art and spirituality in Florence
On the South of the city, at the top of the Monte Acuto, Florence is guarded by the monumental structure of the Certosa del Galluzzo, the Carthusian monastery established here at the end of the fourteenth century; the place of silence, meditation and spirituality.
I love visiting this place and I often suggest the visit to the Certosa to my guests, who want to discover less-known corners of Florence. During the visit the monastery reveals its fascinating story. We almost touch the everyday routine of the Carthusian monks, who took care of this place for so many centuries.
Join me for a virtual tour of this unique and fascinating place!
Brief history of the Certosa
The Certosa was built thanks to a generous donation made in 1341 by a Florentine patrician, Niccolò Acciaioli. Acciaioli was a prominent figure in Florence. He made a brilliant career at the court of the King of Naples, Robert of Anjou. He was King’s Robert Grand Seneschal and carried the title of the Vice King of Puglia.
Because of his tight relationship with the French dynasty of Anjou, he decided to promote the foundation in Florence of a monastery of the French order of Carthusians, one of the most strict monastic orders in the Western Christendom. The life of a Carthusian monk is fully dedicated to prayer, spiritual meditation and study and it is conducted in solitude and isolation as the monks pass most of their life in their cells.
The spirituality of the Carthusian monks, which seems so distant from the requirements of our modern world, can teach us how to take a break from our hectic routine.
Saint Bruno of Cologne
The Carthusian order was established at the end of the eleventh century by Saint Bruno of Cologne. Bruno, priest and chancellor of the Archdiocese of Reims, after having experienced a strong politicisation of the Catholic clergy, wanted to promote a spiritual reform of the Catholic Church.
At one point of his career, Bruno decided to abandon the hierarchy of the clergy and to dedicate his life to prayer and meditation, abandoning the earthly worries and occupations. With the help of the Bishop of Grenoble, Hugh of Châteauneuf, in 1084 Bruno established his first monastery, where he lived with the six brothers who followed him to a remote area of the Dauphiné Alps, at Chartreuse, not far from Grenoble.
The brothers built there a little oratory and individual cells, where they conducted their life in solitude and poverty passing their days praying, studying and meditating.
Bruno continued his mission by establishing a Certosa in Calabria in Italy, today’s Serra San Bruno, where he died and was buried in 1101.
Between 1121 and 1128 the prior of the order, Guigues I, wrote the Consuetudines Cartusiae, a set of rules for the Carthusian monks to follow, based on the Benedictine monastic rule. With the passing of centuries the Carthusian family continued to grow. New monasteries were established in Italy, France and in the other European countries and in 1360s the Carthusians moved into the newly constructed Certosa in Florence.
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The structure of the Carthusian monastery
The Carthusian monasteries around the world all follow a similar structural organization dictated by the Carthusian daily routine and they repeat the example of the first monastery at Chartreuse. From the outside the monasteries resemble little fortresses as they are surrounded by a wall dividing it from the external world.
The monks live their life in their cells, which resemble little apartments, with a bedroom, a study room and a little, private garden. The cells are located around a vast cloister. In the middle of the cloister there is a cemetery, where the monks are buried after their death.
The central part of each monastery is also a church, where the monks gather for a conventual mass. Once a week their also meet to discuss theology in a small meeting room, while the important issues of the order are discussed in the chapter house. The Carthusian monks eat their meals in solitude, in their cells, but they meet for a common dinner on Sundays, this is why the monastery houses also a refectory.
Each community of the Carthusians is supported by a group of lay brothers, who assist the monks in their everyday life. Their cook their meals, clean and do the laundry, provide them with food and deal with daily issues. The lay brothers live in the monastery, but strictly separated from the brothers. They assist to the conventual masses but avoid any direct contact with the monks.
The monastery also possesses a vast library, which provides the monks with the books for their studies.
The Palazzo Acciaioli
The Florentine Certosa del Galluzzo follows this common model with just one exception. Just after the entrance to the monastery the visitor notices a monumental palace, with a beautiful staircase leading to the entrance.
This is the Palazzo Acciaioli, where the founder of the monastery, Niccolò Acciaioli, wanted to pass the last years of his life, far from the world, its intrigues and politics. Moreover, this ambitious erudite wanted to build at the Certosa yet another building, which was supposed to host a school with a college for 50 students and teachers. Unfortunately, due to the insufficient funding and the death of Niccolò in 1365 these ambitious projects could not be concluded. After the death of their patron and supporter, the monks preferred not to include lay activities in their monastery and the vast building was used for the monks’ needs.
The monastic church at the Certosa reflects the requirements of the Carthusian community. It was built and decorated in various phases, between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries.
The church is divided in two sectors, the one reserved for the monks close to the main altar, and the one for the lay brothers at the entrance. The two parts of the church are visually separated and his way the monks don’t risk to enter in direct contact with the lay brothers. The rule is strict. The monks live in solitude and isolation and should avoid any contact with the members of their community.
