Borgo Ognissanti

Borgo Ognissanti, 1:00 p.m. Monday, 19 June 1995. Photo Bruscoli

At the beginning of the twelfth century, near the beginning of the era of the "comuni", Borgo Ognissanti was located outside the city wall (see the city plan in this time). A low-lying area divided by water channels, it was a natural and appropriate location considering the waste of the numerous leather tanneries. The consequent damage to the waters of the river was minimal where from here the water carried out to sea. By the fourteenth century, the area had been incorporated within the city walls (see the city plan in this time). Of the leather workers of Borgo Ognissanti, historian Piero Bargellini recalls Sandro di Mariano Filipepi, called Botticello or Botticelli.

It is in this marshy area, it is enough to think of the nearby street still called via del Pantano (Marsh Street), that the brothers of the Umiliati, the Franciscan brothers and the other woollen cloth makers had chosen the right place for the quantity of water necessary in the manufacture of wool. It is probably to them that the name of the street should be attributed: Ognissanti from that of the convent's church, dedicated to San Salvatore and Mary, Queen of all Saints.

The origin of the street was therefore poor but industrious and destined to become an artery of primary importance due to its vicinity to the bridge of Carraia (called this because of its continuous passage of carriages loaded with bales of wool), and not far from the city gate to Prato where the livestock market was located.

Borgo Ognissanti and its illustrious inhabitants: Sandro Botticelli and the Vespucci family

If some places seem more appropriate than others to picking up the thread of history, Borgo Ognissanti certainly owes this characteristic to its artisan connotation, to the alacritous fervour of its wool, leather, and silk shops. Further, it was close to the river, with boat easy landings and perhaps especially, for finding itself in the "basin" of the city. The artisans chose this area to ease restrictions and complaints which at that time were already being heard against those who dumped the waste products of their work (leather tanning bleaching cloth, etc.) in the Arno river. In this climate of the quarter's growth, only recently enclosed within the city walls, important co-ordinates cross which appear the work of knowing hands, used to designing the destinies of man.

The painter Sandro Filipepi, a.k.a. Botticelli (1445-1510) is certainly one of the most illustrious inhabitants of Borgo Ognissanti. In his time, the Vespucci hospital (the hospital which passed on to the followers of San Giovanni di Dio at the end of the XVI Century) was already established. Let's go in order however and say a few words about Sandro, son of a leather worker of Borgo Ognissanti, and known to history as Botticelli, the name which he took from Giovanni, his older brother.

It is interesting to note in a fiscal report of 1458, that Sandro of Mariano Filipepi, at the time of 13 years is described thus: "he just reads, and he's sickly". Botticelli seems to have owed his fortune to his ill health as a youngster which gave him the possibility to leave his father's workshop and cultivate his own interests; his physical frailty became a strength of expression. Young Sandro went to Fra Filippo Lippi's workshop and then, from 1463 to 1470 to that of Verrocchio. But Sandro was also under the influence of a certain Baldovinetti and of Antonio del Pollaiolo.

The greatest interpreter of the cultural environment of the Medici era, it is said that Botticelli knew how to give to his figures a spiritual and moral content. Florence preserves many of his works and others are present in other cities. Botticelli was rather prolific; for example, in 1481, he was in Rome working on several paintings for the Sistine Chapel. In that same year he was also in Florence working on the fresco of the Annunciation for the Church of S. Martino alla Scala, in his own quarter of Santa Maria Novella behind Borgo Ognissanti. Speaking of frescoes, his first work of this sort is of Saint Augustine in the Church of Ognissanti, his own church. Ognissanti is also the great artist's burial place as a burial marker attests which is located in the chapel of Saint Peter of Alcantara.

In the church of Ognissanti we also find remnants of the Vespucci family's past. Their story intermingles with that of the Hospitaller Order of San Giovanni di Dio, the leader being a native of Portugal and active in Spain. Perhaps only by chance, but we can't help to note that the Hospitaller Order ended up occupying a hospital founded by a Vespucci, one certain Simone, great uncle to Amerigo (1451-1512), merchant and agent, as it seems of the Medici bank in Seville. From 1499 and 1500 in the service of Spain, Amerigo, together with Alonso de Ojeda discovered the mouth of the Amazon river after having anchored in French Guyana on their way to Cape S. Rocco.

The Church of Ognissanti in Borgo Ognissanti still has a statue inlaid in "pietra serena" with two frescoes, early works of Domenico Ghirlandaio. One represents the Madonna della Misericordia and the Vespucci family, together with Saint Antonino under the protective mantle of Mary. The family emblem appear on the sides of the altar. Three other branches of the Vespucci family had their own altars in the rest of the church. One branch, the Nastagio, owned an altar a short distance from the choir on the right side. It was probably they who commissioned the previously mentioned Botticelli fresco of Saint Augustine.

The Church of Ognissanti is located in Borgo Ognissanti in Florence, in the heart of Tuscany, the point of contact between memories which connect the universal art of Botticelli, the international fame of the Vespucci and names and places (Spain, the convent of Ognissanti) the brothers of the Hospitaller Order of San Giovanni di Dio, working for the support of the sick throughout the world.

The convent of the Umiliati of Borgo Ognissanti

The Order of the Umiliati of the 13th century and originating in Lombardy grew powerful in the fight against heresy. Florence, (just to give co-ordinates for a better understanding of the event) recognised two companies, initiated for "defending the faith": the Society of Novella of Santa Maria, later called Misericordia, whose work has continued to this day and that of the Captains of Bigallo, who looked over the health care activities of the hospitals up to and through the 18th century.

The Umiliati, lay-people of both sexes, living like religious folk in poverty and humility, moved to Florence upon invitation of Bishop Ardingo Trotti (not by chance from Pavia in Lombardy) in 1239 and they established themselves in the area now known as Novoli in the Cistercian monastery of San Donato a Torri "in Polverosa". Skilled in the production of wool of which Florence at the time was rated best for quality and production, these people took the opportunity granted to them by the bishop in 1251 to move to the area of the Chapel of Santa Lucia on the "Prato d'Ognissanti" an area rich in water, necessary for the working of woollen cloth.

In 1278 they had become highly esteemed for the construction of a small portico along the Arno river and for a number of houses for the artisans, many of them in this part of the city.

In 1359 they saw to the construction of another convent in Montughi.

The Umiliati remained in Borgo Ognissanti until 1561. With the demise of the heretics and the change in the artisan's focus from wool to silk the Umiliati decided to leave the convent. Their place was filled by the friars minor of Saint Francis and the Umiliati moved on to the convent of Saint Catherine where the Franciscans had formerly resided. Upon arrival in Ognissanti, the new residents began the restoration of the church and convent.

Borgo Ognissanti, detta così per essere al suo sorgere fuori della cerchia muraria del XII secolo, la prima dell'epoca comunale ( vedi schema della pianta cittadina a quest'epoca), occupava ancora nel XIV e XV secolo, quando era ormai inclusa nella seconda ed ultima cerchia ( vedi schema della pianta della città al 1284 ), un terreno basso, solcato da fossi nei quali sfociavano i rifiuti dei numerosi conciatori di pelli che trovavano giustamente luogo in questa parte a valle, per così dire, della città dove minore era il danno portato alle acque del fiume che da qui in poi si avviavano al mare. Tra i " galigai " della zona di Borgo Ognissanti, lo storico Piero Bargellini ricorda Sandro di Mariano Filipepi detto Botticello o Botticelli .

(Last updated: Tuesday 26 September 1995)
Copyright © 1995 by Associazione San Giovanni di Dio