by Gloria Chiarini
Along the roads of the Middle Ages
Many people, in these last few years before the 2nd millenium, seem to think that this too will be a moment of transition, as it was for the people of the Middle Ages before the year 1000. The great routes that were once used for pilgrimages all over Europe and linked up the most important centres of religion, like Santiago di Compostella, Rome and Jerusalem, are being rediscovered. Many of the towns that grew up along these roads, together with the countless "hospices" (founded to accomodate travellers), country churches and oratories, as well as the tabernacles, built as shrines for their prayers, are also being recalled to mind.
The whole of Tuscany was involved in this movement because the Via Francigena, which linked up the north with the south, the land of the Franks with the Po valley and Rome, ran right the way through it. For the past two years the Tuscan Region has been working on a project that aims to mark out the remaining traces of the old Francigene road, in order to demonstrate its former importance, repristinate several kilometres of the route and restore the churches and convents that grew up along it: these are all monuments built in pure Romanesque style, the artistic language of the era. However we should also remember that there is a town, Bagno a Ripoli, just outside Florence, that not only dates from the period of the Francigene road and the requirements it brought with it, but that still preserves all the fascination of the Middle Ages.
Taddeo Gaddi: Crucifix in the Church of S. Giorgio a Ruballa
Situated right in the centre of a busy road system that included the ancient Cassia road, the road of the Seven Bridges and the various routes used by the Maremma herdsmen to transfer their animals to new pastures, the large borough of Bagno a Ripoli is today a peaceful and elegant residential area, lying close to the Florence South motorway exit and, being only a few kilometres away from the centre of Florence, easily reached by public transport (Ataf, Sita and Cap buses). The council territory extends between the Arno and the Chianti hills and includes several other towns with a similar history; ancient settlements like Antella, whose name is of Etruscan origin, Ponte a Ema, Grassina, Osteria Nuova, San Donato in Collina... all of them equally old, well worth visiting and closely linked to each other by a partly religious and partly environmental road system of unique beauty.
Bagno a Ripoli even has its own "Antiquarium", a museum that contains the archeological discoveries connected to the way the people lived in the times of the Etruscans and the Romans ( tel. 055/6390357 for opening hours and information), as well as an endless and enchanting series of churches, large and small, tabernacles, oratories and hospices that sprang up everywhere in Tuscany during the whole of the Middle Ages.
As we said above, they were used to accomodate travellers, pilgrims and merchants: some of the thousands of people that, at the conclusion of the great wars and epidemics, had once more started to circulate all over Europe. Once it was realised that the world was not going to come to an end after the year 1000, hordes of people "took to the roads": some on pilgrimages to the famous sites of religion, others to look for work, and others to sell their wares at the fairs and markets. They all needed somewhere to sleep, eat, wash and, at times, also be nursed. As a rule it was the clergy who provided them with assistance and the serene hill of Bagno a Ripoli, overlooking the left bank of the Arno, still reminds us of this time.
The Oratories of the Crocifisso del Lume and the Santissima Annunziata and the Church of San Pietro a Ripoli (preceded by a small 14th century portico and decorated with frescoes) all stand near Via di Villamagna, in the immediate outskirts of the town district. A little further on, we can find the lovely Church of Santa Maria a Quarto, overlooking the Vale of Ripoli, with valuable panels of 14th-15th century Tuscan school on the walls of the interior. We continue along the main road (via Roma) until we reach Meoste, a little hamlet which was certainly once used by travellers for rest and refreshment (the names of the other villages we meet often gives a clue to their origins: Osteria Nuova, Bottega Nuova, Il Camicia...).
At Borgo della Croce at Varliano we can visit the ancient Oratory of Santa Croce, once a halting place for the old processions and then, when we come to La Fonte, we can make a short detour to visit the Churches of Santa Lucia a Terzano, founded at the beginning of the year 1000 on a spur of rock, and Santo Stefano a Paterno, which still contains a really beautiful and very old Crucifix, traditionally believed to have been painted at the end of the 13th century by one of Cimabue's followers, probably Gaddo Gaddi, the head of the dynasty that also produced the famous painters Taddeo and Agnolo. Taddeo, Giotto's best known student, painted another Crucifix, which we can find nearby at San Giorgio a Ruballa.
Olive trees in the countryside near Bagno a Ripoli
However, before going to this church, it is a good idea to stop off first at L' Apparita - where we can admire a magnificent view over Florence - and then Bigallo, to visit the monumental group of buildings of the old "Spedale" or hospice from which this place takes its name. The Spedale of the Bigallo (dating from 1245 under the name of the Great Company of the Virgin Mary) was one of the oldest Companies of public assistance in the Middle Ages and the same organization that eventually gave life to the Florentine Misericordia service. It was already the proud possessor of its own Loggia (basically its headquarters), now transformed into a museum, in Piazza del Duomo, right in the centre of Florence. Today the local traditions of hospitality and meditation are still maintained in this area thanks to the presence of the Convent of the Incontro, situated in another magnificent panoramic position in the hills overlooking Villamagna and the Arno Valley and surrounded by grounds planted with many different species of trees.