Behind the main altar you can admire a beautiful fresco representing the funeral of Saint Bruno, painted between 1591 and 1593 by Bernardino Poccetti. The painter imagined an interior of a church with the saint’s sarcophagus in the middle. Bruno is surrounded by the brothers who gathered to worship him.
Christ descends from the heavens and receives Saint Bruno’s soul, lifted to the heavens by the angels. It is a typical example of the art from the age of Counterreformation, where the miracle, the clouds and the heavens were meant to enchant the viewers.
In the choir area you will see the beautiful wooden stalls carved by a Florentine workshop between 1570 and 1590. Each armrest is decorated with a little cherub, sculpted with a surprising detail. The decoration of the church is sober but elegant.
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The chapter house
From the church you can enter into the narrow space of the meeting room, where once a week the monks used to meet and discuss theology and moral matters. The room will lead you to a small cloister where the refectory and the chapter house are located.
The Chapter house is a rectangular room where the prior of the order used to meet with the brothers to discuss the current issues regarding their congregation.
The chapter house at the Galluzzo became the burial place for one of the priors of the monastery, Leonardo Buonafè. The monk was buried in front of the altar and his funerary monument was sculpted in 1550 by Francesco di Giuliano da Sangallo, a member of a famous Florentine family of sculptors and architects.
Bonafè, who was appointed Bishop of Vieste and Bishop of Cortona, returned to his beloved monastery at Galluzzo at the end of his. His tomb is humble and simple and reflects the ideals of poverty and simplicity. The monk, in his bishop’s mitre, lays on the ground. His effigy is sculpted with a surprising realism, without a hint of idealisation. We can see his elderly, tired hands, the wrinkles on his forehead, the falling cheeks and his teethless mouth. Leonardo rests for eternity worshiping Christ’s Crucifixion painted on the main altar.
The monks’ apartments
The small cloister of the meetings is directly connected with the main cloister of the monastery, where the monks’ apartments and the cemetery are located.
The Carthusian brothers used to spend most of their life in their single cells, similar to the little houses. Inside each cell the space of ca. 50 m2 was divided into a bedroom, a study room, a little corridor and a staircase leading into a private garden, where each monk could do, just like Saint Joseph, little carpentry works.
The monks passed the entire day in total isolation and even the meals were served them to their rooms. They used to meet for a common meal only of Sundays and during the Festivities. The meals in their cells were served by the lay brothers but, in order to avoid any contact between the monks and the brothers, each cell had a little window in the front wall where the plate was placed in full anonymity.
In the middle of the cloister you will see two little cemeteries, where the monks and the lay brothers were buried. They were buried in the separate areas, just as they lived separately during their life.
The cloister is very sober and simple. Only between the arcades you can see the little round terracotta busts representing saints and prophets. They were executed by the workshop of Giovanni della Robbia around 1523.
Pontormo at the Certosa del Galluzzo
In 1523 Florence was hit but a violent epidemic of Bubonic plague. The spread of the disease pushed many people towards the countryside, in search of fresh air and a healthy environment. Among the fugitives was a famous Florentine painter, Jacopo da Pontormo, who with his pupil Bronzino, tried to escape the plague hiding himself at the Certosa. To express his gratitude for the monks’ hospitality, Pontormo decorated the main cloister of the monastery with the lunettes representing Christ’s Passion. These unique works are displayed today in the picture gallery inside the Palazzo Acciaioli.
Because of the long exposure to rain and air, the frescoes are preserved in bad conditions, but on the walls of the gallery we can also admire the later copies of these works, which give us an idea of their original style.
The scenes are truly surprising and they prove a strong influence of the Northern European style on Pontormo’s art during the 1520s. The compositions are crowded, and seem unorganized. The perspective and proportions are not always respected. In his composition the artist focused on the representation of sorrow and grief, so characteristic to the art of Albrecht Dürer and the Northern masters.
Pontormo’s cycle reflects this particular sensibility arose in the first years of the Reformation and strongly influenced by Erasmus of Rotterdam’s thought, resulting in a more sober and anticlassical approach to the religious art. Pontormo’s frescoes express tension, emotions, fear and distress, which characterized this stormy period in the European history.
Pius VI at the Certosa del Galluzzo
The remote position of the Certosa and the solitary life of the monks made of this place a perfect location for a forced residence of the Church dignitaries. Here, between 1 June 1798 and 23 march 1799 lived the Pope Pius VI, who was then prisoner of Napoleon. The pope lived in the monastery’s guesthouse, located next to the church.
The Carthusian order lived in the monastery until 1958, when the Certosa passed in the hands of the Cistercians. Today this incredible heritage of spirituality and art is looked after by a lay Community of Saint Leonino.
A visit to the Certosa is a magical journey, which allows us to slow down, reflect and reconnect with ourselves, far from the noisy rush of Florence.
Do you want to visit Certosa? Contact me! I will be happy to organize your private tour of the monastery!