Tabernacles are a typical decoration of ancient streets and squares of Florence: there are still over 1200 of them, of various times and styles.
The quarters of Oltrarno have mantained a large number of tabernacles: some of them are real artworks.

History - Pictures


Ancient Roman cities were decorated with small temples and altars dedicated to gods who should protect citizens and travellers. This religious element was carried on after the conversion to Christianity and portaits of saints replaced those of the pagan gods.
In Florence tabernacles became very important around 1200, as an effective weapon during religious struggles of the time: catholic Florentines fought against heresy also decorating façades of houses, shops, buildings and streets with sacred images. These paintings portrayed almost exclusively the Madonna, but at the beginnings of 1300 other subjects begun to be painted as well. The tabernacles served as altars, and candles were lit on them in order to testify the devoutness of the citizens - and to provide light during the night.
Since 15th Century all Florentine guilds, churches, monasteries and rich merchants commissioned artists (including the most famous ones) with the painting of images or tabernacles, in order to show their devoutness and their might, and all important streets leading outside of Florence were decorated with tabernacles with paintings of the Madonna in throne.
Many citizens could not afford to build a tabernacle with a painting of a great artist: this moved the della Robbia, Donatello and other famous artists to use moulds for "industrial" production of terracotta or ceramics figures, and since 18th Century also low-cost prints were available: such cheap sacred images explain the great quantity of tabernacles built by ordinary citizens.
At the end of 19th Century the city of Florence underwent a wide demolition in order to create new streets and squares: a great number of ancient churches, palaces and towers were destroyed, along with their tabernacles. Many images decorating these tabernacles are lost, but many were saved by antiquarian Stefano Bardini, who placed them in Palazzo dei Mozzi (today: Museo Bardini). A real interest in tabernacles begun only after World War II, and since 1950 the tabernacles of Florence have been studied and restored.


A small gallery of different types of tabernacles found in the streets of Oltrarno:

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 Via S. Spirito, corner with Via del Presto di S. Martino

Stone tabernacle (17th Century) con statua della Madonna (19th Century). A typical baroque tabernacle. The plaster statue of the Madonna has probably replaced a more ancient figure.
Under the statue is the coat of arms of the Vettori Capponi family, on whose palace the tabernacle has been built.
This tabernacle has recently been restored (1998) with the sponsorship of the surrounding shop-keepers.

 Santo Spirito square, corner with Via delle Caldaie

Wooden tabernacle (19th Century) with a copy (19th Century) after Perugino. The tabernacle is located on the façade of the palace of the Dati family, whose coat of arms is still visible on the corner of the palace.
At the beginning of 20th Century a plaster figure of 15th Century (a Madonna with Child) has been reported as decoration of the tabernacle, but this figure has been replaced in 1909 with a painting made after an original exposed in the Palatine Gallery in Palazzo Pitti.

 Via Santa Monaca, corner with Via dei Serragli

Stone tabernacle with fresco (14th Century). According to Vasari the fresco (a Madonna with Child and the Saints Paolo and Gerolamo) is a work by Bicci di Lorenzo. Between the two Saints a small figure can be seen: the commissioner of the fresco.
The tabernacle survived the changes and restructurations that modified the palace during the years, and in 19th Century under the fresco was added the notice «Painted by M. Lorenzo Bicci in 1427».
The fresco has been restored in 1980.

 Via del Leone, corner with Via della Chiesa

Tabernacle with fresco (first halfth of 14th Century).This ancient fresco had long been hidden behind a grating: only in 1908 it was discovered and restored a first time.
The tabernacle was dedicated to the «Madonna of the plague», and was probably built as a thanksgiving for the end of the plague in 1348. Its original location was Piazza Santo Spirito (from where it was moved in 18th Century), and the fresco is ascribed to Giottino (1365-70) or to Nardo di Cione.
The original fresco has been restored a second time in 1958 and then replaced by a replica.

 Via d'Ardiglione, corner with Via Santa Monaca

Stone tabernacle (19th Century). A good example for a 19th Century tabernacle, with a straight stone frame and a grating protecting a sacred image: in this case it is a terracotta tondo (an imitation of Della Robbia's figures) portraying a Madonna with the Child.

 Via San Miniato, corner with Via dei Bastioni

Stone tabernacle with fresco (17th Century). This tabernacle is remarkable for its stone frame. The fresco shows a Madonna in throne with the Child and dates to early 17th Century.
The tabernacle has been restored in 1980; in origin in was probably completed by wooden panels protecting the fresco.

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