Piazza Santissima Annunziata takes its name from the thirteenth-century church and monastery that encloses its northern edge, but is justly famed for the harmonious symmetry of its overall design, derived from the graceful grey pietra serena arcade of the Innocenti hospital, built to Brunelleschi’s design from 1419.
As Cosimo’s comments make clear however, what we see today is an ensemble composed over almost two centuries; it is in some sense a tribute to Brunelleschi’s original conception, as the facing arcade consciously imitates his design, but was built in the 1520s, while the arcaded portico in front of the church was constructed around 1600, paid for by the Pucci family (whose name can be read in the inscription). The final phase of the reordering came in 1608, with the placement of the equestrian monument of Ferdinando I de’ Medici (by Giambologna and Pietro Tacca) at the centre of the piazza, creating an axial alignment between the cathedral and this important site of pilgrimage, the church Santissima Annunziata.
Inside the church stood the most venerated shrine in the city, an image of the Annunciation, which as Cosimo says, was said to have been completed by angels. People came to the shrine from far and wide to seek assistance from the Virgin Mary for a variety of ailments, and traditionally left a wax offering. These ‘votives’, as they are known, were often sculpted in the shape of part of the body for which her intercession was sought, such as legs, arms or hands. A full-size wax model of the slightly wounded Lorenzo de’ Medici was placed here in 1478, immediately after the failed Pazzi plot to murder him in the cathedral. Such was the demand for wax votives that a concentration of the city’s candle shops clustered on the nearby via dei Servi, and a new cloister at the front of the church was created to accommodate these many offerings.
To this day, if you visit the church you will be struck by the unusual feature that the real focus is not at the far end by the high altar, but rather the Madonna’s chapel on the left as you go in – the pews face that direction and candles and votive offerings signal this as a highly venerated site. As Cosimo makes clear, it was his son Piero’s patronage that paid the architect and sculptor Michelozzo to create the elaborate marble tabernacle that graces the miraculous image, as well as the elaborate lamps around its pediment. Here however the Medici imagery is quite restrained (Piero’s emblem of a diamond ring appears in the low relief sculpture of an arch), as this is a civic shrine. It seems to have been enough for people to know that their family had contributed to its honouring, without needing to display this through their own symbols.
You can visit the Innocenti hospital and the church of Santissima Annunziata.
Read about another image of the Annunciation by Zanobi Strozzi now in the National Gallery, London, here.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Shrine for the city’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/7-shrine-for-the-city/
Megan Holmes,The miraculous image in Renaissance Florence (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013)
Roberta Panzanelli, ‘Compelling Presence: Wax Effegies in Renaissance Florence’, in Eadem, ed., Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008), 13-40