Renaissance Florence brimmed with religious street art, from simple paintings of saints to lavishly framed images. These open-air shrines let Florentines interact with the holy on a daily basis—and to be seen by friends and neighbours when doing so. Their placement on street corners or high up on buildings encouraged the uninterrupted flow of devotion by ordinary citizens, without the need for priests.
Tabernacles easily numbered in the hundreds by Mona Niccolosa’s day. As landmarks, they helped urban residents organize a mental map of the city and gave every neighbourhood a sense of place. The shrine that Niccolosa visited, erected before plague decimated the city in 1348, united the three principal protectors of her parish in a single image. Saint Peter held special meaning for this locale. Symbolizing the power of the papacy, this apostle lent his name to both the parish and convent of San Pier Maggiore.
Outdoor images may have been especially important for respectable women like Niccolosa, whose physical movements were limited to streets and squares around their homes. Tabernacles served as local gathering places where neighbourhood women could trade news and information as they lit candles or placed flowers. In dangerous times, like the days following Lorenzo’s death in 1492, Niccolosa and her neighbours might still call upon their favourite saints by gazing down at shrines from elevated windows in their houses.
Savonarola’s followers understood the power exerted by holy images in key outdoor spaces. In the days leading up to the preacher’s execution in May 1498, his young supporters set up makeshift altars on street corners throughout the city to show their allegiance to the cause. Like their elders, these pious youth gangs believed that holiness inhered in objects. Saturating the city with sacred images became a way for them to enact the religious reforms they cared about so deeply.
The convent of San Pier Maggiore that dominated this neighbourhood enjoyed bragging rights as the oldest female religious community in the city, founded before 1100. It remained a small, wealthy house throughout the Renaissance, when other convent populations were exploding with “surplus” daughters who lacked the means to marry well.
Women from the Albizzi clan, and its offshoot the Alessandri—the family into which Niccolosa was born—governed convent affairs by the late fourteenth century. Their family palaces were located just a stone’s throw away and their family tombs lined the convent church. Packed with nuns from these two lineages, the convent worked as an extension of existing neighbourhood alliances and animosities. It was no accident that Niccolosa’s sister Gostanza was elected to lead this powerful group of religious women.
Sharon T. Strocchia
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Sharon Strocchia, ‘Saints on the street’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/niccolosa/nicc5_touchsacred/
Nicholas Eckstein, “Neighborhood as Microcosm,” in Roger J. Crum and John T. Paoletti, eds., Renaissance Florence: A Social History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006: 219-239
Lorenzo Polizzotto, “The Medici and the Youth Confraternity of the Purification of the Virgin, 1434-1506,” in Nicholas Terpstra, ed., The Politics of Ritual Kinship: Confraternities and Social Order in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000: 98-113
Sharon T. Strocchia, Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.