I happened to have some time to go for a walk the other week in an area I don't know well - through Porta a Prato towards the city center, along Borgo Ognissanti. I came across a wide piazza and on it a church with a Baroque facade, and I realized that this must be the Church of the Ognissanti (all Saints) which, for some reason, I'd never seen before!
It was late afternoon and, as I passed through the central portal and into the church, the sun was streaming dramatically through the clearstorey windows. There were three people praying (including a nun), and there was that kind of silence that hits you when you go inside these buildings that somehow perfectly block out street noise. The light, silence, and other patrons gave me the impression that I should avoid being a total tourist and just sit for a while to take in the moment.
I never really studied or visited this church because I specialized in the Renaissance and have never much liked the Baroque. But I've gained an appreciation for the Baroque over time, and this is in fact one of the earliest Baroque examples in Florence (1620s-30s) so it's really quite contained and not at all flamboyant (except for the ceiling fresco from 1770). But as I sat there admiring the play of light, I started to recall the various elements that make this place really important in art and in history.
Ognissanti is not in the strictest terms "a baroque church". An earlier version was completed in the 13th century, and in fact in the Renaissance it was a very important church. Giotto's "Ognissanti Madonna", pretty much the first work we show students in any Renaissance Art History class, sat on the high altar (it's now in the Uffizi). Ognissanti was the church of the merchant family Vespucci, whose most famous member was Amerigo; in fact, in the family's chapel there is a frescoed Madonna of Mercy by Domenico Ghirlandaio in which you can see the whole Vespucci family protected under Mary's skirts. Ghirlandaio also painted the Last Supper in the refectory (open Mon, Tues, Sat, 9-12, entrance free), which is accessed through the courtyard painted in the early 17th century.
Right next to the bench on which I was sitting was one of a pair of frescoes, now transfered to canvas, from 1480: Botticelli's Saint Augustine (on the right wall of the church) and Ghirlandaio's Saint Jerome (on the left). They were originally placed at the entrance to the friars' choir - the order here was the Franciscan-turned-Benedictine branch called Umiliati and they were dedicated to study, which is why we see these saints... in their studies.
In the Botticelli, at the top right we see a clock (at a time just before sunset, or just about when I was in the church) and behind it a book with problems of Euclidian geometry. But scribbled in the painted margins are some words that poke fun at the friars in this community: “Where is Fra Martino?” “He has slipped out.” “Where has he gone?” “He is outside the Porto al Prato.” (Source: R. Lightbown monograph on Botticelli).
Botticelli was in fact born on Borgo Ognissanti (at the modern number 28) and is buried in this church (in the right transept). Throughout his career, other than working for the Medici family, he produced many portraits for the Vespucci, including of the beautiful and eternally-young Simonetta Vespucci who died at age 18 (she was married to a man in the Vespucci family but was also Giuliano de' Medici's beloved in a spiritual way).
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