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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 delay. 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 as possible.

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 Brunelleschi's compositions.

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 capitals.

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 1565.

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 Evangelist.

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 picture". 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 church.

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 the Bargello.

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.