The tapestry of Florence’s unique and well-loved culture is made up of one particular fabric. This fabric cannot be found at the Mercato del Porcellino; it is not the fabric sought after by tourists from all over the world, in the form of bags and jackets. Instead, the fabric of Florence’s character is composed of the city’s strips and squares of brilliant white and green marbles. This iconic material is displayed primarily upon the city’s churches, which have been renovated and redecorated over the years.
The first of Florence’s churches to be embellished with this stunning white and green marbles were the Romanesque churches of the 1100s and 1200s – namely, the Baptistery and the San Miniato al Monte Basilica. During the 1300s - 1400s, the Gothic Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral and the Giotto's Campanile were decorated with this marbles, as well as the niches outside the church of Orsanmichele. Also in the 1400s, the Renaissance façade of Santa Maria Novella was adorned with white and green marbles, as in the 1800s were the street-facing façades of the Cathedral and of Santa Croce. This particular marble exterior, perfectly conserved in the San Giovanni Baptistery and the San Miniato al Monte Basilica, betrays the city’s middle-eastern influence, which is said to have arrived in Florence from the Maritime Republic of Pisa.
During the High Middle Ages, Pisa was the only destination in Italy to have decorated its churches – particularly its Cathedral, Baptistery and bell tower, the so-called Leaning Tower– with this precious marble. It was via the River Arno and via Pisa that the influential Arte di Calimala (Florence’s guild of clothmakers) were able to import precious, colourful silks and wools into Florence from Islamic countries. These fabrics and their decorative nature are now immortalised in the stunning marble floors and inlays in the Baptistery and in San Miniato (for which the guild was patron). The trousseau of uses and deep-rooted symbolism of these fabrics will be the subject of my next article.
This white and green marbles were not particularly symbolic, but were used instead to construct Florence’s visual identity. It represented the city’s longing to work with noble, locally-sourced materials. Among these materials were Apuan marble and serpentine marble, which hailed from the ancient caves of Monte Ferrato in Figline di Prato and from the town of Impruneta.
But let’s move back now to the centre of Florence, where you can find traces of other Romanesque churches – either little-known or entirely forgotten – which bear these characteristics. For example: in front of the Baptistery, upon stepping into the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, you can walk down into the old cathedral of Santa Reparata, which is now an archaeological crypt. Most recently reconstructed between the 12th and 13th centuries – Santa Reparata has existed since at least the 5th or 6th century – the church shows faint but visible traces of this white and green marbles, dating back to its final Romanesque restoration. You can find this marble beneath the plexiglass steps in the entrance, which represent the ancient terracotta steps which once led to the presbytery overhanging the crypt. Nowadays, the presbytery is a book shop.
Stepping out of the cathedral, passing the Baptistery and heading west, you will find yourself in the minuscule Piazza dell’Olio, home to the delightful San Salvatore al Vescovo church. Today, the church is part of the Palazzo dell’Arcivescovado.
Although not immediately visible, its blind arcades façade – perched on half columns, and made up of quadrangular slabs and inlays depicting symbolic motifs – is one of the few remaining pieces of original marble in Florence. Today, the façade no longer carries out its ancient function, and has been repositioned to correspond with what would be the church’s apsis. This was completely renovated during the 1700s.
You can access it through the courtyard of the Palazzo Arcivescovile, but only if accompanied by the gatekeeper. Inside, there is a collection of pastel-coloured late Baroque frescoes, which pleasantly contrast the stark geometry of the Romanesque marble squares found outside.
Leaving the Piazza dell’Olio and heading left along Via Roma, Via Calimala, and Via Por Santa Maria will guide you, finally, to Piazzetta di Santo Stefano al Ponte on your left. This then leads to the Ponte Vecchio. The square’s eponymous church, which has now been deconsecrated, boasts an interior rich in artwork. Today, it functions as an auditorium for a range of events. Its pietraforte façade is unfinished, but its doorway represents the characteristic “keyhole”, made from wedges of white and green marble. This dates back to the first half of the 13th century.
We’ll finish our tour by retracing our steps; leaving the Piazzetta di Santo Stefano al Ponte and heading right along Via Por Santa Maria, before turning right again down Via Vacchereccia. We’ll cross the Piazza della Signoria, with the Loggia dei Lanzi and Piazzale degli Uffizi to our right, before arriving in Via della Ninna, where we’ll find the ruins of San Pier Scheraggio.
This incredible old church, consecrated in 1068 and officiated until 1787, spent the first few decades of its existence also functioning as the meeting point for Priory of Arts, before the Palazzo Vecchio was constructed. Literally incorporated into the Uffizi during the second half of the 1500s (although the left nave had already been destroyed in 1419), the unique terracotta brick columns embedded into the wall can be seen today. These columns once divided the left side of the central nave. The outer wall of the apsis can still be admired from inside two shops in Via della Ninna.
But where can those traces of white and green marble be found, here? Simply walk down to the toilets in the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, and you’ll find it in the entrance! As you climb down the plexiglass steps, on the right you’ll see a glinting, diamond-shaped crusta, made of white and green marbles. They say that this detail is a result of the restoration work carried out on the ancient and long-forgotten cloister.
Mercoledì 17 novembre 2021