The earliest Church and Monastery of Santo Spirito was built
in 1292 by the Augustinians, who received such liberal contribution
from the citizens that they were enabled to raise a temple of
considerable size, which they adorned with paintings by Cimabue,
Simone Memmi, and Giottino.
After the expultion of Walter de Brienne, Duke of Athens, in
1343, when the city was divided in quartieri-quarters- in place
of the old division in sestieri, this important Augustinian
monastery gave this quarter the name of Santo Spirito.
The church, however, soon was found too small for the increasing
population, and in 1433 a new edifice was commenced under the
auspices of Filippo Brunelleschi. He proposed that the church
should face the Arno, with a large Piazza before it; but the
Capponi family, whose houses were along the river; made objections,
and the plan was therefore altered.
As Brunelleschi died in 1446, the building was not far advanced,
and a calamity which occurred in 1470, caused a still further
Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, that year paid a visit
to Lorenzo de' Medici, when a grand display of ceremonials was
arranged for Easter Sunday in the Church of Santo Spirito; but,
from the carelessness of some of the workmen, the building caught
fire and was wholly consumed. It was recommenced according to
the original design of Brunelleschi, which was followed as closely
A contemporary anonymous author records that Brunelleschi was
in the habit of only making a rough model of his achitectural
compositions, leaving the details vague and uncertain, and giving
his directions to the mason as the work proceeded, altering
and modifying his design. This fact must account for various
defects in Santo Spirito, which some critics have attributed
to one Antonio Manetti, a workman who had been a pupil of Brunelleschi,
but who later set up as his rival, and ventured to disparage
his designs. The church, nevertheless, is a noble example of
The erection occupied above twenty years. The cupola was built
after a design by Salvi d' Andrea, and was only finished in
1482, in which year, according to the diary of Luca Landucci,
a Florentine citizen, a sermon was preached here.
The sacristy was added in 1488, after a design by Giuliano
di San Gallo, and the beautiful little vestibule which connects
the sacristy with the church and cloister, was the joint work
of Simone Pollajuolo, surnamed Il Cronaca and Giuliano da San
Gallo. The sculpture within was executed by Sansovino (Contucci).
The cupola of the sacristy was designed by Antonio del Pollajuolo.
The belfry, which has been much admired for its perfect proportions,
was the work of Baccio d' Agnolo. The interior of Santo Spirito
is very grand room; the immense space, the extreme simplicity
of the architecture, and its beautiful proportions. It is in
the form of a Latin cross, 315 feet long, and 191 feet across
the transepts. The aisles are carried round the nave and transepts
by a line of handsome columns, of pietra-serena, with Corinthian
The chapels are raised a step above the pavement, a defect
which Brunelleschi is said to have copied from the little Church
of SS. Apostoli, which he so greatly admired, that he refused
to admit an error in the composition. Some of these chapels
contain good altar pieces. The first to the right of the entrance
contains an Assumption of the Virgin, with saints, by one of
the school of Piero di Cosimo. The second chapel contains a
copy of Michael Angelo's Pietà at Rome, by his pupil,
Nanni di Baccio Bigio. The third has a wooden statue of St.
Nicolò, in Tolentino, by Sansovino: the angels on either
side are by Franciabigio, the friend of Andrea del Sarto.
The rest of the chapels on this side of the nave contain nothing
of importance. In the right transept, however, are several interesting
pictures. One of these, in the Capponi Chapel, in a dark position,
and represents a nun enthroned, supposed to be Santa Monaca,
the mother of St. Augustine.
She is giving the rules of her order to twelve other nuns;
angels kneel on either side. Cavalcaselle considers this picture
to be in the style of the Pollaioli, although not one of the
best specimens. The nuns, who have very marked countenances
are portraits of ladies of the Capponi family.
The fourteenth chapel room entrance belongs to de Nerli family,
and contains a very beautiful picture by Filippino Lippi, painted
in the artist's best manner. The Virgin is seated on a throne
within a shrine, supported by pilasters, and adorned by lovely
cherubs. The Christ-child on her lap is singularly beautiful;
one hand clasp his mother's finger; the other rests on a cross
offered him by a little St. John, who appears full of earnest
devotion. The finest part of the picture is St. Martin, who
wears a bishop's stole and presents the donator of the picture
to the Virgin. The donator was Tanai de' Nerli, who belonged
to one of the most distinguished families among the Florentine
citizens; he was frequently employed on diplomatic missions,
and made himself conspicuous by his persecution of Girolamo
Savonarola; he even caused the bell of San Marco, which had
been rung to rouse the citizens the night when Savonarola was
seized, to be taken from the convent, and carried to San Miniato
on an ass's back, as a sign of opprobrium. This fierce persecutor
of a good man and wise man is here represented kneeling humbly,
and his countenance, as well as the action of his hands, express
well the mingled wonder and reverence with which he approaches
the mother of our Lord.
On the opposite side of the picture, St. Catherine presents
the wife of Tanai de' Nerli to the Virgin, who turns her head
towards her. In the landscape back-ground is the gate of San
Frediano, and Tanai, dismounting from his horse, gives the reins
to an attendant and kisses his little daughter who was come
to the door of the house with a servant girl to meet her father.
Cavalcaselle observes that no portraits of this time are more
admirably real than these of the Nerli family - " Filippino
never approached nearer than here to the ideal of simple and
grand drapery. His precision in defining form is admirable,
his ability depicting popular life in distance astonishing for
its realistic truth: his colour is a little raw, but pleasant
still, and modelled with great breadth success".
