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After 200 years of isolation, a Renaissance gem is back in the limelight

by Marco Carminati

When arriving in Florence by train, the first monument you come across is a masterpiece by sculptor and architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472): the marble façade of Santa Maria Novella.

The work was commissioned by textile entrepreneur Giovanni Rucellai, who was so rich that he owned an entire block just at a stone’s throw from Santa Maria Novella. Rucellai also asked Alberti to design his family palace and to build a large loggia in front of the building.
The façade of Santa Maria Novella, the Palazzo and the Rucellai Loggia are all clearly visible. But just a few steps away is a “fourth wonder” that Alberti created for Giovanni Rucellai: the Rucellai chapel in San Pancrazio, behind the Palazzo. After undergoing restoration for some time, the chapel is now open to the public again.

At its center is the white and green polychrome marble sacellum depicting the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. In the place intended for his burial, Giovanni Rucellai chose to place the reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre kept in the Jerusalem Anastasis church, a building known in Europe thanks to journals and sketches by pilgrims hailing from the Holy Land.

Alberti shaped a small architectural structure with a rectangular layout and a fake apse, and had it covered on the outside with slabs of white Carrara marble and green Prato marble.
On the roof, he placed a wooden lantern (in imitation of marble) so as to bring light to the inside.

Inside the chapel, the walls were painted in faux marble with a starry sky on the ceiling and a Pietà, a Deposition and Resurrection inside the lunettes and on the walls. All these paintings are today attributed to Giovanni da Piamonte, Piero della Francesca’s main associate in Arezzo.

Originally, Leon Battista Alberti had planned the temple as open on the aisle, to the left, through a large passage supported by two massive columns. In 1808, the church of San Pancrazio was suppressed and transformed into a Napoleonic lottery draw place (it would later be turned into barracks and ammunition depot).

In order to preserve the chapel, the Rucellais walled up Aberti’s passage and dismantled the two columns, which were later re-used and placed on the façade of the former San Pancrazio church (where they can still be admired today).

The walling up saved the chapel, as well as the temple of the Holy Sepulchre that was inside it.

Isolated for over 200 years and only accessible through a small door opening to Via della Spada, the Rucellai chapel and its temple are now again connected to the interior of the church through a modern passage, built during the restoration works, which allows to include this Renaissance gem in the exhibition itinerary of the Marino Marini Museum.


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