In 1426, Filippo di Stefano Scolari, better known as Pippo Spano, a Florentine condottiere in the service of King Sigismundi of Hungary, had to execute the will of his younger brother Matteo and his second Cousin Andrea di Filippo Scolari. The will stipulated that two monasteries were to be built outside the Florence city walls. Pippo Spano received permission from Pope Martin V to change the will so that only one monastery was to be built. Unfortunately, Filippo di Stefano Scolari died before he could actually execute the will. His heir, Filippo di Rinieri Scolari, drew up a first contract with the wool guild, the Calimala, at the end of August 1431. A vacant lot was formerly used as an orto, a garden. The Santa Maria degli Angeli was eventually built on this parcel of land, just outside the monastery at the junction of the Via del Castellaccio and the present-day Via degli Alfani.
The contract’s third paragraph stipulates the following two conditions for the construction of the church:
1. A fully partitioned choir for the monks.
2. The partition is to consist of fencing or lattice work.
Later, a controversy arose in literature about what this choir looked like exac tly. Saalman provides a number of arguments as to why the altar and the choir must have been situated in the middle of the rotunda. Because, according to this author (Saalman, H., ‘Filippo Brunelleschi The Buildings’ Zwemmer, London 1993 pp. 385-387).
1. The monks who commissioned this church built had an interest in a main altar.
2. The 1431 contract uses the word partition in the plural.
If this were accurate, the surrounding chapels were intended for the visitors. These chapels feature passage ways just like those in the nave of the Santissima Annunziata, enabling visitors to walk through all chapels without having to enter the nave (see floorplan).
Three years after the first, a second contract is concluded in 1434. It’s an agreement between the Arte di Calimala and the brothers of the Santa Maria degli Angeli. This agreement, drawn up in Latin, states that the following must be realised at all cost:
1. The coats of arms of the Scolari family; but also of the brothers.
2. A partitioned choir.
3. A lattice work around the choir.
4. A proper altar.
5. A mass must be celebrated each year on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (After all, the Oratory is dedicated to Mary).
The plan was to build a proper square in front of the Oratory. An open loggia was planned around the Santa Maria degli Angeli. The plan was cancelled, however, due to a dispute over the plot surrounding the Oratory that was to be built. The Servites of the Santissima Annunziata claimed half of the plot. At trial, their demand was sustained by the court. Antonio Manetti is the only source attributing the design to Brunelleschi. According to Manetti, by 1434 construction of the Oratory had reached ‘the pilasters without capitals.’
The present-day Santa Maria degli Angeli was extensively renovated under Mussolini. It is not clear what Brunelleschi’s design looked like exactly. A large number of reconstructions have been made based on drawings, primarily the floorplan by Giuliano da Sangallo. The most well-known reconstructions are those by Sanpaolesi and Battisti.
And yet, all these reconstructions are highly hypothetical in nature. Giuliano da Sangallo’s 15th century drawing has been crucial to all later reconstructions (Codex Barberini Lat. 4424,f,.15v). Research has shown, however, that Sangallo’s sketchbook, ‘the libro piccolo’, which included this drawing, had been enlarged. Bass later discovered that there was an underdrawing that Hülsen, who had examined the sketchbook in his research, had overlooked. This underdrawing shows that Sangallo had drawn a second door. This means that there were two doors: one on the west side and the other on the east side. From this information, Saalman deducted that the ‘rectangular appendix’ is not necessarily a choir, as was always assumed. Manetti mentions that the location of the choir was uncertain. Saalman argues that the choir room was located in the centre.
Brunelleschi and his style in the Oratory
1. The niches in the pilasters flanking the chapels on the inside were now complemented by niches on the outside (see the floorplan and click here for an illustration from the Codex Barberini). They resemble the narrow niches in the choir of the Old Sacristy. Novel was that they could now be found on the outside as well. This type of niche was presumably the predecessor of the niches that Bramante used in his Tempieto in Rome, but are also found in the columns of St Peter’s.
2. Also notable are the archivolts that he utilizes in the Oratory’s drum. These arches with round windows inside, which are strongly reminiscent of the Santa Maria dei Fiori, support the drum’s cornice above. Why did Brunelleschi place archivolts here? After all, the traditional solution would be to use pilasters here, extended from the columns below like he did on the outside of the Baptistry. Brunelleschi, however, decided to use arches.
3. The explanation for why arches were used in the drum touches on the essence of Brunelleschi’s architecture. Filippo always tried to keep the number of construction elements to a minimum. You would, as it were, use a box of building blocks with a very limited number of shapes to build something beautiful.
Brunelleschi’s design strongly influenced Baldassare Longhena. This architect built the Santa Maria della Salute at a prominent location in Venice, the Canal Grande. The floorplan of this Venetian Baroque church clearly demonstrates that Longhena was inspired by the Santa Maria degli Angeli,
The Oratory after 1500
The Oratory’s history after 1500 is well documented. In 1560, Duke Cosimo abandoned the idea to house the Accademica in the Oratory. In 1867, the sculptor Enrico Pazzi, who also carved Dante’s statue in the Piazza Santa Croce, converted the elements that were still standing into a studio. Many architects and art historians took a strong interest in the Oratory, and they prevented it from falling into further disrepair as best they could. Serious research was carried out into the Oratory, which brought to light a crypt under the western entrance chapel. But then WW I intervened. In 1919, nurses were housed in the building. It wasn’t until 1934, under fascism, that an extensive restoration was undertaken in which the Oratory was completed. After its restoration, the building was used as an office for the pension fund. In 1980, the university of Florence acquired the building. The pension fund’s filing cabinets were removed.