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FLORENCE - Cenacoli and other excitements, April 2010

Updated: May 10, 2021

I am writing this as a record, before I forget it all, of our exploration of various paintings and other things – but most importantly frescoes of the Last Supper (cenacoli) – during our stay with Mark and Shirani.

The visits to each of the things we want to see have to be planned like a military operation in order to deal with the intricacies (and absurdities) of the opening and closing times. One of them (as yet unseen) is open for only, I think, two hours on three days of the week.

So far, as I write this bit, on Monday, we have seen four cenacoli: two in the San Marco convent (one by Ghirlandaio, the other by Fra Angelico); one by Andrea del Castagno; and then another by Ghirlandaio. These visits were spread out over two days, Saturday and Monday.

Saturday 3 April

The Ghirlandaio in San Marco is, slightly curiously, in the museum shop. The guidebook calls it the small refectory, which is presumably what it was, unless it has been moved in the way frescoes now can be. The cenacolo is in the style then being developed as classical, leading up to Leonardo’s in Milan, with Jesus and 11 of the disciples all sitting at the other side of the long table and Judas alone on our side of the table looking at Jesus. The table is set at the end of a room, in this case under two large semi-circular arches through which you can see trees and birds and on the right of which is a peacock. The figures are all clearly and strongly painted; all the disciples, except Judas, have gold haloes, as does Jesus; John is leaning across Jesus with his head on the table; and there are bread and wine, and lots of cherries, scattered on the table. The disciples all have much the same pensive expression, except Thomas (I think) who is looking upward, perhaps “doubting”. Judas is dark-haired but is not depicted as particularly wicked (except for his not having a halo). The unusual feature is a grey cat sitting in front of the table and looking out boldly at us the spectators.

The other cenacolo in the San Marco is by Fra Angelico and is not really in what I’ve referred to as the classic style. It takes the form of Jesus offering bread and wine to the disciples, in this way emphasising the Last Supper as the institution of the mass or communion service.

The third cenacolo we saw was in the refectory of the convent of Sant’ Apollonia, not far from the San Marco. It closes for the day, in fine Florentine style, at 1.50 in the afternoon (we just made it). The painting is by Andrea del Castagno and was done in about 1450, some 30 years before the Ghirlandaios. It is in the classic style, in the sense of everyone other than Judas being on one side of a long table, but different in that the background is closed in with careful perspective delineation of the walls and roof; no arches behind the table – instead large marble wall slabs, the one behind Jesus having an amazingly dramatic and highly coloured abstract design. Another unusual feature is Judas, again sitting on the spectators’ side of the table, but in this case looking distinctly sinister and (possibly deliberately) semitic. In this fresco each of the names of the disciples appears (helpfully) under the disciple concerned. Curiously there is no sign of any bread or wine on the table or anywhere else. Finally, in this version the drawing of the disciples is stronger than in the others, with more characterisation and movement.

We saw what I have described so far on Saturday 3 April. We also saw the famous Fra Angelicos in the cells of the San Marco convent, as well as the cells of the fanatical Savonarola (he got a suite, needless to say) and the painting of him being executed at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria.

Sunday 4 April

Sunday was Easter Day. We went to the St Mark’s Anglican Church, where there was mass (very high church) presided over by a bishop. No cenacolo sightings that day.

Monday 5 April

On Monday we took up the cenacolo hunt again by going to the refectory attached to the Ognissanti where there is the second of the Ghirlandaios. Very similar to the one in San Marco, but sadly without the cat. Amazingly it has been restored by removing it from the wall (and then replacing it), thus revealing the sinopie, ie the rough drawings of the basic design of the fresco, done in red terracotta before the final layer of plaster was applied (this final layer being the intonaco on which the fresco itself was painted when the plaster was still wet). These sinopie are also on show, with very good descriptions of the fresco process and of some of the imagery and iconographythe pheasants symbolising resurrection, the peacock eternal life, the cherries the blood of Jesus and the orange tree I forget what.

We went briefly into the church of the Ognissanti next door, but a service was going on, slightly impeding our sightseeing. However we saw Botticelli’s fresco of St Augustine’s vision of St Jerome, the picture being more familiar than what it is of.

Otherwise on Monday we went to the Orsanmichele where on the first floor are the restored originals of the various statues that were once in the niches on the exterior of the ground floor of the building (now replaced there by copies). One is Donatello’s St Mark, thought of as the first truly renaissance statue, done when he was a young man in his twenties and much admired by Michelangelo. We also went to the Badia, only open as it is on Monday afternoons after 3.00 pm – maybe this isn’t so unreasonable as it is still apparently a convent. There we saw the beautiful Filippino Lippi of the Madonna appearing to St Bernard. We also went to the Bargello opposite.

Tuesday 6 April

This morning we have been deserted by the ladies – doubtless suffering from a surfeit of cenacoli.

We went first to the convent of Foligno to see the cenacolo of Perugino, only opened to the public in 1990. It has had a somewhat chequered history, having originally been done for a convent of nuns associated with another convent in another place, Foligno, hence its name the cenacolo of Foligno. It was only rediscovered in the mid-19th century and at that time thought to be by Raphael. The former refectory was then used as a factory of some sort. The cenacolo is now apparently generally recognised to be by Perugino.

It is in the classic style, although under one big arch that looks out onto a garden where the agony in the garden is depicted. Otherwise it’s like the others: disciples pensive, under haloes except for Judas who, in this one, is (rather indelicately) clutching a money bag. (Or is it a money bag? Looking at St John’s gospel, I see that it refers to a bag held by Judas as though it was a shopping bag.) The disciples are each named on the step under the table – St Thomas (alone) is helping himself to some wine.

Incidentally, there is much helpful and interesting information on display about the fresco (as there is nowadays in most of the other places) – including information about Perugino and his predecessors and followers; but no mention that I could see of his most famous and distinguished follower, namely Raphael. What’s that all about?

Then on to the refectory at San Salvi on the eastern side of Florence, for the cenacolo of Andrea del Sarto, the latest of the Florentine cenacoli to be painted, completed in 1526/27. Not easy to find; although we’d both been before, we needed directions as it’s away from its related church and, typically, there are no signs to it.

It is still in the classic style, in the sense of everyone being at a long table under a big arch, but it is more dramatic: it deals with the point at which Jesus says to the disciples that one will betray him. Judas is sitting next to him, on his right – not on our side of the table. All are reacting dramatically. When they ask who it will be, Jesus says the one to whom he hands a piece of bread. The fresco shows him handing a piece of bread to Judas.

Wednesday 7 April

We had reserved today, our last day, for a visit to Prato where they have relatively recently finished restoration of the various frescoes in the cathedral. The most famous – the pride of Prato – are the frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi of the life and death of John the Baptist.

Well worth the trip to Prato and a good thing to end on. It is widely advertised; the first poster we saw was at the airport as we arrived in Italy. One might have expected some crowds, but no, there were only a handful of others.

The best known image is of Salome dancing at Herod’s banquet, followed by (but all dealt with in the same picture) the beheading of John and the delivery of his head on a plate to Herodias.

The frescoes are very accessible, relatively speaking. They are well lit, with a good audio guide and, amazingly, open all day.

Tony Herbert

10 April 2010

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