Would you like to walk the Via Francigena but don't have time to travel? Fear not, for in Tuscany there are numerous pilgrimage routes, which can be completed in just a few hours. Some of these itineraries pass through large cities such as Florence, and it is here that one can explore the theme of Mary as divine mother, as approached by artists, by following our trail.
This route of Marian devotion begins with the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, one of the most important sites of the Marian cult. Before reaching the Duomo, you will encounter the sculptural symphony that is the Porta della Mandorla–a significant work of the early Renaissance by Nanni di Banco, this location was also a training ground for several different artists who would become masters including Donatello. Other stops of great note will be at Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti, at Santa Maria Maddalena de ’Pazzi, and at the Hospice of the Orbatello.
The trail starts at Santissima Annunziata, where in 1233 seven Florentine nobles chose a life of service to God, which led them to found the Order of Servants of Mary. Devoting themselves to the Virgin, they built the largest Marian shrine in Florence.
Beginning as a small oratory outside the city walls, Santa Maria in Cafaggio was to become a popular devotional site, inspiring numerous works of charity around the sanctuary. It was not long before the church was enlarged and embellished with more and more decoration.
From the square, beyond the portico and the votive chapel, you will enter the Basilica. Immediately to the left, you will notice an atmosphere of recollection and prayer surrounding the image of the Annunciation (1252). The Annunciation is enveloped by a sumptuous aedicule dating from the fifteenth century. Notice the candlelight illuminating the votive offerings laid around the venerated image.
It is said that the painter, Bartolommeo, painting the face of the Madonna, fell unconscious; on awakening he found the figure wondrously complete. This extraordinary event and the miracles associated with it make the church one of the most significant points of spiritual attraction in Florence.
In the chapel to the right of the Annunciation (which dates to the seventeenth century) you find the Journey of Saint Joseph. According to popular tradition, the intercession of the saint is invoked by the dying to ensure a good death. The episode of Saint Joseph's agony, while not to be found in the Gospels, remains closely linked to the motherhood of Mary, as it underlines the bond of love that God, pictured here from above, has made with man.
In the votive chapel, where votive offerings of thanks were displayed, you will find the life of San Filippo Benizzi, one of the Founders of the Order of Servants of Mary, immortalized in fresco. On the other side, episodes from the life of Mary are painted, among which a Visitation by Pontormo is a standout.
Of the three loggias that ring the square, the first to be built was that of the Innocenti, a famous hospital founded in 1419. The commission of building it went to Brunelleschi, who was already working on the dome of the cathedral.
The simple scheme of the large internal cloister, around which the most important spaces are distributed, and the large loggia along the main façade are signs of shelter and welcome for those who found themselves at the hospital.
Under the porch, on the left, you can still make out the window – now walled-up – with the "wheel" where children were left to be taken in. Below was once placed the "pila", a stone in the shape of a stoup, where the newborn baby was laid down and handed over to the hospital.
The first incarnation of the church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi (1256) was built in a rectangular Gothic style; at the end of the fifteenth century, the Cistercians ordered the construction of the main chapel and the twelve side chapels. The monastery was enlarged and the internal cloister and outside portico were designed by Giuliano da Sangallo. In 1628 the complex passed to the Carmelite nuns, who brought with them the uncorrupted body of Mary Magdalene de 'Pazzi, who was canonized in 1669.
Most of the paintings and beautifications that were done to decorate the chapels are the work of the painters Ciro Ferri and Luca Giordano. The Chapter Hall also houses a Crucifixion by Perugino. All the paintings, which dramatically narrate episodes of the saint's spiritual life and her mystical visions of intense direct dialogue with God, were intended to show Mary's role in the spiritual journey to the nuns and anyone who crossed the threshold of the church.
The first facility of this complex, now home to a university library, is from the second half of the fourteenth century: in a large grassy area near the Spedale degli Innocenti and the Sanctuary of the Santissima Annunziata, the wealthy Florentine Jacopo degli Alberti had an oratory and an asylum built for widows and girls without a dowry. Over the centuries, the hospice was expanded and remodelled, but was always intended to welcome single women and their children. In the 1700s it was also home to an obstetrics school, born as a result of its experience in welcoming young mothers.
The north entrance of the Cathedral is the "Porta della Mandorla" (almond door), so called because the inlaid marble relief where the Madonna is depicted has the distinctive almond shape, which evokes celestial glory. The work was executed by masters of successive generations (1391-1422), among which Nanni di Banco stands out.