San Casciano Val di Pesa
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San Casciano Museum of Sacred Arts

San Casciano Val di Pesa - museum and arts in San Casciano

San Casciano Val di Pesa
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San Casciano Val di Pesa

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Museum of Sacred Art

Villa Le Corti

Villa Torselli

The Vicarial Museum of Religious Art in San Casciano contains paintings, sculpture, furnishings and religious vestments that come from various places of worship in the district (parish churches, parishes, oratories). It offers valuable documentation on the local artistic traditions and history, as well as showing that this area has never wasted its experiences of culture or other manifestations of taste, but always been aware of and taken part in a much wider circulation of ideas.

In mediaeval times San Casciano stood on a very important meeting of the roads. Two routes in fact passed through here and, during the 13 C, were linked directly to the very important Francigena road, at a time when Florence was gradually becoming more and more powerful as the economic and political fulcrum of central Italy: one route followed the Elsa Valley from Florence and eventually reached Volterra, while the other, the so-called "Roman Road of the Chianti", passed through San Donato in Poggio and Castellina to arrive at Siena and then Rome. In this same period, in other words, before the end of the 13 C, the temporal power exercised over the town by the Bishops, who were overlords in this district, was replaced by the civil power of the City Council of Florence. The town was subsequently fortified (in the middle of the following century) and, from that moment on, the castle became one of the bulwarks of defence for the city of the lily, especially against the raids of the Siennese.

San Casciano's strategic importance, as a military outpost and for its road network, was accompanied by a lively local cultural and artistic life, judging from the large number of important paintings in the area, many of them now contained in the Museum of Religious Art. They testify to the fact that the town's position on the main trading routes led it to become a point of contact between the two most important artistic schools in Tuscany. Some of the greatest exponents of the Florentine painting worked here during the 13 C and 14 C, among them Coppo di Marcovaldo (Reredos with the Archangel St. Michael and Legendary Stories, Museum of Religious Art), Lippo di Benivieni (Madonna and Child, Museum of Religious Art) and the Master of the Horne Triptych (Madonna and Child, Museum of Religious Art). Some of the most famous artists from the 14 C Siennese school, like Simone Martini (Crucifix, Church of Santa Maria sul Prato), Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Madonna and Child, Museum of Religious Art) and Ugolino di Nerio (Madonna and Child enthroned, St. Peter and St. Francis, Church of Santa Maria sul Prato), also worked in the area.

Madonna of Vico l'Abate 1319

Madonna of Vico l'Abate 1319

The museum is housed in the Church of Santa Maria del Gesł, in one of the main streets of the town, and still open for worship, though not regularly officiated. The building, introduced by a three-arched portico, is built on a single nave, covered with a trussed roof and ends in a rectangular tribune, which can be reached through a large round arch resting on projecting cornices. A chancel, supported by stone corbels, stands on the left of the presbytery while two large 17 C altars are placed against the sidewalls of church itself. The appearance of the church today is not that of the original, but the result of a major restoration carried out between 1951 and 1952 to repair the severe bomb damage it suffered during the Second World War. In fact, only the sacristy, the sidewalls and the two altars were saved.

The church's origins date back to the mid 15 C, when Giuliano Castrucci had a hospice built here for Franciscans passing through San Casciano on pilgrimages. A chapel was built beside it and must have corresponded with what is today the sacristy. When the monks moved to their new convent outside the walls in 1492, again financed by the same generous Castrucci, the old hospice was converted into a monastery, re-named after St. Clare and given to the Poor Clare nuns, who abandoned it again only forty years later, initiating its decline. Francesco Paolsanti Lucardesi, secretary of the Grand Duke Francesco I, decided to have the group of buildings restored at the beginning of the 17 C. He dedicated the church to Santa Maria del Gesł and completely altered its structure, character and style. The convent, that once hosted the Benedictine nuns, and the church were enlarged, placed at right angles to the ancient chapel, and built on a very similar plan to the 20 C restoration and restructuring, though slightly larger, as lengthwise it also covered the surface of the portico of today. The building was abandoned during the Napoleonic suppression of 1810 until the return of the Lorraine family, while religious services were not held again until 1825, when it was entrusted to the Company of Suffrage, which still looks after the church.

