One of my all-time favorite piazzas in Florence is a mere 500 meters from the madness of Piazza del Duomo. Just 2 short blocks from the cathedral all the tourist hustle and bustle is left behind you as Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici welcomes you into Piazza SS Annunciata from his bronze horse.
SS Annunciata is the perfect renaissance piazza. Three sides are lined with loggia in calming creamy tones, surrounding a wide open space. You can catch your breath here – very few tourists seem to know about it. And yet it is full of fascinating things to see and do.
Looking at this perfect creamy harmony you would think it all happened at once, but it took more than 200 years to come together. With the cathedral behind you, facing Ferdinando on his horse, look to the right and you will see the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Foundling hospital or orphanage.
This was Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission, built in 1419. His second commission was the dome of the Duomo, 500 meters away! The loggia was considered new and fantastic at the time and was the beginning of the use of balance and harmony that became synonymous with Renaissance architecture.
Opposite the Foundling Hospital is the monastery of the Servi, the religious order who started the church here in the piazza. It wasn’t until 100 years later that architect Antonio da Sangallo created it’s loggia, designed to match Brunelleschi’s across the way. Where the Foundling hospital has tondi with blue backgrounds and white putti between the arches, Sangallo gave the Servites tondi with a scrolling S in the middle.
Almost hundred years passed before the front of the church got a facelift via its own set of archway loggia. Architect Giovanni Battista Caccini had to do a little stretching to make his loggia match Brunelleschi’s, giving the piazza three sides of portico archways.
As you enter the piazza the church of SS Annunciata is directly in front of you. This is one of my favorite churches in Florence. In the mid 1200’s a group of 7 men started up a religious order called the Servite (Order of the Servants of Mary) In 1250 they built this church, and in 1252 they commissioned Fra Bartolomeo to paint them the Annunciation. Everything was going well until it came time to paint the face. Fra Bartolomeo was worried he couldn’t paint one beautiful enough. He fell asleep and when he woke saw that an angel had painted an exquisitely beautiful face for him.
Pilgrims and miracles go together like peas and carrots, so when word got out about the miracle pilgrims came from all over. They left votives in the church and sculptures made of wax, plaster and wood, even a life sized wax sculpture of a nobleman and his horse.
The Cloister of the Voti
The pilgrims’ candles and wax statues needed to be put somewhere, so a couple of hundred years later Cosimo de’ Medici’s favorite architect Michelozzo was commissioned to create a cloister in front of the church to house them. The Cloister of the Voti is actually the entrance to the church, and it is magnificent. If this was the only thing you saw it would be worth it!
The Cloister is decorated with marble reliefs and frescoes painted by major Florentine artists. Recently the cloister underwent major renovations and now has a glass atrium roof to protect the frescoes.
Inside the Church
As you enter the church be prepared to be completely wowed by the ceiling. To this day, every time I walk inside the basilica my eyes are automatically drawn upward.
The church may seem a little off kilter to you. This is due to the chapel of SS Annunciata which is on the left as you enter. Back in 1447 Piero de’ Medici funded the creation a ‘temple’ for the painting of the Miraculous Annunciation. Michelozzo designed it, rich with bronze designs, marble from Carrara, ceramics and intricate artwork, it shows just how important this painting was and is.
The church is full of incredible artwork but before you explore it all take a moment to step back and soak in this church. It is spectacularly beautiful!
The Ospedale degli Innocenti Museum
This one will blow your mind! Not only is it an amazing museum but no one seems to know about it, so when you visit there will be very few other people here.
This was an orphanage so portions of the museum are dedicated to the story of the orphans. Parents would have to leave their babies here due to extreme economic suffering. They would leave their baby with a “mark’, half of a charm or pendant that the parent would keep the other half of in the hope that they could be reunited. The hospital kept excellent records of the children and were able to reunite many of them. There is a room here with records of them and heartbreakingly drawers of marks from the children who were never claimed.
