There are some quiet, undiscovered corners in Florence, and the Chiostro dello Scalzo is one of them. This tiny, luminous space, steps away from Piazza San Marco, contains one of the highlights of the Mannerist period of art in Florence. And for some reason I hadn’t visited it – until the other day. There is a guard who has been here for the past ten years and is so well informed about the space’s fascinating history; I took advantage of her knowledge and drank up the stories while taking photos that you can see below.
The Chiostro dello Scalzo is a small cloister that originally led to a chapel for the use of the barefoot members of a confraternity dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The cloister is adorned by a grisaille (greyscale) fresco series (1509-26) by the Mannerist painter Andrea del Sarto (with two of them by Franciabigio, who pitched in when it looked like Andrea was gone for good to France). The paintings logically represent the life of Saint John.
If you studied art history in the 1990s like I did, these frescoes were not on your curriculum, and in fact a check of the standard textbooks on my shelf confirms that they are not included. Why not? Well, thanks to an interesting restoration history (that I learned from the abovementioned guard).
Choistro dello Scalzo restoration (or why you haven’t been here yet)
The Compagnia dello Scalzo was established in 1376 and, as I mentioned above, this was the entrance to their church. The frescoes were executed in the first quarter of the 16th century. In 1722, changes were made to the cloister, including adding groin vaults (and the consequent lunettes) and creating a walkway to protect the frescoes from the elements. The confraternity lasted until 1786, at which point the adjacent spaces were sold and refitted for other uses. For a while, the Accademia delle Belle Arti used the space; then it came into the hands of the national government who opened it to the public in 1891. The frescoes, however, were in constantly degrading condition thanks to being exposed to the elements – there was just a partial wooden roof here. In the late 1950s or early 1960s, they detached the frescoes (which involves taking away a chunk of wall and attaching it to a support) and moved them over to the city’s restoration facilities, where they were put in line for restoration. Mainly, a donor was required to cover the costs!
But then, 1966 happened: the great flood of Florence. And suddenly all the artworks in Florence were covered in mud (not to mention the rest of the city). The line-up for restoration became suddenly very, very long. But on the positive side, hundreds of “mud angels”, many of whom were Americans, flew over to help restore the works in the emergency. And money flooded in from all around the world. There are works in this city that are still in restoration from the flood, and others that I see occasionally come out. The Choistro frescoes were finished being restored in the early 1990s, but before putting them back on the walls, they were sent around to the major museums of the world in thanks for everyone’s help in the crisis of the flood.
In Spring of 2000, with the frescoes back on the walls, they opened the Cloister to the public (having covered the space with a glass ceiling). The limited opening hours – three mornings a week – were determined after a few years of experimentation: they had first tried to keep the place simply closed, but being sealed caused mold to form where it never had before!
About the frescoes
What can I say that the pictures don’t say for themselves? Considering the years during which they were exposed to all sorts of weather, the restorers have done a fabulous job. Notice that there are two frescoes towards the back that are darker in colour? The artist factored this in because that corner of the space was deeper into shadow than the others. Look for hints of Michelangelo-esque grandeur in the figures, yet with a gentler touch. I also see the influence of Masaccio very much in the Baptism of the Masses scene (see detail photo) – the water on the figure’s hair reminds me of the Baptism in the Brancacci Chapel.
Info: Via Cavour, 69. Open Monday, Thursday, Saturday mornings, 8:15 to 13. Entrance Free.