The entrance to the church now also coincides with that of the museum, whose first section is situated between the altars in the large rectangular interior. Out of respect for the building's function as a place of worship, the works that were originally in the interior have remained in their places. Above the right hand altar we can find a 17 C copy of the Pucci Altarpiece by Pontormo, while a Crucifixion, also dating from the 17 C, hangs above the altar on the left. The Madonna and Child by Lippo di Benivieni, dating from the second decade of the 14 C, has been put back above the high altar where it stood when the church was restructured by Lucardesi.

The 14 C crucifix in wood in the apse, of Siennese school, is part of the museum arrangement proper that continues along the walls of the church. A 16 C copy of the Madonna Pinti by Andrea Del Sarto hangs on the right near the entrance, while further forward, after the altar, we can find a painting of St. Rochus, St. Sebastian and St. Anthony Abbot, dating from before the second decade of the same century and attributed to the so-called Master of Tavarnelle. This painter, whose identity is still under discussion, takes his name from the altarpiece now in the Museum of Religious Art at Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, today a point of reference for all the other works connected with this artist.

The next painting is a Coronation of the Virgin between Angels and Saints carried out between 1476 and 1481 by Neri di Bicci, a very prolific Florentine artist, in the latter part of his career. On the right of the altar, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child in polychrome marble, dated 1341, occupies the small space that precedes the sacristy. On the basis of the inscription on the plinth, it is attributed to an artist known as Gino Micheli.

The old sacristy beside the church contains some of the most precious exhibits in the museum. Hanging on the right hand wall we can find two of the most important works which come from the Church of Sant'Angelo a Vico l'Abate: the reredos with the Archangel St. Michael and legendary stories, attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo and dating from the 1350's, and the Madonna and Child by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1319). The same room contains a series of paintings on wood with gilded backgrounds; the oldest dates from the second decade of the 14 C and is a Madonna and Child attributed to the Master of the Horne Triptych, an anonymous minor painter of 14 C Florentine school, but gifted with a remarkable personality. Particularly interesting is the Madonna and Child by Cenni di Francesco, one of the most significant exponents of late Gothic painting in Tuscany, whose style boasts an extraordinary narrative tonality combined with chromatic and expressive vivacity.

Further along the walls we can admire the Madonna and Child between Angels and Saints by Master Francesco, the triptych with the Madonna enthroned between four saints by the Master of San Jacopo a Mucciana, the Madonna and Child by Jacopo del Casentino and the 14 C Crucifix attributed to the Master of San Lucchese, whose edges were carved in the early 15 C. The canvas of the Martyrdom of St. Lucy (late 17 C) by Giovan Camillo Ciabilli has been left in its original position above the altar, while the carved Romanesque shaft in alabaster from the Oratory of the Pievevecchia of Sugana and attributed to the anonymous Master of Cabestany stands in the centre of the room.

The last room in the museum, on the floor above, contains the section dedicated to liturgical furnishings and hangings. The earliest objects, that date from between the 14 C and 15 C, include a thurible or censer, shaped like a small temple, and a series of five processional crosses, that repeat, with few variations, traditional iconographic models: the Virgin and St. John on either side of Christ on the front and the four Evangelists on the tablets on the back, shown in various ways, either accompanied by their specific symbols or as zoomorphic creatures. These are followed by a large number of chalices, pyxes, thuribles, navicules, reliquaries and candleholders, datable up to the 19 C; some of them are beautifully designed and show excellent craftsmanship, while many bear the date of execution, the name of the purchaser and the trade mark of the workshops they came from.

We should also note the display cases containing the religious vestments, with a rich collection of copes, chasubles, under-habits and altar frontals from different periods, different materials and manufacture. The oldest examples are two Florentine made chasubles, datable between the 15 C and 16 C, a chasuble in damask and another in silk, decorated with the typical thistle flower design enclosed within phytomorphic spirals, and well documented thanks to fragments of period textiles and in paintings. Most of the hangings date from the 18th century. Special note should be made of the refined French made cope in heavy silk brocade, with delicate decorative motifs carried out on pale pink; the design and fabric was almost certainly created for profane use, perhaps even for a lady's dress.

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