by Stefano Filipponi
The Carthusian Monastery at Galluzzo
«It is impossible to describe how much I was impressed by the perfection of our holy monastery, that is why this place raises my spirits when they are at their lowest ebb»; thus Niccolò Acciaiuoli, the Florentine banker, wrote to his friend Boccaccio to tell him about the loving care he was spending on the construction of the Certosa or Carthusian Monastery of Florence, completely financed by him and under construction since 1342.
Certainly this man, who was so rich that he was even able to lend money to the court of Kingdom of Naples, did not donate part of his income towards the foundation of a new monastery out of a personal need for a place of spiritual retirement; he expected to get much more out of his new investment: fame on earth and an assured future in the Kingdom of Heaven. This was why he already made mention of the future monastery in the first will that he drew up when he was only twenty eight years old; six years later, the first stones were laid on the summit of Monte Acuto, an ideal site because its position on such a prominent hill south of Florence was a certain guarantee of the security and importance of the new Certosa. There is little doubt that it was a good choice for its walls dominate the entire Ema Valley even today and can easily be seen from both the main Cassia road and the A1 Motorway. The monastery can be reached by car from Florence by taking Via Senese from Piazzale di Porta Romana as far as Galluzzo, passing through about three kilometres of hills covered in olive groves and dotted with lovely villas; from here a short avenue climbs up to the Certosa. The first building of the monastic complex that we encounter is Palazzo Acciaiuoli, a compact palace that the generous founder built for himself in order to enjoy the peace of the monastery; unfortunately he was never able to see his wish fulfilled because only the first floor had been built at the time of his death in 1365; in fact the palace was only completed and attached to the rest of the Certosa in the mid 16th century. The 14th century part of the building is now occupied by the Vieusseux library laboratories for book restoration, while the lower level contains the picture gallery, where we start out on our tour.
The remnants of the artistic patrimony of the Certosa are on display here and, in spite of the fact that many exhibits have been "removed" over the centuries, it still contains a large number of very interesting works of art to document the Florentine artistic production between the second half of the 14th century and the 18th century (of note paintings by Jacopo del Casentino, Raffaellino del Garbo, Cigoli, Sebastiano Ricci). Special mention is due to the extraordinary frescoes that Pontormo carried out for the cloisters in 1523-25, when the genius of the Tuscan Mannerist school stayed at the Certosa to avoid the plague that was running rife in Florence; today we find that the dramatic atmosphere that so annoyed Vasari is one of the most fascinating things about the five Stories of the Passion of Christ, now in the picture gallery for restoration. Unlike Palazzo Acciaiuoli the monastery was completed in just a few years and consacrated in 1395, though it has a somewhat composite aspect today thanks to the numerous alterations and enlargements that continued up until the end of 17th century. The Certosa is basically a late Renaissance group of buildings, characteristic for their measured classicism, which we immediately notice when we come out of the picture gallery and turn right into the main courtyard, carried out in the mid 16th century to link the palace up with the Church of San Lorenzo, now right in front of us. The church is divided into two longitudinally placed and separate areas: the first was for the "lay brothers", who carried out various practical duties for the monks, while the second, nearest the altar, was reserved for the cloistered monks. The first part of the church and the facade were built at the same time as the courtyard, while the "church of the monks" still maintains its ancient Gothic structure of a single room, roofed over with cross vaults; the interior was however completely renewed in the 16th century, enriched with the marble altar, the new chancel, decorated with wooden inlays, and the frescoes by Bernardino Poccetti. This co-existence of mediaeval structures with later interventions characterises the whole of the monastery, starting with the corridor on the left of the church where, once a week, the monks were allowed to gather together and interrupt their vows of silence. At the end of the corridor, where we can see a fine Christ carrying the Cross by Andrea della Robbia, we can find the elegant little cloister that acts as a fulcrum for the entire complex: from here a door, decorated with a St. Laurence between two angels in terracotta by Benedetto da Maiano, takes us through to the refectory, the main cloister and the Chapter House, where the monks used to meet to discuss any problems that touched the little community.
It is a small room with a fine fresco of the Crucifixion by Mariotto Albertinelli (1506) and the funerary monument of Leonardo Buonafé by Francesco da Sangallo (1550), who also carried out the polychrome marble flooring. From here we pass behind the church to the huge open area of the main Cloister of the monks: the 18 cells in which the Carthusian monks spent most of their lives, coming out only for Masses and meals on feast days, are lined up around the sides, elegantly divided by arches dating from the early 16th century. The luminosity and extremely elegant decorations (the beautifully carved capitals, the busts in terracotta by Giovanni Della Robbia and the frescoes above the doors of the cells), which once also included the frescoes by Pontormo, make this cloister an extremely fascinating place; it is a beauty that should be enjoyed in absolute silence. From here we return to the courtyard and to the great flight of stairs that we took previously to climb up to the picture gallery; our historical and artistic tour is now over but we can still stop off in the forecourt at the entrance to admire the splendid view, or pop into the monastery pharmacy to try a glass of the herbal liqueur concocted by the monks and perhaps buy a bottle of their "best". Protected by its splendid isolation, the Certosa has managed to preserve its extraordinary beauty over six centuries of the unchangeable rhythm of the cloister; the Carthusian monks were replaced in 1957 by the Cistercian friars who have guaranteed the monastery's regular opening to the public ever since: its treasures can now be admired by everyone, though we must never forget that we are also responsibile for their conservation.
The Certosa can be reached by bus 37 that leaves from the Station of Santa Maria Novella; the monks organize guided visits from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am-12pm and from 3-6pm. For further information tel. 055.2049226.