Giuliano Ghelli Museum at San Casciano

The Museum of San Casciano first opened inside the Church of Santa Maria del Gesù, or the Suffragio, and rooms adjacent to it, in 1989. In 2008 it was enlarged with new rooms taken from the former administrative offices and other spaces inside the ancient convent of Benedictine nuns, who lived here from the 17th to the 19th century; the church, still used for services, continues to be part of the museum route. The collection of works of religious art on the ground floor was completed by sections on archaeology and primitive dwellings on the first and second floors.
The religious art section is devoted to works that come from the churches in the borough of San Casciano. The decision to move them from their original sites, no longer used for services, was dictated by a need to protect them, as it was impossible to monitor their environmental conditions and prevent possible theft and deterioration, which instead could only be ensured within a constantly controlled structure. The collection includes paintings, sculpture, gold and silverwork and objects of liturgical use, religious vestments and the “little clothed Madonnas” carried out between 13th and 20th centuries.The oldest work in the Museum is the shaft decorated with four scenes of the Nativity of Christ in relief, carried out by the so-called Master of Cabestany, a sculptor active in around the second half of the 12th century in the North of Spain, the South of France and Tuscany. The shaft comes from the old Parish Church or Pieve Vecchia of San Giovanni in Sugana, and, in the 19th century, was used as a holy water stoup. It is thought that the sculpture originally came from the Abbey of Sant’Antimo near Montalcino (SI), where a capital by the same artist can still be seen.The priceless painting on wood of the Archangel St. Michael, attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo, was carried out only a little later and is one of the most important testimonials of Florentine painting prior to Cimabue. This work comes from the Church of Sant’Angelo a Vico l’Abate and narrates the legend of the protagonist in six scenes that include episodes like the Defeat of the Rebel Angels and the Apparition on Mount Gargano in the form of a bull. The very dark background we note in the painting today is due to the loss of its delicate silver leaf.The other masterpiece in the Museum is the splendid Madonna and Child by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, which again comes from the Church of Sant’Angelo. The date of 1319 in the votive inscription at the bottom makes it the Sienese painter’s oldest known work. After training in his brother Pietro’s workshop, he spent some time in Florence, where he had the chance of discovering the innovative style of artists like Giotto and Arnolfo di Cambio. The fact that two such masterpieces were kept in a small country church was because it was under the patronage of the powerful Abbey of Passignano near Tavarnelle.The Museum contains other 14th century Madonna and Child’s: in particular the fine painting by Lippo di Benivieni, perhaps placed in its original position above the high altar in the Church of the Suffragio, and others by the Master of the Horne Triptych from San Colombano at Bibbione, by Cenni di Francesco from San Martino at Argiano, and the centre part of a triptych by the Master of Sant’Jacopo at Mucciana from the church of this name.A large group of works comes from the Parish Church of San Giovanni in Sugana and include, in particular, the mid 14th century Crucifix by the Master of San Lucchese and the Coronation of the Virgin by Neri di Bicci of 1476-1481; the painting on wood with Saints Anthony Abbot, Sebastian and Rochus, with a view of Cerbaia in the background by the Master of Tavarnelle, comes instead from the older Parish Church, like the sculpture by the Master of Cabestany.The great Della Robbia altarpiece of the Assumption being taken up to heaven by the angels (early 16th century) is one of the Museum’s most recent acquisitions and comes from the workshop of Benedetto Buglioni. It came originally from the Church of Santa Maria at Casavecchia, testified by the Casavecchia family coats of arms, formed of three golden lilies on a blue ground, situated on either side of the base, which bears scenes from the Baptism of Christ and the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. The late 17th century painting of a Miracle of St. Nicholas of Bari, attributed to Pier Dandini, was removed previously from the same church.The priceless collections of religious vestments, goldsmithery, reliquaries and liturgical objects with artefacts were carried out from the 16th century onwards. The collection of “little clothed Madonnas” is particularly original, the result of an unusual form of worship dating from the 17th century onwards: these wood or straw figures or wax statues are dressed in clothes made of precious fabrics, often the gift of devout ladies.The Church of the Suffragio was founded as a “hospice” by travelling Franciscan monks in the 15th century, but owes its name to the presence of a company of lay brothers who, from the early 19th century, met here in prayer and were dedicated to helping the needy. The building was destroyed by bombing in July 1944, only to be reconstructed some ten years later. The room created in what was formerly the chapel, which gives onto the nuns’ choir, still boasts an altar in local grey stone, topped by the large canvas of the Martyrdom of St. Lucy (late 17th century), attributed to Giovan Camillo Ciabilli.
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“... Shacks and huts made of the trunks and branches of trees were the first form of production of this art ... the houses of the people that we so contemptuously and unfairly call savages cover more than two thirds of the earth. And what architecture is used for the ever so commendable houses in the country in our more cultured Europe, even though many of us hold them in contempt and do not care about them? Civil architecture therefore emerged from the bowels of the caverns and the huts have gradually risen in height to reach the levels of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus and the Vatican. Despicable origins! And what origins are noble?”This excerpt from the “Principles of civil architecture” by Francesco Milizia (1785) epitomises the third section of the Museum of San Casciano, dedicated to Primitive Architecture, which, ironically, could also have been called “architecture before architects”.A museum devoted to art could not leave out architecture, though here it is very different from the classical outlines in the institutional history of art. This is global Architecture, unrelated to historical periods but to the evolution determined by the environments and cultures that generated them. The collection is composed of scale reproductions of “primitive” houses, many of which can still be found in various parts of the world, and wishes to trace the history of the evolution of housing models, starting out from the dawn of humanity.This section of the museum therefore concentrates on human habitation by studying the very first forms of housing, while analysing the mechanisms that led it being transformed from the first archetypal forms into an infinite variety of types, the result of laborious processes of cultural refinement and adaptation to the environment. It is the most representative product of the material and spiritual world of man.The collection is divided into three thematic sections: shelters, tents and houses. There are a large number of models to illustrate these types of housing, all carried out using materials that comply with the originals and accompanied by preparatory technical drawings and a rich display of photographs that offer shots of real examples of the types of housing reproduced. The section on shelters is centred on examples from Africa, North and South America and the Middle East, while also touching on the homes of the Eskimos. Bedouin tents form an essential part of the second section. The last section instead displays various types of houses, from those in wood, produced in the Alpine areas, and Italian houses in stone (like, for example, the Trulli), to African houses, built with bricks and earth and Malaysian and New Guinea stilt houses.The material on display is the result of research carried out at the Faculty of Architecture in Florence in the 1980’s, which was promoted in two travelling exhibitions: The origins of housing and Reasons behind housing (1986, 1987-88), sponsored by the National Museum of Anthropology of Florence.

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