San Martino a Mensola is a lovely parish church in the Renaissance style, just at the outskirts of the city of Florence. Although modest in size, its architecture is grand and it contains a number of Quattrocento altarpieces.

In 2004, Tommaso and I were married in this beautiful church. We were living in a rental home nearby – a portion of an ex-convent – and I was working on my dissertation research in art history, making daily use of the library just up the hill here at Villa i Tatti, the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies, a kind of scholarly paradise where the scent of cypress and the chirping birds actually help you concentrate on your work. In 2003, we were looking around for the perfect church in which to have a Catholic wedding, and one Sunday, while walking in the area, we found this church open and walked in. The altarpieces had me swooning immediately and we asked the priest about getting married there. I distinctly recall that they took bookings for weddings for the following year starting on November 1st, so for a few months, we started attending mass, ready to storm the priest after Sunday service on the appropriate date. Don Carlo was a wonderful man, a priest we got to know well as we did our pre-marriage preparation with him.

At the altar of San Martino a Mensola – May 15 2004

In preparation for our wedding service, I was expected to write a booklet with the prayers etc. to hand out to guests. Being the art historian that I was, I felt it most important to include some historic information about the church to delight my guests – most of my friends at the time were also art historians. I found nothing on the internet, but luckily was able to find some information in books at the Berenson Library at i Tatti.

The following text was printed in two languages in my wedding book.

To the back of the church is a lovely field and walking path

The first church of San Martino a Mensola dated to the Roman era, though it was already in ruin by the ninth century when a bishop of Fiesole, S. Andrew of Scotland, ordered its restoration around the year 816. Very little remains now of the ninth century form, as the church was already in ruins again by 1300.

A major rebuilding programme, from 1451 to 1472, gave the building the Brunelleschian form we enjoy today. The loggia is, however, seventeenth century. The church was heavily damaged in the second world war, but Bernard Berenson came to the rescue; his famous Villa i Tatti (now the Harvard Centre for Italian Renaissance studies) is just up the hill. Restorations in the 1970’s and another around 2003 have repristined the church and made it the Renaissance jewel that it is today.

The church’s simple yet grand interior, with white walls punctuated by grey “pietra serena”, is divided into three aisles. The central bay terminates in a Renaissance square apse, while the two side aisles have round apses of Romanesque origin. San Martino has five chapels which all host important fourteenth- and fifteenth-century works of art.

The paintings at San Martino a Mensola

From the entrance of the church, let’s walk up the left aisle (clockwise) and discover the chapels:

To your left is the Ubaldini chapel with a Madonna and Saints by Neri di Bicci, commissioned in 1477.

Neri di Bicci

To the left of the high altar stands a lovely Annunciation once attributed to Fra Angelico but probably the work of Zanobi Machiavelli. Its pure Renaissance form mirrors that of the church itself.

Annunciation

The family crest of the Zati, patrons of the apsidal chapel, is visible in many places in the church. The altarpiece is by the “Master of San Martino a Mensola”, identified by Luciano Bellori with Francesco di Michele, a Florentine painter active at the end of the 15th century. Underneath the high altar is an important reliquary of the Benedictine abbot St. Andrew of Scotland, with tempera paintings by the school of Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1389).

To the right of the high altar, the Betti chapel houses a beautiful Madonna Enthroned with Saints Lucy and Margaret by Taddeo Gaddi, a work from around 1340, but cut down to its rectangular format in the Quattrocento in order to enter the frame by Cosimo Rosselli. We know that this altarpiece belonged in the church prior to the 15th-c restorations because of the unusual presence of exclusively female saints. This would have been appropriate as a commission from the nuns who, at that time, lived in the nunnery adjacent to this church.

To the right of the entrance is a painting by an unknown Florentine painter from the first half of the Cinquecento (near the school of Cosimo Rosselli?), a Virgin with saints Andrew and Sebastian.

There is a nicely restored crypt with an important reliquary.

Crypt of San Martino a Mensola

Bibliography:
Melli, Lorenza. “Restauri nella Chiesa di San Martino a Mensola a Firenze,” in Kermes (no. 36 supplemento), 1999.
Raspini, Giuseppe. San Martino a Mensola. La Chiesa, il museo, il monastero (Firenze: Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 1977).

To reach the church, take ATAF bus number 10 to the bus stop “Mensola” and the church will be on the hill in front of you.

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