It is hard to believe that we are standing in what was once the nave of San Pier Maggiore, one of the city’s most important churches. The church was demolished in 1784 by the Florentine government of the day to create space for a marketplace which has gradually evolved into the shops and apartment blocks you see today.
The developers, however, did not waste the strong walls of San Pier Maggiore, and much of the church’s structure survives hidden inside the later buildings. The church’s elegant seventeenth-century façade was repurposed as a backdrop to the piazza. Thanks to old plans and documents, we can reconstruct the church in considerable detail, together with the artworks formerly housed within.
The church Niccolosa would have seen in 1492 was already old, dating from the early 1300s. It was built at the same time and in the same plain gothic style as Santa Croce, but on a much smaller scale and squeezed into a bustling neighbourhood. It was also added to continuously as local families constructed their private burial chapels around its perimeter. By the 1500s there were over 20 chapels and altars jammed into the church.
Chapels served as tombs for families who would have been easily identifiable through inscriptions and coats of arms. Each altar was embellished with an altarpiece and Niccolosa would have been confronted with a rich array of images by different artists of different periods. Older paintings could communicate the antiquity of their patrons’ lineage, newer ones could express their wealth and taste.
With the demolition of the church the artworks were dispersed and some returned to the families that had originally commissioned them, like Niccolosa’s birth family, the Alessandri. Via the growing market for Renaissance art most pictures found their way into museum collections across Europe and North America. The two altarpieces highlighted by Niccolosa are now both in London’s Naional Gallery.
The large Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini (often confused with the better-known Sando Botticelli) was painted around 1475 for the chapel of the Palmieri family. Its patron, the local apothecary Matteo Palmieri (portrayed at the bottom of the altarpiece with his wife, also called Niccolosa) served the Medici as a diplomat but was also one of Florence’s intellectual eccentrics. He wrote his own version of Dante’s Divine Comedy and had unorthodox theological views, some of which find their way into the painting. The church condemned him after his death and exhumed his body from the family tomb in San Pier Maggiore.
The high altarpiece by Jacopo di Cione was significantly older, erected over the high altar in 1371. Its heavy gilding and polyptych format are typical of Florentine altarpieces in the fourteenth century, but this was one of the largest in the city. The central image of Christ crowning the Virgin is flanked by ranks of saints. Pride of place is given to St Peter, the titular saint for San Pier Maggiore, who holds a model of a church with an impressive dome – more a creation of Jacopo di Cione’s imagination than a record of San Pier Maggiore’s architecture.
You can see a film that provides a visualisation of the church of San Pier Maggiore here.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Donal Cooper, ‘The invisible city’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/niccolosa/nicc8_spm//
Donal Cooper and Jennifer Sliwka, ‘In Context: San Pier Maggiore’, Apollo 182 (2015), 76-81
Gail E. Solberg, ‘The Political Genealogy of the San Pier Maggiore Coronation of the Virgin’, in Hayden B. J. Maginnis and Shelly E. Zuraw, eds., The Historian’s Eye: Essays on Italian Art in Honor of Andrew Ladis. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2009: 67-81
Jennifer Sliwka, Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece.London: National Gallery, 2015.