Florence: San Giovannino dei Cavalieri

San Giovannino dei Cavalieri.

Some churches remain on my to-do list for years for the simple reason that they are almost never open. The church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri in Florence is just such a church. In spite of optimistic information on the Internet about opening hours, I have travelled to the church at least a dozen times these past couple of years, only to find its doors wide shut. A slightly misleading feature of the church is that its left door is usually left open, but this entrance is apparently used as a small space for exhibitions. In other words, you cannot get into the church via this entrance. On 6 January 2024 my luck finally changed: because of Epiphany a mass was held in the San Giovannino. I had hoped to explore the church just before mass started, but as a result of a little accident with an umbrella – I will spare you the details – I did not make it on time and mass had already started. I sat out the event, then explored the church and took a number of pictures. I had to hurry up though, as the last words of the priest were hardly cold when the candles were put out and the lights switched off.

The history of the church goes back to 1323. In that year an oratory dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene was founded on this spot. Around 1327 the oratory was acquired by monks of the Celestine Order. This monastic order had been founded by Pietro da Morrone (1215-1296), the future Pope Celestinus V. In 1294, after a conclave of 27 months, he was elected pope, but his pontificate lasted less than half a year. Celestinus was a deeply religious hermit, but as pope he was no more than a puppet of the king of Naples, Charles II. After a mere five months he shocked the Catholic world by announcing his resignation, an act that was not repeated until 2013 when Pope Benedictus XVI resigned. Celestinus was succeeded by cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who took the name Bonifatius VIII and ruled from 1294 until 1303. The new pope prohibited his predecessor, who still had lots of supporters, to return to his hermitage in the mountains. When Celestinus managed to escape, Bonifatius had him arrested and locked up. It was widely rumoured that the pope then had his predecessor murdered in prison. Whether this is true or not, Pietro da Morrone died on 19 May 1296 and was canonised in 1313.

Interior of the church.

After the monks had acquired the oratory in Florence they renamed it the church of San Pier Murrone, after their founder. In 1552 they were ordered to leave by Grand Duke Cosimo I and their place was taken by nuns of the Knights Hospitaller. The nuns converted the oratory into a proper church and, among other things, were responsible for the addition of an enormous vestibule to the building. On 9 April 1553 the new church was consecrated. The formal name of the church was now San Nicola di Bari. Next to the church there was a hospital dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, which was acquired by the nuns in 1562. And as Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of the Knights Hospitaller, the church was henceforth also named after him and became known as San Giovanni Decollato or San Giovannino dei Cavalieri. Giovannino is the diminutive of Giovanni and usually refers to the young Saint John. The Cavalieri are the Knights Hospitaller, who had their headquarters on Malta since 1530. The Maltese cross is therefore featured prominently on the church façade.

This façade dates from 1699. In 1808, during the French occupation, the nuns were expelled. In the 1920 the church was restored by the architect Ezio Cerpi (1868-1958), who was also active elsewhere in Florence. The main purpose of the restoration was to give the San Giovannino back its sixteenth-century appearance. In 1939 the San Giovannino became a parish church, but in 2010 it was designated a rectory (chiesa rettoria), which may explain the limited opening hours. The church possesses a number of interesting works of art. Behind the high altar, in the apse, we find an image of the Crucifixion that was painted by Lorenzo Monaco (ca. 1370-1425). The nuns took this painting with them from their previous complex, which was demolished in 1552. Also from this previous complex is a panel painting by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452) featuring the Nativity. The work is dated to 1435. The birth of the Saviour is witnessed by over fifty angels and a monk in a white habit. For the predella Bicci di Lorenzo painted scenes of the Presentation at the Temple, the Holy Trinity and the Adoration of the Magi.

Nativity – Bicci di Lorenzo.

Detail of the Nativity.

At the end of the left and right aisles we find two more interesting panel paintings. The one on the left is a Coronation of the Virgin by Neri di Bicci (ca. 1419-1491), a prolific painter who was the son of Bicci di Lorenzo. The work is dated to about 1460. Eight saints are witnesses to the coronation, of whom the most important are Saint John the Baptist (left, with a scroll) and Saint Nicholas of Bari (right, with the orange fruit in his hand). The church is named after the former and dedicated to the latter. Below the coronation scene four angels are venerating a tabernacle with the Holy Sacrament.

Coronation of the Virgin – Neri di Bicci.

The panel painting at the end of the right aisle is an Annunciation that may have been painted between 1470 and 1490. It was once attributed to Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), but the information sign now mentions the mysterious Maestro di Stratonice. The real name of the painter may have been Michele Ciampanti, a painter who was mostly active in Lucca. The name Maestro di Stratonice derives from a type of chest (cassone) that features the story of the Seleucid queen Stratonice, who was known for ultimately marrying her stepson.

Annunciation – Maestro di Stratonice.

In addition to the (late) medieval art discussed above the church also has a solid work by the Venetian painter Palma il Giovane (ca. 1548-1628) in the left aisle. It features the Last Supper, and the texture of the table cloth is the best little detail. Unlike the four artworks discussed above, this large painting – it measures 167 by 255 centimetres – was in fact specifically made for this church.

Last Supper – Palma il Giovane.

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