A small loan exhibit of works from the Uffizi are the perfect excuse to visit the Oratorio di Santa Caterina in Bagno a Ripoli (Ponte a Ema), a late medieval frescoed gem that I’ve been meaning to check out for years.

Oratory interior with exhibit on lower walls
Oratory interior with exhibit on lower walls

Oratorio di Santa Caterina

A rustic looking, simple building in the Florentine countryside betrays a particularly beautiful and early fresco cycle. The setting is via della Carota, in Bagno a Ripoli, now a wealthy suburb and home to the city’s main International School. The Alberti family built the building around 1354 (they had a villa not far away).

External view of the Oratorio di Santa Caterina in Bagno a Ripoli
External view of the Oratorio di Santa Caterina in Bagno a Ripoli

The simple building indicates a single nave interior. Wikipedia claims that the exterior was frescoed, though the oratory’s official website makes no mention of it; it seems to me that it would be unusual to do so.

The interior features a colourful fresco cycle about the life of the Martyr-Saint Catherine of Alexandria, known as “delle Ruote” (of the wheel). The scholar, princess and Christian convert was sentenced to death on a spiked wheel, which broke at her miraculous touch, so she was beheaded instead. Her story is told in Jacopo da Varagine, and this text is the basis for the frescoes.

The artists involved in this fresco cycle are direct decendents of some of the most important artists in this period: the Maestro di Barberino was student of Orcagna, and along with Pietro Nelli, descendent of Daddi, they began the painting and completed most of the high altar in the 1370s. About 20 years later, another member of the Alberto family hired Spinello Aretino continue decorating the church; the already famous artist was also working on another Alberti commission at San Miniato al Monte in Florence at the time.

Women and Music Exhibit

The current exhibit set up at the Oratory is called Con dolce forza. Donne nell’universo musicale del Cinque e Seicento– Women in music in the 16th and 17th centuries. As women in the Renaissance is a topic I’m particularly interested in, I headed out on a beautiful spring day to see the exhibit and go for a walk down via della Carota as well.

Marietta Robusti, self portrait
Marietta Robusti, self portrait

The exhibit is set up in just the single room of the oratory, but is worth the visit for the spectacular frescoes as well as for the neatly curated and excellent works lent from the Uffizi. Curator Laura Donati says: “The numerous aspects of womens’ roles in music are represented here – singing, playing instruments, composition but also patronage – through paintings, engravings, drawings and precious printed books. The exhibit is also an opportunity to appreciate, outside of their normal context, original works by great masters of the Florentine Seicento such as Cristofano Allori, Francesco Furini, Cesare Dandini and Stefano della Bella.”

The star of, as well as inspiration for the show is a self-portrait by Marietta Robusti, known as “Tintoretta“, the much loved daughter of Jacopo Tintoretto. She shows herself at a spinet and holding a book of music containing a madrigal. She worked with her father and two brothers, and gained fame on her own, though proposals to work at foreign courts were promptly refused by her father, forcing Marietta to specialize in portraiture, as did many women artists of the time. She was married to a local jeweler and died young, in 1590 (some say in childbirth, others a tumor), death that sent her father into a profound depression.

Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait
Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait

The other important painting gathered here is the tiny self portrait of Lavinia Fontana at the Spinet. There are five known self-portraits of the Bolognese artist. This marriage portrait from 1577 shows that the artist chose to show herself, like Tintoretta, in line with ideals of female skill and beauty. Dressed carefully, sporting jewels, sitting at an instrument, yet she also includes her easel in the background, perhaps refering to her career and ability to contribute to the household economy. For a more in-depth reading of this and the artist’s other self-portraits, see Monica’s article on Alberti’s Window.

Both female portraits are compared, in this exhibition, to printed books that use the paintings as starting points for the engraved portraits that represent them. In addition, we can observe books of music and prints of stage designs, all related to this ambience. Two other paintings are portraits of Checca Costa, a singer in the Medici court, and Vittoria della Rovere, mother of Granduke Cosimo III and great patron of the arts.


Below, a photo from a walk down the street from the Oratory

Un post condiviso da Alexandra Korey (@arttrav) in data:

Visitor Information

Con dolce forza. Donne nell’universo musicale del Cinque e Seicento.

Oratory of Santa Caterina, Ponte a Ema / Bagno a Ripoli

Until May 13, 2018
Open Tues-Sun, 10 to 18:30
€5 entry

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