Only in Florence
The Via Dei Servi leads from the Duomo to the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, a pedestrian-only piazza which has always held special importance for Florentines. With its distinctive arcades it remains one of the city’s most picturesque squares. The Grand Duke Ferdinand astride his horse between a pair of fountains decorated with monkeys spitting water at sea-slugs. Up until the end of the 18th C, the Florentine New Year began on the Feast of The Annunciation (March 25th), and each year the feast is marked with a huge festival and a fair which fills the piazza and over-flows into the side streets.
The Piazza Santissima Annunziata was designed by Brunelleschi, who also designed the two main buildings, the Spedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) and the Bascilica della Santissima Annunziata.
The Basilica is the mother church of the Servite order, (hence the Via Dei Servi) often known as the Servi di Maria (Servants of Mary). This order was founded in 1234 by seven Florentine aristocrats collectively termed the Seven Holy Founders, who, on seeing a vision of the Virgin, retired from Florence to a hermitage in the wilds of Monte Senario. The church was founded in 1250, and originally known as the Oratory of Cafaggio.
The church rapidly became famous, largely in part to a painting by Fra Bartolommeo. A Dominican Friar, Fra Bartolommeo was a leading artist in the 14th century, and his works adorn churches across Florence, Venice and Lucca. A master in the use of sfumato, Fra Bartolommeo combined religious belief with realism and emotional depth. His The Virgin Appearing to St Bernard hangs in the Uffizi.
While working on a commission of The Annunciation for the Servites, Fra Bartolommeo struggled in achieving an ethereal beauty for the face of the Virgin. Despairing of ever finishing the paining, legend holds he fell asleep, only to find on awakening that an angel had completed the work.
The Annunciation quickly acquired cult status in Renaissance Florence. With many Florentines wanting to live near site of the miracle, the church became enclosed by houses. So many thronged to view the miraculous painting a Basilica was commissioned in 1444 to replace the church (with financal banking, naturally, by the Medici.)
After viewing The Annunciation pilgrims left wax offerings, or voti, Initially these were hung on the walls, then from the ceiling of the nave. The voti became so numerous – with some depicting full-sized wax models of the donors – the Servants of Mary built a special atrium onto the church, the Chiostrino dei Voti, in 1447. Eventually this housed some 600 statues, including a full-sized wax horse. (Unfortunately, in 1786 the entire collection was melted down to make candles.)
The miraculous Annunciation is still preserved in an ornate tabernacle designed by Michelozzo, displayed in a chapel near the entrance of the Basilica. The painting is encased in marble, and usually covered. When displayed, it is obscured by oil lamps, candles and votive offerings – many brides visit the shrine and leave their bouquet here, in the safety of the Madonna. Indeed, the Basilica has a long tradition of society weddings, all seeking the blessing of Our Lady.
Time and centuries of exposure have left their mark on the painting, as have dubious repairs, yet the simple piety and faith of a gifted monk cannot be ignored – indeed, such things are the essence of the mysterious wonder of Florence.