For this month's trip we visit San Giovanni Valdarno, a city of 17,000 souls, about 40 kilometers equidistant from both Florence and Arezzo. As the name implies, the city is located in the valley of the river Arno. It was built on behalf of Florence to realize an outpost. In recent history, the area has been known for the mining of lignite and the steel industry.
In the historic center we start our tour at the Palazzo Pretorio (or Palazzo Arnolfo). It is decorated with 250 stemmi; these are the coats of arms of each of the different podestas (the highest officials in office) who were in charge of the city, each for one year. The first dates from 1410, the most recent bears the date of 1769! In front of the palazzo is the statue of the Marzocco, a heraldic lion that is a symbol of Florence.
On the piazza Masaccio, behind the palazzo, stands the Basilica Santa Maria delle Grazie.
It received its current (neo-classical) form in 1850, but an oratorio was already erected on this site in 1484 after the victory over the plague (more about that later!).
In the niche of the central entrance hangs a terracotta artwork by Giovanni Della Robbia: the Madonna della Cintola (1510-1513) (Madonna of the Girdle)
The Legenda Aurea, a medieval collection of hagiographies from the thirteenth century, confirms the image of Saint Thomas as the unbelieving apostle: When Mary (mother of Jesus) died, the disciples laid her in the tomb to witness her ascension. However, Thomas was absent and he later did not believe the story the others told him. Only when Mary's girdle suddenly fell into his hands from heaven did he believe that she had been taken up there.
Thomas is flanked by the city's two patron saints: John the Baptist and San Lorenzo with his (inseparable) barbecue.
Inside the basilica - to the left of the altar - the fresco by Uberto da Montivarchi (1510) tells the story of Mona Tancia and the miracle of her milk production……
Here's the unlikely story, in the context of the plague epidemic that hit the city in 1478:
In the first fresco we see the 75-year-old Monna Tancia, who is left alone with her three-month-old grandson Lorenzo. Next to them lie the corpses of Lorenzo’s parents, Monna Tancia’s son Francesco and her daughter-in-law Santa, both victims of the 'black death'.
In the second scene, Monna Tancia turns in supplication and prayer to the Madonna depicted at the city gate of San Lorenzo, to save the child from starvation.
And then the miraculous miracle happens in the third fresco!
Miraculously, the very old woman feels the milk coming out of her breasts! According to the legend she fed her grandson for another 22 months….
You can understand that the news of this miracle spread quickly throughout Tuscany and attracted a large number of believers!
A chapel was erected in front of the statue of the Madonna (in 1484) which later became the basilica. The fresco can of course still be admired.
In the large round dome there is enough space to receive the numerous pilgrims.
In the adjacent Museo della Basilica there is a large collection of religious works of art.
The masterpiece is undoubtedly the Annunciazione by Beato Angelico from 1430. It was originally hung at the slightly more distant Convento of Montecarlo and enjoyed by the resident brothers.
At a closer look of the painting, you will notice that a strip is missing on both sides. At a certain point, the brothers wanted to modernize their living room, but the painting didn’t fit in the modern (smaller) corniche, so they decided to cut the painting down to size….
Later, the frame with the original dimensions resurfaced, and now two blank stripes can be seen….
Fra Angelico painted 3 versions of his Annunciazione: one hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid, and the third is well known to you from the Museo Diocesano in Cortona! It is fascinating to study the differences and similarities:
Also, in the details one can see the similarities and the influence of Masaccio - more about that later. Here, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise:
Another highlight, the Beheading of John the Baptist (1620) by Giovanni di San Giovanni (in the style of Caravaggio) should not be withheld from horror fans!
Warning: not for sensitive viewers, the gory details are as graphic as in the best horror films!
Finally, to recover from all this violence, we visit the birthplaceof Renaissance artist Masaccio (1401) in the Corso Italia.
He was of great importance to the development of perspective painting. (We like to refer here to his Holy Trinity painted in 1425 in Santa Maria Novella, and his frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, both in Florence.)
As you can see on the memorial stone on the facade, his real name was Tommaso. This was shortened to Maso, and as he was considered a troublesome child, he became infamous with the pejorative, 'Masaccio'.
Another theory claims that the name Masaccio means messy (a bit of a slob). This nickname is said to have been given to him by Giorgio Vasari, because Masaccio was so busy painting that he did not care about personal hygiene…
Se non è vero, è ben trovato! (If it’s not true, it is however well founded!)