CHAPTER XIX. The SS. Annunziata and the Spedale degli Innocenti
Andrea del Sarto again - Franciabigio outraged - Alessio Baldovinetti - Piero de' Medici's church - An Easter Sunday congregation - Andrea's "Madonna del Sacco" - "The Statue and the Bust" - Henri IV - The Spedale degli Innocenti - Andrea della Robbia - Domenico Ghirlandaio - Cosimo I and the Etruscans - Bronzes and tapestries - Perugino's triptych - S. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi - "Very sacred human dust".
From S. Marco it is an easy step, along the Via Sapienza, to the Piazza dell' Annunziata, where one finds the church of that name, the Palazzo Riccardi-Mannelli, and opposite it, gay with the famous della Robbia reliefs of swaddled children, the Spedale degli Innocenti.
First the church, which is notable for possessing in its courtyard Andrea del Sarto's finest frescoes. This series, of which he was the chief painter, with his friend Franciabigio again as his principal ally, depict scenes in the life of the Virgin and S. Filippo. The scene of the Birth of the Virgin has been called the triumph of fresco painting, and certainly it is very gay and life-like in that medium. The whole picture very charming and easy, with the pleasantest colouring imaginable and pretty details, such as the washing of the baby and the boy warming his hands, while of the two women in the foreground, that on the left, facing the spectator, is a portrait of Andrea's wife, Lucrezia. In the Arrival of the Magi we find Andrea himself, the figure second from the right-hand side, pointing; while next to him, on the left, is his friend Jacopo Sansovino. The "Dead Man Restored to Life by S. Filippo" is Andrea's next best. Franciabigio did the scene of the Marriage of the Virgin, which contains another of his well-drawn boys on the steps. The injury to this fresco - the disfigurement of Mary's face - was the work of the painter himself, in a rage that the monks should have inspected it before it was ready. Vasari is interesting on this work. He draws attention to it as illustrating "Joseph's great faith in taking her, his face expressing as much fear as joy". He also says that the blow which the man is giving Joseph was part of the marriage ceremony at that time in Florence.
Franciabigio, in spite of his action in the matter of this fresco, seems to have been a very sweet-natured man, who painted rather to be able to provide for his poor relations than from any stronger inner impulse, and when he saw some works by Raphael gave up altogether, as Verrocchio gave up after Leonardo matured. Franciabigio was a few years older than Andrea, but died at the same age. Possibly it was through watching his friend's domestic troubles that he remained single, remarking that he who takes a wife endures strife. His most charming work is that "Madonna of the Well" in the Uffizi, which is reproduced in this volume. Franciabigio's master was Mariotto Albertinelli, who had learned from Cosimo Rosselli, the teacher of Piero di Cosimo, Andrea's master - another illustration of the interdependence of Florentine artists.
One of the most attractive works in the courtyard must once have been the "Adoration of the Shepherds" by Alessio Baldovinetti, at the left of the entrance to the church. It is badly damaged and the colour has gone, but one can see that the valley landscape, when it was painted, was a dream of gaiety and happiness.
The particular treasure of the church is the extremely ornate chapel of the Virgin, containing a picture of the Virgin displayed once a year on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th, in the painting of which the Virgin herself took part, descending from heaven for that purpose. The artist thus divinely assisted was Pietro Cavallini, a pupil of Giotto. The silver shrine for the picture was designed by Michelozzo and was a beautiful thing before the canopy and all the distressing accessories were added. It was made at the order of Piero de' Medici, who was as fond of this church as his father Cosimo was of S. Lorenzo. Michelozzo only designed it; the sculpture was done by Pagno di Lapo Portigiani, whose Madonna is over the tomb of Pope John by Donatello and Michelozzo in the Baptistery.
Among the altar-pieces are two by Perugino; but of Florentine altar-pieces one can say little or nothing in a book of reasonable dimensions. There are so many and they are for the most part so difficult to see. Now and then one arrests the eye and holds it; but for the most part they go unstudied. The rotunda of the choir is interesting, for here we meet again Alberti, who completed it from designs by Michelozzo. It does not seem to fit the church from within, and even less so from without, but it is a fine structure. The seventeenth-century painting of the dome is almost impressive.
But one can forget and forgive all the church's gaudiness and floridity when the choir is in good voice and the strings play Palestrina as they did last Easter Sunday. The Annunziata is famous for its music, and on the great occasions people crowd there as nowhere else. At High Mass the singing was fine but the instrumental music finer. One is accustomed to seeing vicarious worship in Italy; but never was there so vicarious a congregation as ours, and indeed if it had not been for the sight of the busy celibates at the altar one would not have known that one was worshipping at all. The culmination of detachment came when a family of Siamese or Burmese children, in native dress, entered. A positive hum went round, and not an eye but was fixed on the little Orientals. When, however, the organ was for a while superseded and the violas and violins quivered under the plangent melody of Palestrina, our roving attention was fixed and held.