The whole of Italy celebrates the height of summer holidays on August 15, the day known as Ferragosto. Although many younger-generation Italians have forgotten the origins of this once-religious feast, it traditionally honored the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven. Mary’s divine immortality and the art representing it has been on my mind since Timothy Verdon’s interesting exhibition “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2015. Tuscany abounds with Madonna imagery and her paintings represent one of the most unique aspects of Catholicism: no other modern religion so widely promotes the divinity of a female figure.
Ph. Michelle Davis
An interesting “Mary fresco” can be found on the northern wall of the sacristy of the church of San Niccolò d’Oltrarno, the understated single-nave church that is the district’s focal point. In this recently restored Madonna of the Belt (Madonna della Cintola), Mary is shown handing her goat-hair “girdle” to none other than Doubting Thomas, as proof of her ascension into heaven. The belt as a symbol of chastity was prevalent on the Italian peninsula as far back as Roman times, but what is even more interesting is that this relic actually exists today. It’s a 34-inch belt, dyed green and embroidered with golden thread that can be found in Prato as part of the city’s cathedral collection. Every year on September 8, the relic is taken from its encasing in Angolo Gaddi’s frescoed chapel depicting scenes from Mary’s life and presented to the public. To see that painterly subjects continue to “come to life” through rituals like these is nothing short of fascinating.
Though opinions vary as to the San Niccolò painting’s attribution, several reputable scholars attribute the work to Alessio Baldovinetti and believe the frescoed lunette to represent a peak in his creative endeavors. In the sacristy, the Madonna of the Belt is in good company. You will also want to seek out the polychrome crucifix by Michelozzo (c. 1435) and Neri di Bicci’s Trinity with Saints (1463) in addition to The Sermon of St John the Baptist (1608) by Jacopo Chimenti. Though the San Niccolò quarter is primarily known for Arnolfo di Cambio’s 160-step defense tower in piazza Poggi, where Republic-loving Michelangelo is said to have hidden during the Medici siege of 1530, its church, as one of the oldest in Florence, deserves rediscovery. Therein, art lovers can view gems from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries.
In 2008, the church of San Niccolò d’Oltrarno became a stage to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure’s work when its flood-damaged structure was restored and modernized. Located between the hills surrounding San Miniato and the Arno river, the church stands in an area prone to flooding. Markings of these tragedies in 1557 and 1966 can be found on the façade itself. After the 1557 flood, the church was rebuilt by the neighborhood’s inhabitants, whilst noble families commissioned ornate paintings and a rose window that was added to the façade.
The church’s history as a “flood victim” is another reason why it is particularly dear to me. After all, we should never forget how deeply the Florence flood of 1966 affected Florentine society. One historian recently surprised me by claiming that the tragedy was a springboard to the Women’s Lib movement in Italy, as it was the first time Florentine women appeared in public wearing trousers. Overall, the city’s restorers seem to agree with this premise, albeit for different reasons: before the flood, conservation was “men’s work”. The immediate need for “helping hands” changed that, as the post-flood restoration efforts opened up the field to a large number of local women conservators. Today, restoration is primarily a “feminine” trade in Florence. The Opificio delle Pietre Dure, one of the world’s top three restoration laboratories, is a stellar example of this phenomenon. The results of its labors can be seen throughout the church from floor to rooftop.
During your visit to the church of San Niccolò d’Oltrarno, keep a watchful eye out for Gentile da Fabriano’s polyptych, whose central panel depicts Christ and the Virgin Mary’s Intercession to God, the Father, surrounded by saintly icons.
Created at the end of the artist’s Florentine sojourn in 1425, the restored work was safely returned to the refurbished church in 2008. Undoubtedly, it is another interesting example of the Opificio’s commendable work in Florence.
5 artworks worth seeing in San Niccolò d’Oltrarno church
Madonna of the Belt
(Madonna della Cintola) fresco, attributed to Alessio Baldovinetti
Michelozzo (c. 1435)
Trinity with Saints
Neri di Bicci (1463)
The Sermon of St John the Baptist
Jacopo Chimenti (1608)
Gentile da Fabriano (1425)