Backyard Musings: The Church of Saint Stephen in Grezzano

Rosso Fiorentino, ‘Pala dello Spedalingo di Santa Maria Nuova’, 1518. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Most days my observations of Grezzano are directed towards its residents. Our old timers who gather afternoons at the bus stop to goggle and gossip, and our farmers occupied with their age-old, seasonally-driven tasks: planting and harvesting, burning and clearing, stocking the wood pile for winter. Robust peasant women toting sacks filled with some treat or other offered up by the surrounding woods. On the younger side, loitering teens sporting the requisite outfit of cigarette-jeans-black-t-shirt, and couples pushing strollers one-handed, the other pressing  cell phones to ears. We are few, we Grezzanesi, but varied enough and so contrasting at times in our appearances and activities that one could watch the comings and goings in our little town center for hours, and never grow bored. I suppose that’s the appeal for the old timers who occupy the piazza so many hours.

I can’t help but study the people here, perhaps because Italians still manage to at once charm and irritate me, even after these many years. A few weeks ago, however, on the first chilly day of fall, I took a walk around town and, noticing the piazza empty of residents, the streets utterly quiet and abandoned, began focusing instead on the buildings. The church and cemetery, the old mill up the road, the farmhouses. The places of Grezzano. Later I browsed some of the history books my husband has long been collecting on this verdant corner of Tuscany we call home. I went out again. I read plaques on buildings and signs posted at crossroads, not for the first time but closer, more attentively. All the while a sort of mini-epiphany was creeping up on me. Fiefdoms, Holy Roman Emperors, Renaissance artworks! Heady historical stuff comes cheap in Italy, it’s true, but right here in my tiny, inconsequential town? Why, yes. Right in my backyard.

The Chiesa di Santo Stefano, or Church of Saint Stephen, dates to the 11th century, the same period in which Grezzano makes its first appearance in historical writings. A Latin text on land holdings of the era mentions Grezzano as territory granted by Emperor Henry VI (son of Frederick Barbarossa) and subsequently by Frederick II, to the Guidi family. The Guidi, in fact, together with the Alberti and the degli Ubaldini families, make up the powerful medieval clans once associated with the Mugello region.

A simple Romanesque structure with few noteworthy features save the brilliant mosaic above the entry, this otherwise unexceptional church is not without a smidgen of historical curiosity. Within the stone walls of Santo Stefano echoes the story of a Renaissance painting, one whose destiny was altered thanks to a misunderstood artistic technique, winding up here in this remote country parish (after a bit of corrective surgery), where it resided for centuries.

From the early 1500s to the year 1900, Santo Stefano housed an altarpiece by Rosso Fiorentino, known as La Pala dello Spedalingo, a painting that came to Grezzano by default after sparking a bit of controversy down in Florence. Commissioned in 1518 by one Leonardo Buonafede, the spedalingo, or rector, of Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital, the painting was originally destined for the Church of Ognissanti in Florence. Buonafede, however, upon seeing the artist’s initial sketch of the painting, was displeased with how the saints were represented, claiming they had the look of ‘devils.’ (An interesting side-note: Vasari tells us that Rosso Fiorentino had the habit of creating ‘cruel and desperate-seeming expressions’ during the sketching phase, expressions that were later softened during painting.)

Feeling the artist had taken him for a ride, Buonafede refused to pay the agreed upon price. Ultimately the dispute was resolved with the intervention of two additional Florentine painters who arbitrated the matter, and the spedalingo paid a greatly reduced price for the work (nine florins).

In 1525, the hospital sent La Pala to a small church in its jurisdiction located in the mountains of the Mugello, Santo Stefano in Grezzano. On that occasion, Rosso Fiorentino modified the painting, altering the representation of the saints to include Stephen, Grezzano’s patron saint, and Saint Anthony. It was moved to the Uffizi in 1900, where it is on display in Hall 27 of the Gallery, the room dedicated to Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, and other 16th-century Florentine painters. It was restored in 1995.

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One Response to Backyard Musings: The Church of Saint Stephen in Grezzano

  1. Mom says:

    Amy, I really liked this. I remember the beautiful church and it’s bells. I missed reading your blog, I am so glad you are back!!!!!!
    Very interesting, I will go inside the next lucky day I am there!!!!!!
    Love, Mom

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