The column of San Zanobi

An overlooked tribute to Florence’s first bishop

Deirdre Pirro
September 27, 2012

Known to all in town simply as the ‘Duomo,' the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, with its neo-gothic façade in white, green and red marble, Brunelleschi's amazing dome and Giotto's imposing bell tower, is probably the first place visitors to Florence go. Just in front is the octagonal Baptistery of St. John, with its three unique sets of bronze doors, including those on its eastern side, which Michelangelo called the 'Gates of Paradise.' Inevitably, in circling the Baptistery, visitors will walk past a white marble column on a base of three stairs. It has a cross on top, with an unusual bronze relief underneath it. Overwhelmed by the magnificence of the other monuments in the square, few give the column more than a passing glance.

 

The column marks the spot where a miracle is reputed to have taken place. It is also a miracle whose anniversary the Florentines celebrate every year on January 27 by decorating the base of the column with flowers and greenery. Legend has it that in 429 CE (although some scholars say it was much later, probably in the ninth century), the relics of the much loved and venerated Saint Zenobius (‘San Zanobi' in Italian, 337-417 CE), the city's first bishop, were transferred from the Church of San Lorenzo, the old cathedral where he had been buried, to the new cathedral, the Church of Santa Reparata (the remains of which can still be seen today under the Duomo). As the procession moved from borgo San Lorenzo into what was then the open field of piazza San Giovanni, the bier brushed against the leafless winter branches of an elm tree. At that mere touch, the tree is said to have burst into bloom. Hence, the bronze relief on the column represents a tree in full leaf. Above it, the now fairly indecipherable Gothic script recounts the wondrous story.

 

Born in Florence of noble stock, Zenobius was the first in his family to become a Christian. Once ordained as a priest, his fame as a preacher soon spread. Pope Damasus I (366-86 CE) called him to Rome and, among other missions, sent him to Constantinople. After the pope died, he returned to Florence and was made a bishop. He evangelised the city and surroundings, including Scandicci (he was named its patron saint in 1983). Renowned for his great humility and charity, he was known as the Apostle of Florence. He is also said to have performed many miracles, including one in which he resurrected the dead child of a French woman, a pilgrim. This event is recorded on a plaque in Latin on the wall of Palazzo Valori-Altoviti in borgo degli Albizi, where the miracle occurred. The saint's relics now repose inside the Duomo in an urn inside a silver shrine, a masterpiece made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor responsible for the 'Gates.'

 

It is uncertain whether the trunk of the famous reblooming tree was used to make the cross  currently found in the Church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri in via San Gallo or whether the Maestro del Bigallo used it for his painting of Saint Zenobius with saints Eugene and Crescentius, today housed at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. Not surprisingly, many other artists depicted episodes from the life of the saint, including Sandro Botticelli, whose paintings about him grace the walls of the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

 

The original marble column was destroyed by the flood in 1333 and replaced in 1334, whilst the inscription was added in 1375. In 1501, the cross fell to the ground and shattered. Much more recently, the column benefited from public policy: the area surrounding the Duomo was pedestrianised in October 2009.

 

In May 2012, the landmark was restored through the Florence I Care (FLIC) project, a public-private partnership to preserve not only the cultural heritage of Florence but also some of its important buildings. The restoration, paid for by a private company, took three months and cost 20,000 euro. It required a series of delicate operations to remove the effects of centuries of exposure to soot and smog.

 

After you find the column, look up above the central doorway of the Duomo. You will see a statue of  a rather sad-looking elderly man with a beard, dressed in bishop's vestments and mitre and holding a crook. That is San Zanobi, seemingly keeping an eye on his column.

 

 

The FLIC project has helped restore other monuments in the city but more landmarks  need to be 'saved.' Read more about the initiative at http://tinyurl.com/8mmwkls and watch this video at http://tinyurl.com/8qnq96n

more articles

Comments