the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.

The architect and sculptor Baccio d’Agnolo (1462-1543) was responsible for the bell-tower of the basilica. The tower was built in 1503 and is about 70 metres high. Later in the sixteenth century (1564-1569) a second cloister was added to the complex by Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511-1592). As far as I know, this cloister is not accessible to the public. The rather odd and not particularly spectacular façade of the Santo Spirito dates from 1792. The yellow plaster was once painted with architectural elements such as volutes, columns and architraves, but these were removed during a restoration in the twentieth century. The website Churches of Florence has images of the old situation.

Side view of the church.


Interior of the church.

The church has a light interior with a lot of pietra serena. As in the church of San Lorenzo elsewhere in Florence the arches of the nave were not directly placed onto the capitals of the columns, but rather onto so-called “imposts” or pulvini. Underneath Salvi d’Andrea’s dome, of which the inside was left undecorated, we find an enormous baldachin with the high altar designed by Giovanni Caccini (1556-1613). Baldachin and altar were installed here in 1607 and intrude upon the unity of the church interior in the same way as the eighteenth-century fresco by Vincenzo Meucci does upon the interior of the aforementioned San Lorenzo. The Santo Spirito has no fewer than 38 side chapels[1] with a large amount of altarpieces. Of course with so many chapels not every work of art is a masterpiece.

In the right transept we find the Cappella Vettori, with an altarpiece from ca. 1345 by Maso di Banco. The polyptych no longer has a frame and is certainly not of exceptional quality, but it is interesting nonetheless for being a remnant from the old Santo Spirito. A little bit further to the back, in the Cappella Nerli, hangs an altarpiece by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), which can be counted among the highlights in the church. The Pala Nerli dates from ca. 1485-1488. Once the Santo Spirito also possessed a work by Filippino’s father, Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469). However, his Pala Barbadori from 1438 was stolen by French troops in 1810. Those who want to see it must travel to the Louvre in Paris (the predella is in Florence though, in the Uffizi).

A passageway in the left aisle leads to a vestibule that was designed by the aforementioned Giuliano da Sangallo and built by Simone del Pollaiuolo (1457-1508), nicknamed “Il Cronaca”. In the vestibule visitors can buy a ticket that gives access to the sacristy. Here hangs a crucifix from ca. 1492-1493 that is attributed to the young Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). If the dating is correct, he must have made the crucifix when he was 17 or 18 years old. According to tradition Michelangelo was a guest at the convent of the Augustinian hermits and studied the corpses in the hospital of the convent. He is said to have made the crucifix to return the favour. I do not know whether the story is entirely historical, but sometimes it is better not to factcheck a good story to death.

Piazza Santo Spirito.

Cloister and refectory

From the vestibule one enters the first cloister, also known as the Cloister of the Dead (Chiostro dei Morti). It was built (or rather rebuilt) by Giulio Parigi (1571-1635) and Alfonso Parigi the Younger (1606-1656). It is nice and quiet in the cloister, and visitors moreover get a good view of Baccio d’Agnolo’s bell-tower and the charming dome of the sacristy.

Cloister of the Santo Spirito.

The cloister in its turn gives access to the refectory of the complex. I should write the new refectory of the complex, as the old refectory from the fourteenth century is still extant. It currently houses a museum, where one of the highlights is an enormous fresco that is attributed to Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368). The fresco represents the Crucifixion, but below the crucifixion scene we see the remnants of a Last Supper. The new refectory also has a fresco of the Last Supper, but as a special feature this fresco is flanked by two more suppers.

Last Supper – Bernardino Poccetti.

The man who embellished the walls of the new refectory was the painter Bernardino Poccetti (1548-1612). On the left he painted the Wedding at Cana, in the centre the Last Supper and on the right the Supper at Emmaus. The frescoes date from 1594[2] and were restored between 2007 and 2011. In the church of Santa Felicita elsewhere in Florence we have seen that Poccetti liked including self-portraits in his works, and he certainly left his own image in the new refectory. In the fresco of the Last Supper he is the man on the left pouring the wine.

Supper at Emmaus – Bernardino Poccetti.


[1] The 39th is a passageway to the sacristy.

[2] This is the year painted on one of the columns, MDXCIIII. Most sources mention the year 1597 instead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.