Long, long ago I had read some information about the Cappella Rucellai, but my memory was extremely hazy. When during a walk in Florence I suddenly saw a sign that directed me to the chapel, I decided to use Google to find out more about the Cappella Rucellai. I liked what I found, especially the images and the involvement in the construction of the chapel of the great architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Google Maps then led me to the place where I could supposedly find the Cappella Rucellai, but there I literally hit a wall. As it turned out, this could easily be explained: the chapel is part of the former church of San Pancrazio. This building currently houses the Museo Marino Marini. Those who want to visit the chapel will have to buy a ticket for the museum.
The aforementioned church is documented as early as 931. A convent has been attached to it since 1157, which was successively administered by nuns and monks of various monastic orders. In 1442 the monks of the Congregation of Vallombrosa bought an important altarpiece. This work of art was painted in the 1330s by Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1290-1348) and initially adorned the high altar of the Santa Reparata, which was the cathedral of Florence at the time. After the demolition of the Santa Reparata the immense work was moved to the high altar of the San Pancrazio. When this church was deconsecrated in 1808, the polyptych was sawn to pieces. Some parts vanished without a trace, one piece of the predella ended up in Buckingham Palace, London, and the other parts can nowadays be admired in the Uffizi in Florence.
After the San Pancrazio had been deconsecrated, the former church was used for a number of purposes. In the end it was decided to use it as accommodation for the Museo Marino Marini, which opened its doors in 1988. The museum is dedicated to the work of the Tuscan sculptor Marino Marini (1901-1980). Marini was born in Pistoia and became especially famous for his statues of horses and their riders. I must say I found the museum a bit disorganised and, partly because of that, not that interesting. But perhaps this was simply because the main reason I was here was the Cappella Rucellai, which has been reopened to the public since 2013.
Before visitors enter the chapel, they can watch a short introductory film. The film discusses the work of Leon Battista Alberti and concludes that, while the architect completed all his projects in Florence, he left a lot of unfinished work in other Italian cities. I had seen that with my own eyes in Mantova, where Alberti’s designs for the churches of Sant’Andrea and San Sebastiano were ultimately (largely) realised by others. The façade of the cathedral of Rimini is another example of a project that was not completed by a mile. The Cappella Rucellai or Cappella del Santo Sepolcro has fortunately been built as planned. One slightly curious requirement is that visitors are asked to wrap plastic covers around their shoes before they set foot on the marble floor of the chapel. This has probably less to do with the sacred nature of the chapel (it is still a consecrated space) than with the wish to protect the precious floor against dirt from the streets of Florence.
The chapel is named after Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai (1403-1481), who was a scion of a rich family of wool merchants. The family name Rucellai refers to the purple colorant (oricello) that was used to dye cloth. The use of oricello had won the family much fame and – we may assume – great fortune as well, so at some point members of the family began naming themselves after the dye. In Latin this name became Oricellarius or Rucellarius, and Rucellai is the Italian version. In Florence we find the Latin variant Oricellarius on the façade of the church of Santa Maria Novella. It is certainly no coincidence that this façade was also built by Leon Battista Alberti on the orders of Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai. The chapel of San Pancrazio uses the variant Rucellarius.
Alberti started the construction of the Cappella Rucellai in 1457 or 1458. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) described the chapel as one of the best works of the architect. The chapel was completed in 1467, a year that is also mentioned on the tomb in the centre of the chapel. This tomb, usually called the Tempietto del Santo Sepolcro, is the true highlight of the chapel. Based – loosely it seems – on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the tomb became the final resting place for Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai and a number of his relatives. On the architrave of the tomb we read the following Latin text:
YHESVM QVERITIS NAZARENVM CRVCIFIXVM SURREXIT NON EST HIC ECCE LOCVS VBI POSVERVNT EVM
The text is from the Gospel according to Mark and refers to the visit of Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome to the tomb of Jesus, which turns out to be empty. A young man dressed in white then addresses the women with the words cited above: “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6 NIV). Above the entrance to the tomb there is another Latin text. It mentions the name of Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai (IOHANNES RVCELLARIVS PAVLI F) and refers to the replica of the Holy Sepulchre.
The tomb is beautifully decorated with marble panels. The figures on these panels are sometimes merely decorative, but sometimes they have a deeper meaning. The sail flapping in the wind is for instance the personal emblem of Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai. We also find this emblem dozens of times on the façade of the Santa Maria Novella. Other symbols refer to members of the De’ Medici family, the rulers of Florence in the fifteenth century. The diadem with three feathers is the emblem of Cosimo the Elder, who dominated politics in Florence between 1434 and 1464. The ring with two feathers refers to Cosimo’s son Piero the Gouty (1464-1469) and the three connected rings to his grandson Lorenzo Il Magnifico (1469-1492). Giovanni’s son, Bernardo Rucellai (1448-1514), married one of Cosimo’s granddaughters, Nannina de’ Medici (1448-1493). She was a daughter of Piero the Gouty and an older sister of Lorenzo Il Magnifico.
Visitors are not allowed to enter the tomb, but through the bars of the door they can inspect the interior of the structure. We see a lot of imitation marble and frescoes of the Entombment and of the Risen Christ. The frescoes are usually attributed to Giovanni di Piamonte, a student of Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492). Inside the tomb is a sarcophagus with a statue of a reclining Christ. The statue is visible on several photos of the tomb (example here), but when I visited the chapel, the statue was nowhere to be seen. Christ had probably ascended to Heaven.