Florence must be visited within the context of its surrounding countryside. Pity those poor tourists who swelter through the impossibly torrid Florentine summer visiting one overcrowded art gallery after the other and knowing nothing of such charmed places as Settignano, L’Impruneta and Antella.
The oratorio dell ’Antella dedicated to saint Catherine of Alexandra dates back to the fourteenth century and is situated above the Arno just to the south east of Florence. From the outside it looks like any other modest chapel with rough stone walls and few architectural pretensions. Indeed, I still remember the time when it was utterly neglected and housed a veterinary practise alongside which today has been converted into a reception centre for special occasions like weddings.
The oratorio interior, however, is quite a different matter. Of its two bays the second is completely frescoed with scenes from the life of Saint Catherine by that master of the international gothic Spinello Aretino (who also painted the cycle of frescoes illustrating the life of Saint Benedict in the sacristy of San Miniato al Monte) and in the apse are older frescoes by the Master of Barberino and Pietro Nelli
Considering that the chapel is a popular venue for weddings the apse frescoes, in particular do not bode well for marital bliss as they show the various tortures the Egyptian saint was subject to including flagellation and, finally, the famous Catherine wheel, here depicted by two of them, placed side-by-side with big teeth ready to tear the saint’s flesh apart (now more commonly associated with Guy Fawkes night’s pyrotechnic displays in the UK).
In the middle of this pictorial exuberance exhibitions are regularly assembled. The current one is devoted to Francesco Granacci and Giovanni Larciani and runs until 12th January next year.
Apart from enjoying the delightful countryside leading to the oratorio we learnt much about lesser known Florentine painters, particularly those of the mannerist period which succeeded the high renaissance. Francesco Granacci seems to have been unduly neglected until recently but anyone who has wandered into London’s National Gallery will be familiar with his noble portrait of an armoured man.
Granacci was born in the nearby village of Villamagna in 1469 and learnt his craft in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s studio where even Michelangelo, who became his friend and with whom he attended Lorenzo the Magnificent’ school in the Garden of San Marco was a pupil. Vasari dedicates one of his lives to Granacci but attributes and dates several works mistakenly to him.
Granacci’s early work was influenced by the style of Filippino Lippi. In 1508 Granacci went to Rome, where he helped Michelangelo transfer the cartoons, on which he sketched the original layout, onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Back in Florence, Granacci received various commissions: he painted a Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Jerome for the Augustinian convent of San Gallo (now in the Galleria dell ‘Accademia), the Madonna of the Girdle for the Compagnia di San Benedetto Bigi, and in 1515 he helped prepare the stage settings for the visit to Florence of Pope Leo X.
Granacci’s full artistic maturity occurred around 1519, with works such as The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (Museum of Western and Oriental Art in Odessa, Ukraine). Works of 1520-1525 betray a direct influence of Fra Bartolomeo (Madonna enthroned between St. Sebastian and St. Francis in Castelfiorentino, Sacred Conversation in Montemurlo), and there is even the influence of Raphael’s teacher, Pietro Perugino in the altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin with Four Saints ( Galleria dell ‘Accademia , Florence, 1525 ) .
For me the Madonna on display in the centre of the chapel shows Granacci at his best. Her face is quite exquisite and utterly hypnotised me with its beauty.
Granacci died in 1543 and is buried in the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Florence.
You can judge for yourselves as to whether the revaluation of Granacci’s paintings is justified here:
As for Larciani, a close contemporary of Granacci, we found his work ill-proportioned and even weird. Granacci is far to be preferred in this interesting exhibition.