The Andrea del Sarto frescoes of the Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence

The Chiostro della Scalzo (Via Cavour, 69) is a cloister in Florence, that originally led to a chapel once belonging to a religious company known as the Compagnia del diciplinati di San Giovanni Battista or della Passione di Cristo. The term “scalzo” makes reference to the barefoot brother who carried the cross during its public processions.

“Compagnia” was the name given to these Florentine congregations of layman who contributed towards defending Roman Catholicism. Each company had a different practice: the “Laudesi” promoted prayer through the singing of hymns; those for the doctrine taught catechism to children; while the charitable companies offered assistance to the poor. The Compagnia della Scalzo was a disciplined confraternity that practiced penance, often in the form of self-flagellation.

The Compagnia was established in 1376, and used the church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri on the via San Gallo as early as 1390 for its meetings. When the company purchased land behind this church in the first half of the 15th century, it took a step toward creating its own premises, which included a chapel (consecrated in 1476, but then totally renovated), the cloister and entrance (1478) still visible today. Back in 1455, it underwent a reform approved by the bishop of Florence, Antoninus, who was made saint in 1523 and who is portrayed in the painted terra-cotta bust now placed in front of the former doorway that led to the chapel.

The brothers wore black hoods with eye holes in a heavy, black over garment tied around the waist with a white cord; such apparel is documented in the polychrome glazed terra-cotta relief depicting St. John the Baptist and Two Brothers (1510 c.) over the entrance to the cloister from via Cavour. Every first Sunday of the month the company organized a procession and every June 24, the festivities in honor of the city’s and its own patron saint, John the Baptist, which today see events like the famous fireworks (I fochi di san Giovanni).

The Cloister
The space of the rectangular-shaped cloister was once divided by 6 columns; in bad weather, a straw mat was attached to cover the opening in the slanted roof. Wooden benches lined the walls.

Around 1508-1509, Andrea del Sarto, who was a member of the Scalzo, received a commission from the brothers to paint a series of murals in grisaille, tones of grey, with scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. He worked on these for many years, interrupting his work on a number of occasions. In 1518-1519, while in France, Andrea was replaced by Francesco di Cristofano who painted two of the scenes. Andrea del Sarto completed the Scalzo cycle in 1526.

In 1722, architect Pietro Giovannozzi made substantial modifications to the original structure by adding the groin vault ceiling, the broken pediments over the doors and the four double columns at the corners. The lunettes that were created from the new vaults were decorated in a style that tried to imitate the 16th-century style of the frescoes. when the company was suppressed in 1786, part of the chapel which opened up on what is today via Cavour and the cloister was acquired by Pietro Leopoldo of Lorraine, Grand Duke of Tuscany, while the rest of the property, which included the church, was put up for sale and refitted for other purposes. The cloister was then under the control of the Accademia di Belle Arti before being taken over by the government which opened the Scalzo to the public in 1891. It remained closed for many years and was finally reopened in 1995, when the detached and restored frescoes were reinstalled.

The Frescoes
The murals comprise twelve scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist and form a narrative that begins to the right of the entrance. The first scene is the Annunciation to Zachary (1523), followed by The Visitation (1524), then The Birth of the Baptist (1526), The Blessing of the Young St. John (1519), Meeting of Jesus and the Young St. John the Baptist in the Desert (1518), The Baptism of the Christ (ca. 1509-1510), The Baptist Preaching to the Crowds (1515), The Baptism of the Crowds (1517), St. John’s Capture (1517), The Dance of Salome (1522), The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (1523), and The Presentation of the Head of St. John the Baptist (1523). The date of each scene does not follow the narrative sequence.

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