The Oratory of Santa Caterina Delle Ruote at Bagno a Ripoli
Situated on the slopes of the hill of Baroncelli, on the farm of Rimezzano, the Oratory of Santa Caterina in Bagno a Ripoli was built sometime before 1354 on a commission from Jacopo and Giovanni, the sons of Alberto degli Alberti and owners of extensive landed property in the Parish of Santa Maria at Antella, together with their grandsons Bernardo and Benedetto.The outer walls of the building are composed of regular blocks of limestone; an oculus window, a canopy roof and a doorway with a lunette, formerly frescoed, decorate the gable-roofed façade. A small bell gable rises up at the rear of the chapel. The interior is divided into two bays with cross vaults and concludes in a small apse framed by a large pointed arch.
The first bay and the apse are embellished with beautiful fresco decorations that tell the Stories of St. Catherine of Alexandria, patroness of judges and notaries, who was worshipped for her wisdom throughout the Middle Ages.The campaign to decorate the church started in the apse, in around 1360, and illustrates scenes related to the martyrdom of the saint and other religious subjects. The so-called Master of Barberino (mentioned in documents from 1357 to 1369) and Pietro Nelli (mentioned in documents from 1374-†1319), both influenced by the work of the principal students of Giotto (Maso di Banco and Bernardo Daddi), as well as by the activity of Andrea Orcagna, took part in this first stage of the work.After a pause of thirty years, the decoration was continued to respect the wishes expressed by Benedetto di Nerozzo degli Alberti in his will of 1387. The commission to continue the decoration of the triumphal arch, which had been interrupted, was thus given to Spinello Aretino (1346/48-1411), a brilliant painter who was very popular at the turn of the century. The artist frescoed the first bay with new scenes from the life of the titular saint, creating a homogeneous cycle of eight episodes that was distributed in the lunettes and on the walls. The Conversion and the Baptism of St. Catherine, given by a hermit monk, can be seen at the top right; the middle register contains the Mystic marriage of the saint with Baby Jesus and the scene of the refusal of St. Catherine to worship the idols as ordered her by the Emperor Maxentius. The top part of the opposite wall illustrates the Dispute with the pagan philosophers and the Burning of the wise men, in other words, the martyrdom of people whom Catherine had managed to convert to Christianity; the register below contains a double scene set in the prison illustrating the Conversion of the Empress and of Porphyrius, the captain of the soldiers, and the Visit of Christ to the saint; this is followed by the Decapitation of Porphyrius and the converted soldiers. The stories conclude above the triumphal arch with Saint Catherine being led to martyrdom and the Martyrdom of the Saint by decapitation; the Transportation of the body of St. Catherine to Mount Sinai with the angels can be seen at the top. The ribbed vaults bear frescoes of the four Evangelists with their relative symbols, while busts of the Prophets decorate the lower part of the walls. The Alberti family coat-of-arms is repeated frequently, with the typical four lengths of chain on a blue background painted on the ribs of the ceiling.A copy of the triptych carried out for the oratory by Agnolo Gaddi (1350c.-1396) can be seen above the altar; the original was stolen in 1921 and although it has since been recovered, it is now preserved in the Uffizi storerooms.
The oratory suffered a long period of decline after the ruin of the Alberti family. The rector Francesco Venturi had the sacristy built in 1626 and this led to the opening of a door that caused the loss of the lower part of the figure of St. Anthony Abbot, frescoed by Pietro Nelli. Venturi was possibly also responsible for painting over the frescoes in the apse, while those by Spinello were always left visible, even in the period when the oratory was used as a farmhouse. Interest in the fate of the oratory was rekindled at the beginning of the 19th century, but it was not until the beginning of the following century that restoration - the most recent was carried out in 1996-1998 - started on the structure and the frescoes. After many changes of ownership, the Town Council of Bagno a Ripoli purchased the oratory in 1988.