The adjoining chapel has a copy of Perugino's picture of St.
Bernard appearing to the Virgin, the original of which is in
Munich Gallery. At the angle of the transept, opposite the Capponi
chapel with the altar piece of Santa Monaca, there is another
chapel, likewise belonging to the Capponi, and containing a
marble monument behind an iron grating, to the memoryof the
first Gino Capponi, and erected by his son Neri, who is also
buried here, as well as Piero, the grandson of Neri, celebrated
in Florentine history. Gino was born in 1360, and rendered his
name famous by the part he played in a war against Pisa, which
city he conquered for the Florentines in 1404, and, when appointed
governor, he gained the affection of the Pisans by his gentle
behaviour. His son Neri, whose profile in basso-rilievo by Simone
di Betto on his monument, was distinguished in the war carried
by the Florentines against the Duke of Milan, and by his spirited
defence of the Republic from encroachments of Cosimo de' Medici.
He died lamented by all his fellow-citizens in 1447. His grand-son
Piero was the champion of Florentine liberty, when threatened
by Charles VIII of France, and his spirited reply to the monarch's
insolent declaration that if the treaty he had dictated were
not signed he would sound his trumpets -"Then we shall
sound our bells," will never be forgotten in Florence.
Piero Capponi was killed in 1496 in an assault against the
Pisans; his remains were brought up the Arno in a funeral barge,
and deposited in his house near the bridge of SS. Trinità,
from whence they were borne to the Church of Santo Spirito,
accompanied by the magistrates and vast multitude of the citizens.
The church was lighted by innumerable tapers, and lined with
four ranges of banners, bearing alternately the arms of the
Florentine magistracy and of the Capponi family. A funeral oration
was delivered over the coffin, proclaiming, in words of the
highest praise, the distinguished life of the deceased, and
the deep sorrow felt for the loss of the valiant soldier and
eminent citizens. His remains were than deposited in the same
tomb which his grand-father Neri had caused to be constructed
for his illustrious great-grandfather Gino Capponi. The opposite
monument is that of Cardinal Luigi Capponi, a lineal descendant
of Piero, who died in1659.
In the nineteenth chapel, which is within the apse, there is
an altar-piece with saints by Agnolo Gaddi. In this chapel is
buried Piero Vettori, a literary critic of some reputation,
born in 1499 at Florence. Although the Medici were the constant
theme of his satire, the Grand - Duke Cosimo I., who had an
estimation for talent in every form, appointed him, in 1538,
Professor of Classics; his lectures were attended by a vast
concourse of students, who spread his reputation. He died in
The next altar-piece of a Madonna enthroned with saints on
either side, is in manner of Botticelli.
Over the twenty-first altar are Martyrs, by Alessandro Allori;
the predella is in the style of Botticelli, and contains a representation
of the Pitti Palace as it appeared when first built. The twenty-fourth
altar has an Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli: the twenty-fifth,
a Madonna and Child, with two angels, St. Bartholomew, and St.John
The twenty-seventh altar contains a good, though damaged, picture
of Madonna enthroned, with angels, St. Thomas, and St. Peter,
with the date 1482. Cavalcaselle supposes these pictures to
have been the joint production of Piero di Cosimo and Cosimo
Rosselli and he observes that "the style of Ghirlandaio
and Filippino are mingled with that of Cosimo Rosselli in both
The altar which follows is enclosed in a fine marble grating,
the work of Andrea Sansovino. Cavalcaselle attributes the picture
in the adjoining chapel of Raffellino del Garbo; the subject
is the Trinity, adored by St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene,
who are on their knees. "The predella contains some pretty
things, representing the Nativity between the Communion of St.
Mary of Egypt and Martyrdoom of Alexandrian Saint." The
same author adds, that he considers the picture "a carefully
handled and gay specimen of his (Raffaellino's) painting- not
the best example".
Over the thirtieth altar is again the Madonna enthroned with
angels, St. Nicholas with his three loaves, attribuited to Antonio
del Pollaiolo, but believed by Cavalcaselle to be another production
of Piero di Cosimo and Cosimo Rosselli.
The thirty-second altar has Christ bearing his cross, in some
respect identical with one of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio's best pictures,
formerly in the Antinori Palace.
Near the door of the sacristy, beneath the organ, is another
picture by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, a Virgin and child with St.
Anna behind. Four saints stand on either side, and St. Mary
Magdalene, and St. Catherine kneel. The picture has been much
damaged. There are no other picture deserving notice in this
The choir in the centre, between the transepts, though a marvellously
rich display of marbles, is, as whole, heavy and ugly, and disturbs
the architectural beauty of the building. It was placed here
in 1599, during the reign of the Grand Duke Ferdinand I. The
arms of Michelozzi family introduced in various parts. The choir,
though rich in sculpture, is altogether in bad taste; the details,
however, are worth studying. The altar is finely decorated with
mosaics and bronze statuettes, and carved wooden seats, and
marble and bronze balustrade and candelabra very excellent in
their kind. The cloister beyond the sacristy is surrounded by
frescos, representing scenes from the life of St. Augustine.
An inner cloister is likewise decorated with frescos. A painting
by Agnolo Gaddi was once here, but has been lately removed to
It was in the Church of Santo Spirito that Martin Luther preached
when he came as an Augustinian friar to Florence on his road
to Rome. His name was inscribed in the books of the Monastery,
but the library was dispersed after the suppression of the monasteries
by the French, towards the end of the last century. Many valuable
works were then lost, and among them the writings of Boccaccio
bequeathed by him to the Augustinian friars.