Santo Spirito, the Augustinian church in Florence, is on the left bank of the Arno River, across the Ponte S. Trinita from the centre of the city. Formally entitled the Church of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito ("St. Mary of the Holy Spirit"), itis one of the main basilica churches in Florence.
A previous church was built on this site in 1250. It is thought that the Augustinians arrived there at that time. This makes Santo Spirito, along with S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, among the earliest Augustinian foundations that are still occupied by the Order. The present magnificent church (see drawings below) was begun in 1444 by Filippo Brunelleschi (Florence, 1377 - 1446). It is amongst the purest creations of early Renaissance architecture.
Santo Spirito is one of two early Renaissance architectural masterpieces constructed under the direction of the Order of Saint Augustine. The other is the Chiesa Sant’Agostino in Rome, for which Santo Spirito in Florence – built earlier – was an influence in its design. In the vicinity of Florence, Augustinian hermits first settled a mile (1.50 kilometres) outside of the city. In 1250 they then acquired a plot of land in the thinly-populated Oltranto, the area on the left bank of the River Arno.
The area became more accessible to the main part of Florence across the Arno when the Ponte (Bridge) Santa Trinita was built in 1252. The Augustinians built a church and priory (convento) in that same year, originally dedicated to Mary, All Saints and the Holy Spirit but now called Santo Spirito (Holy Spirit). The church itself was already paved by 1297 but communal funding can be documented from 1292 to 1301, indicating that the construction process was still occurring. Because the Augustinians received additional generous contributions from the people of Florence that they were able to construct a church of considerable size.
They adorned it with paintings by Cimabue, Simone Memmi, and Giottino. As well, houses were purchased in 1301 to produce a public square in front of the church - the Piazza Santo Spirito, which still exists. After Walter de Brienne, Duke of Athens, was expelled from the leadership of Florence of in 1343, the city was sectioned in quartieri (quarters). This important Augustinian monastery gave this quarter the name of Santo Spirito.
The church, however, soon was too small for the increasing population. After the Florentine victory over the Milanese in 1397 on the feast day of Saint Augustine, the signoria (city officials) decided to rebuild the church to honour the saint, placing the church under the patronage of the city. Nothing much happened until 1433, when a new edifice was planned under the direction of the famed architect, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Construction began soon afterwards.
In seeking and attracting Brunelleschi to this project, the local Augustinians were seeking the best architect in Florence. There is a tradition that the members in the Augustinian convento had to fast in order to be able to pay Brunelleschi. Although this is an altruistic reason for fasting, the Constitutions of the Order of Saint Augustine required that they be fasting regularly in any case.
Brunelleschi proposed that the church of Santo Spirito should face the River Arno, and have a large piazza in front of it. The Capponi family, whose houses were along the river, made objections, and the plan was therefore altered. A contemporary anonymous author records that Brunelleschi was in the habit of only making a rough model of his architectural compositions.
He left the details vague and uncertain, and gave his directions to the mason as the work proceeded, altering and modifying his design. This fact must account for various defects in Santo Spirito, which some critics have attributed to one Antonio Manetti. He was a workman who had been a pupil of Brunelleschi, but who later set up as his rival, and ventured to disparage his designs. The church, nevertheless, is a noble example of the genius of Brunelleschi as an architect.
Video (below): Brunelleschi's Santo Spirito, Florence, 1428-81 (4 minutes)
When Brunelleschi died in 1446, the building of the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence was not far advanced. His original plans were faithfully followed by Salvi d'Andrea, Giovanni da Gaiole and Antonio Manetti until the completion of the building in 1487. During those forty years, a fire in 1471 caused calamity and much delay. Various accounts are given of the circumstances of the conflagration.
According to one explanation, in 1471 Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, paid a visit to Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence. At the Church of Santo Spirito, the Confraternity (religious society) of Santa Maria delle Laude, dedicated to the Virgin and her praise and founded before 1322, presented for the duke its annual Pentecost play about the descent of the Holy Spirit (the patron of their church).
This was a substantial spectacle that required months of preparation each year, complicated equipment and fireworks. It was after a performance of the play in 1471 that the church caught fire. A more simple explanation is that it was because of careless construction workers that the church caught fire and was almost totally destroyed. No matter which report is more accurate, it is a fact that the building project was forced almost back to its beginning once again.
The sacristy was added in 1488, after a design by Giuliano di San Gallo (1443-1516). Giuliano was the son of Francesco Giamberti, but assumed the family name of di San Gallo after building at San Gallo, just outside the walls of Florence, a convento for the Order of Saint Augustine. It was built at the expense of the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’Medici (1449 - 1492). (The monastery at San Gallo was demolished during the siege of Florence in 1530.)
Late in his life Giuliano di San Gallo was co-architect for eighteen months with Raphael at Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome. At the Church of Spirito Santo, the small but beautiful vestibule which connects the sacristy with the church and cloister (clausura, patio) was a joint work. As well as the architect Giuliano di San Gallo once more, it involved Simone Pollajuolo, called Il Cronaca.
The sculpture inside the vestibule was executed by Sansovino (Contucci). The cupola of the sacristy was designed by Antonio del Pollajuolo. The belfry (bell tower), which has been much admired for its perfect proportions, was the work of Baccio d' Agnolo (1503). Photo GalleryFor the Augnet gallery on the Augustinian history of Santo Spirito in Florence, click here.
Santo Spirito. Photo and description. http://www.1000plus.com/Italia/SSpirExt.htm
The Church of Santo Spirito. Its architecture and history. http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Church_of_San_Spirito.html
Essential architecture: Church of Santo Spirito. A historical description and photographs. http://www.essential-architecture.com/FL/FL-001.htm AN4228