Returning in the direction of Osteria Nuova, we come to the Churches of San Quirico and San Giorgio a Ruballa: the first dates from before the 13th century, while the second was founded by the patronage of the Bardi family, the powerful Florentine bankers who also owned the famous chapel in Santa Croce containing the early 14th century frescoes by Giotto. The Bardi family commissioned two of Giotto's students to carry out works for San Giorgio a Ruballa: Taddeo Gaddi, author of the solemn and mournful Crucifix we mentioned above, and Maso di Banco, who painted an important panel of the Madonna and Child with Angels between St. George and St. Matthew in 1336 (though the panel has also been attributed to Bernardo Daddi, another of Giotto's students, or young Andrea Orcagna, names that all equally demonstrate the high quality of the painting).
The Church of S. Pietro a Ripoli
Continuing along the main road, we soon find ourselves in Antella, a large town whose Romanesque parish church has been so greatly altered over the centuries that the finest works that it still contains in the interior date no earlier than from the 16th-17th century (the pulpit, the baptismal font, two paintings by Lorenzo Lippi and Simone Pignoni...). From here we can soon reach the Oratory of Santa Caterina delle Ruote, built by the Alberti family (the same as that of the famous architect, Leon Battista) between 1348 and 1387 and decorated with frescoes by Spinello Aretino. A few kilometres further south will bring the tourist right in front of one of the many villas that the Medici family built throughout the Florentine countryside, choosing - as always - what were obviously the very best sites. This is the Villa of Lappeggi, bought in 1569 and restructured by Bernardo Buontalenti (the architect of Fort Belvedere), which reached its heights at the end of the 17th century when it was the residence of Cardinal Francesco Maria de' Medici and where he kept his collection of art works.
The pottery of the Tower of the Peruzzi
From the Middle Ages onwards, many of the noble Florentine families chose to build their country mansions among these hills: apart from the Medici, the Bardi and the Alberti families we mentioned earlier, we must not forget the Vecchietti family, in whose villa Don Raffaele Borghini wrote "Il Riposo", the Della Gherardesca family, whose Villa of Mondeggi is now a reknowned farm, and above all the Peruzzi family, who, with the Bardis, were the richest bankers in Florence before the Medici came to power and who owned vast estates here as well as a pottery for firing bricks and tiles. We can still admire "La Cortaccia", their huge fortified villa-farm at Corti a Ruballa; a Centre for the Study of share-cropping and the farming civilization, with a small collection of typical farm tools and utensils, has opened close by. Villa La Tana, property of the Peruzzi family from the 13th to the 19th century, when Lady Emilia, the wife of Ubaldino Peruzzi, made it a meeting place for patriots and men of letters, stands nearby with Villa Monna Giovannella, seat of the Experimental Centre of the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Florence, next door.
It is easy to see that this is very fertile land, well irrigated with springs and streams, and where agriculture has always been an important source of income, particularly because the area's close vicinity to the Florentine markets absorbed its produce with ease. Today the Florence University uses it for experimental farming, but the extraordinary characteristics of the local soil have been well known from ancient times. One place in particular has always been known to possess unique qualities. This is Fonte Santa, which lies to the South East of Florence in a vast area of woodland between Poggio al Mandorlo and Poggio di Firenze: Count Magalotti, an expert in agronomy, was already singing the praises of its extraordinary climatic position in the 17th century; now Fonte Santa has become an "ecological niche" because of its healthy and balmy air which apparently arrives directly from the Atlantic Ocean, ascending the 90 kilometres that separate it from the sea. Wild broom and orchids abound and we can still find buzzards nesting in its thick woods of cluster pines which form a habitat for squirrels, porcupines and wild boar. The perfect place for walks in the midst of nature, it is also provided with a refuge built by volonteers from among the townspeople of Antella in 1935. This area is blessed with a great many natural beauty spots, in fact, just as many as all the reminders of history that can be found along the roads and country by-ways, like the extraordinary complex of Gualchiere di Remole, a sort of monument to mediaeval industrial archeology on the banks of the Arno, where the powerful Wool Guild once owned a mill that "fulled" its famous woollen cloth to make it thick and compact before exporting it all over the known world of the time. In conclusion, the extremely detailed guide book recently published by the Town Council, on the history and resources of this area, with a series of advised itineraries, rightly reminds us of Emanuele Repetti's definition of Bagno a Ripoli in his "Geographic, physical and historical dictionary of Tuscany", printed in 1833: "...of all the towns that form the garland around beautiful Florence, this is the most delightful, the most fertile and flourishing garden, and the most populated with villas, palaces, churches and houses...".