The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence, Italy, is a historically important religious site. It is one of the city’s oldest churches, with a long history extending back to the eighth century. The church is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles that has been renovated multiple times throughout the years. Its interior has a modest layout with significant artworks such as Bernardino Poccetti’s frescoes and Matteo Rosselli’s Nativity picture. The church is located at Vicolo di Santa Maria Maggiore 1 in Florence.
The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence, located in the heart of one of the world’s most attractive old districts, runs the risk of being overlooked by passing visitors. Yet it is one of the city’s oldest houses of worship, going back to the eighth century. If you find yourself going through the same-named square, on the intersection with Via de’ Cerretani, take a look at this church, which has a plain facade but an imposing interior. But most importantly, look for its severed bell tower and raise your gaze: You will encounter a renowned character who will scrutinize you in turn: A marble face emerges suddenly among the exposed stones of the ancient edifice. and no one knows, why ended up there.
The Florentines refer to her as ‘La Berta’, and it is a woman’s visage around which legends have grown over the centuries. What is he doing there, in that facade, seemingly out of context and so high up? According to the most legendary version of the narrative, it could be a supernatural punishment meted out to a woman. To find answers, we must go back to 1327, when Cecco d’Ascoli, a scientist and humanist, was sentenced to the stake for beliefs considered heretical by the Inquisition tribunal.
He was burned in Piazza Santa Croce, and on his way to the gallows, he was compelled to ‘parade’ through the city streets, passing by the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The prisoner is claimed to be begging for water. Exactly at that height, a woman – the version of the story splits here, and tells of a priest looking out of the church’s windows – harangued the crowd by saying not to give him anything to drink: according to popular belief, those convicted of witchcraft could save themselves from the flames of the fire if they drank. When the woman (or the priest) said ‘If you drink it doesn’t burn!’ or something similar, Cecco turned to her and remarked ‘And you’ll never get over it. As a result of the curse, the woman became terrified.
A less ‘magical’ but still unsubstantiated tale holds that the marble face depicts a greengrocer who donated the church a bell that she purchased with her savings. To express their gratitude, her fellow townspeople immortalized her visage on the now-severed bell tower. In reality, it is improbable that a greengrocer had the money to make such a generous present, yet this is La Berta’s happiest story.
During the 15th century, the church’s finances deteriorated; in 1514, Giulio de’ Medici depicts it as crumbling, and the next year, the pope donated it to the Florence Cathedral’s treasury. In 1521, it was given to the Carmelites of Mantua. Gherardo Silvani renovated the interior in the early 17th century, possibly as part of Bernardo Buontalenti’s project.
The interior is basic, consisting of a nave and two aisles, ogival arches, and groin vaults. Bernardino Poccetti’s frescoes (Histories of St. Zenobius in the vault), Matteo Rosselli’s Nativity, and a polychromed stucco relief panel, the Madonna del Carmelo, above the altar of the left transept chapel, have long been credited to the 13th-century artist Coppo di Marcovaldo. A recent restoration has led experts to challenge this provenance, positing an earlier, 12th-century dating for the panel. The same chapel holds Brunetto Latini’s grave, discovered in 1751, and a sarcophagus attributed to Tino di Camaino (early 14th century).
The church also housed the Carnesecchi Triptych by Masolino da Panicale and Masaccio, and the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and the Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints by Botticelli.
If you like this story, you can come with us to discover other very unique stories of Florence and its artists. We are starting our Florecne free tour from Santa Maria Novella square, meeting point in front of Minerva Hotel