The museum and its 600 years of history recently underwent a 3 year renovation and is beautifully laid out and well lit – it’s fabulous. It covers 600 years of history
The art gallery is on the second floor in the areas where the children and wet nurses lived. It has works by Botticelli, Luca della Robbia and Ghirlandaio amongst others. The most important works in the collection are a Madonna and Child by Botticelli and the Adoration of the Magi by Ghirlandaio
On the top floor there is a terrace called the Verone that used to be a place to hang the washed clothes out to dry and for workers and children to socialize. The Verone is now a café where you can enjoy a break with a fabulous view of the Duomo.
Ferdinando on his Horse
The fellow who greets you from his horse as you enter the piazza is one of the Medici Grand Dukes, Ferdinando I. Ferdinando was a really interesting character. He murdered his brother (who was a murderous jerk anyway) then became a very effective and well liked ruler of Florence and Tuscany.
The statue was created by Giambologna in 1608 using bronze melted down from cannons on captured Turkish galleys. If you look at the inscription on the horse’s girth it says De’ metallic rapiti al fero Trace, which means metal taken from the savage Thracians. (A traditional enemy of the ancient Romans, who came from the area that now makes up Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria)
Secrets In The Piazza
Piazza SS Annunciata has all kinds of intriguing history and some fabulous secrets.
The Open Window at Palazzo Grifoni
Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? This one applies to Palazzo Grifoni, the reddish palazzo at your left shoulder when you enter the piazza.
The last window on the top floor on the right hand side has stayed open for centuries. Near the end of the 1500s one of the Grifoni sons was called away to war, leaving his young bride behind. Her last view of him was from this window as he rode away. She waited for him at this window for decades, sure that one day he would ride back into the piazza. She loved him so much that she never gave up hope, waiting each day at the window until she too eventually died.
Upon her death, once her body had been carried away, the family tried to close the window. Legend has it that when they tried to close it all hell broke loose. The furniture started shaking, books flew off the shelves, paintings fell off the walls – basically she went all poltergeist on them. Since then the window has remained open, at this point for more than 400 years, just in case her husband ever rides back into the piazza to come for her.
Ferdinando and the Bees
There’s another point of interest with Ferdinando’s statue. Walk around the back and you will see a bronze relief on the pedestal of a swarm of 91 bees circling the queen bee. Supposedly this is to signify his magnificence and superlative leadership skills, with him being the queen bee and the 91 others being the people of Florence and Tuscany. Except I don’t really think that equating yourself with a queen bee is particularly masculine, do you? It seems awfully girlie to me. But apparently his motto was Maiestate Tantum which means Great Majesty.
The Sealed Window
I absolutely love random things like this! Unless you know to look for it you will walk right past a walled in window on the corner of via dei Servi and via del Pucci, midway between the Duomo and Piazza della SS Annunziata, on the northeast corner. This is the Palazzo Pucci, former home of the Pucci family and the site of a Renaissance tale of conspiracy and revenge.
In 1559 Pandolfo Pucci got kicked out of the court of Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici either for accusations of immorality, or, supposedly for wanting to restore the Republic of Florence. Who knows which it really was? Regardless Pandolfo fell from grace.
He then conspired with some other noble families to kill Cosimo. The plan was to shoot him with an arquebus as he and his entourage walked past the corner of via del Pucci and via dei Servi on his way to mass at SS Annunziata. The plan got cancelled but nonetheless Cosimo got wind of it and had to make an example of him. Pandolfo was hung from a window in the Bargello and the Pucci properties were seized. Whether it was superstition or whether it was to remind everyone never to plot against the Medici, Grand Duke Cosimo I ordered the window on the corner from where the attack was to have occurred be bricked up. To this very day it has remained sealed.
The Pucci made good with the Medici and 3 years later not only got the palace back but also got the title of Marchese di Barsento, a noble title that has been handed down the family ever since.
If you have your back to the Duomo the sealed window is one block up via dei Servi on your left as you walk the 2 blocks to piazza della SS Annunziata. I still get a kick out of it every time I see it.
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