by Lisa McGarry published on February 20, 2009
I look back on my earlier visits to Piazza Santo Spirito with a mixture of affection and nostalgia. The first time I found myself here, tracking down an archive of drawings from a community project I had read about, I had no idea that it would become such a big part of my daily life. Or perhaps it is I who has become part of its life, its story? Each of us passing through the piazza, whether for a single afternoon or a lifetime of mornings, is contributing a new thread to its centuries-old tapestry.
My first impression of the façade of Santo Spirito church was that it was unusual—'cartoonish' I wrote in my journal. I found it mildly exasperating that the church was always closed by the time I seemed to finally make it to this side of the river, though sitting in the piazza waiting for the four o'clock bells to signal the reopening of the church was nothing but pleasurable. I could relax on a bench under the canopy of trees and observe the happenings in the square for a while.
By my third trip to Florence, not only had I become quite fond of this whimsical symbol of the quartiere, but it had also become the piazza where I felt most at home. Geographically, Santo Spirito became linked with the idea of home when we started renting apartments close to it for longer stays. While the front door of our present apartment opens onto Piazza Pitti, Santo Spirito is still very much our neighborhood piazza, and the place where we tend to many of our needs. We come here to buy produce and school supplies, socks and pillowcases, cappuccino and gelato; we pass through on the walk to school and to the bakery. It's part of every day.
The combination of Piazza Santo Spirito's shade-giving trees, splashing fountain and sunny church steps seems to effortlessly put people at ease; in this most sociable of outdoor rooms there is always someone writing, reading, drawing, or just looking around. Children gather here after school, clambering precariously around the ledge of the fountain, 'fishing' with sticks, or using it as home in their games of hide and seek. I watched Italy win the 2006 World Cup on a giant screen here, sweltering among the mass of humanity gathered on the stone paving that was still hot from the July day. It is where I bring my daughter to play with her hula-hoop, to blow bubbles, to eat an after-school snack. We sit near the fountain or in front of the church, alongside the locals, the tourists and the homeless residents who all share the space.
An air of intimacy fills the square, unlike the large treeless piazzas that front the major churches of Florence's other quartieri, and the understated buildings surrounding the piazza complement the bold personality of the church's façade at the north end. Offset and at a slight angle from one another, the piazza and church of Santo Spirito share a comfortable, informal relationship.
Visitors don't come here to see renowned art by the most famous of artists, or to witness the site of some gruesome drama in Florence's history; what draws them to Piazza Santo Spirito is less impressive but equally satisfying. At the focal point of this artisan neighborhood, character abounds on a human scale, from the daily market that merges charm with necessity to the inviting patio tables spilling out of the many restaurants and cafés.
Nothing matches the atmosphere and bustle of Saturday mornings, when we have time to linger at a café, browse the mercatino and chat with friends who are also running errands in the piazza. Each weekday morning, the piazza has an offering of goods too: colorful household textiles usually brighten one or two stands, the sun reflects off the metal wares in another, and underwear, nightdresses and blouses flutter in the breeze of several. Produce-sellers display crates of vegetables for soup and pasta sauces, and fruit to replenish the neighborhood's fruit bowls.
The modest beginnings of this square and its church started with the settling of the Augustinians here in the middle of the thirteenth century; their original church dates to 1260. Over the next century and a half, the complex expanded to include a hospital, hostels and refectories for the poor, as well as schools and libraries once a circle of scholars began to gather here. To accommodate this burgeoning center of activity, Filippo Brunelleschi was asked to design a new church in 1434, so to help pay for the new basilica, the monks gave up one of their daily meals in the cenacolo next door. Today the one-time refectory provides a home for the Fondazione Romana, a collection of sculpture assembled by Art collector Salvatore Romano. This only remaining part of the original monastery is graced by a wall showing traces of a mid-thirteenth-century Last Supper and Crucifixion by Orcagna.
The piazza would have a very different character if Brunelleschi's original design had been followed back in the fifteenth century. He wanted to reverse the orientation of the earlier church so that the piazza would open onto the Arno, impressing those arriving in Florence via the river. What notoriety Santo Spirito would have enjoyed as a riverfront church, instead of being tucked into the Oltrarno. The wealthy residents whose homes were to be demolished to make way for the piazza naturally objected to the idea, so Brunelleschi retained the building's original south-facing position. Seeing the church façade soaking up the sun all day, the piazza in dappled light, it's hard to imagine it otherwise now.
I like to consider Santo Spirito's façade, which is unusual compared to other Florentine church façades. A layer of pale yellow plaster conceals its stone and brick construction, while the other major churches—the Duomo, Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella—are all faced with elaborate designs of green, white and rose marble. At the opposite end of the spectrum, many of the churches scattered around the city still present façades with courses of rough stone and brick, regardless of how detailed and finished their interiors are. San Lorenzo is a case in point: its interior is filled with an impressive collection of art and architecture, yet the façade remains exposed and unfinished.
It's not really surprising that the façades of these huge church projects do not correspond, or even hint at, the character of their interiors; the construction of each of these complexes spanned many generations of architects, artists, planners and patrons. Maybe this is one reason why they continue to inspire our admiration. The talent and energy of so many individuals combined to make rich structures that could not have been achieved with the build-it-quick-and-cheap mentality that is so prevalent today.
In her Italian Days, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote how the façade's "starkness would seem to invite the mischievousness of graffiti; it's a kind of miracle that this natural slate has not been scrawled upon, a miracle that stems from its incorruptible beauty." I have often wondered what the solution to finishing Santo Spirito's façade should be; it's difficult to visualize an alternative when it has remained bare for so many centuries (save for the painted architectural details from the eighteenth century, which have long since been obscured). Better to follow a historic design or let it reflect our culture today? I feel that Santo Spirito's ideal form is così—like it is—continuing to be one of those topics that provokes an ongoing dialogue among the locals and visitors.
A project organized by artist Mario Mariotti in the early 1980s provided a chance for citizens to partake in this dialogue. Mariotti invited people from all walks of life to use the façade's outline as the basis for designs that were then projected onto the church façade during summer nights filled with music, dancing, poetry and theatre. The results ranged from whimsical to clever and political, and art assumed its natural role—as part of the community, part of the present.
The walls at Ricchi, one of the cafés on the piazza, are covered with hundreds of these original façade drawings. My favorite takes advantage of the church's curvy outline and totally reinterprets the scale: it shows a cat curled up in an armchair which, when projected onto the façade, would have effectively set a huge upholstered chair in the family room of Piazza Santo Spirito. One drawing depicts a finger ringing a doorbell above a nameplate that reads "Brunelleschi"; another superimposes a photograph of the church's interior, as if the façade had been peeled away. Another artist wrote 'Homage to Filippo' in Italian, and drew the curved chapels as Brunelleschi had proposed. The winning entry was an image of a man sitting in a chair on a railroad track that leads into a tunnel—the church's circular window—and off to the side a scrawled comment states in Italian: "Despite everything I will continue to plan my life."
©2008 Lisa McGarry. An excerpt from the The Piazzas of Florence published by Murdoch Books.
Photo by Lisa McGarry.
Architect, Writer, Artist
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