VICCHIO AND VESPIGNANO
Vasari writes about Giotto that “[…] the origins of this great man could be found in the Florentine countryside, near the city at mile fourteen, in the Villa di Vespignano.”
These origins, in the light of modern-day research, date back to 1266-1267.
Today, the place where, according to legend, the artist was born houses a museum narrative which invites us to delve into the creative spirit of the artist. The three main thematic areas―that is to say, the life of Giotto, Giotto’s relationship with the land, and his activities―are narrated through the use of interactive multimedia, a video-environment and laboratories that allow us to study of the figurative art of the great master. It also houses temporary exhibits and labs for children of all ages. It is surrounded by a small botanic garden that offers a magnificent view of the valley and the Apennines chain.
Up until the end of the 13th century, Vespignano was an important castle: the church, the keep, and part of a circular tower still remain. The geometry of the tower is not common in Longobard towers, which are built on a square bae, but finds similarities with Byzantine towers. The territory, in fact, bordered with the exarchate of Ravenna. Analogies and rare examples are found in the castles in Mugello, for example: Castel Potente which stands at a short distance above the locality of Gattaia (Vicchio) and Belmonte in the town of Firenzuola. The most important and renowned example of a circular base tower is found in the most ancient late medieval nucleus in Florence: it is the Torre dei Pagliazza, a lookout tower of circular Byzantine style, built between 541 and 544 to defend the city of Goti di Totila. First mentioned in 1048, Vespignano castle and the tower were damaged in the great earthquake of 1919.
Near the keep and the tower, at the highest point, we find San Martino a Vespignano Church, which is mentioned in 1218, and of which Giotto’s son, Francesco was the Prior in 1329. The building, which was restored between 1835-1838 and again in 1940, has a gabled façade and a portal surmounted by an opening; it has a single nave, a rectangular choir, and the high altar is covered by a ribbed vault. The church holds a ciborium that dates back to the second half of the 15th century, an 18th century organ, and a fresco that is attributed to Paolo Schiavo (15th century). The original belltower of the church was destroyed in the 1919 earthquake. The tower we see today is nothing more than one of the watchtowers of the ancient walls of Vespignano castle, which was taken down when the “new land” of Vicchio was founded in 1308 by the city of Florence.
Legend has it that the episode that changed Giotto’s life, as recounted by Lorenzo Ghiberti in his “Commentarii” (1452), and also later by Vasari, took place on the Ponte alla Ragnaia―since called Ponte di Cimabue (Cimabue’s bridge)―while the boy was intent on depicting one of the sheep in his flock on a slate using a pointed stone. The Master was so taken aback that he asked the boy to follow him to his work shop in Florence. The bridge is found in the valley, and it is clearly marked and easy to reach from the state road or by taking the artists’ trail which links the centre of Vicchio with La casa di Giotto e di Beato Angelico. An elegant 16th century construction, today the bridge the crosses the Ensa River has replaced the medieval one.
A pleasant walk leads through the meadows and the magnificent landscape of Cappella della Bruna, which bears witness to the secular cult dedicated to Beato Giovanni Bruni, who was born in Vespignano in 1234, in Mugello. Already in his youth, Bruni showed a vocation for helping the poor, and he later exercised this vocation in Florence where he died in 1331.
The structure, where legend has it that the young Bruni was known to pray while the oxen carried out the work in the fields without him, has a rectangular base and holds the remains of a mural painting attributed to the painter Paolo Schaivo (15th century), a pupil of Andrea del Castagno and of Paolo Uccello. The fresco represents a “Madonna del latte” with two saints. This type of image was an important object of popular devotion in the area.
The remains of Bruni, buried in San Pier Maggiore, were moved in 1801 to San Giovanni Magiore near Ronta. One of his ribs, however, was venerated in Mugello in 1723 in Santa Maria a Olmi (Borgo San Lorenzo).
By buying one ticket for the Museo Casa di Giotto (Home of Giotto Museum), you can also visit the Museo di arte sacra e religiosità popolare Beato Angelico (Beato Angelico Museum) in Vicchio, which houses paintings and lithurgical objects from the closed or unsafe churches in Mugello. Here we can find crucifixes, religious records, and the reconstruction of settings that are ecclesiastic and devotional, for example, sacresties and whole tabernacles. Sacred vestments and candelabras are on display inside original furniture.The narrative ends in a room that houses the works placed according to their original layout: from the baptismal font and a 13th century bell to the sides of the altar with diverse furnishings and paintings. The museum holds works of famous artists (Francesco Furini, Taddeo Gaddi, Andrea della Robbia,…). In 2017, the museum was at the centre of an itinerary called “Sotto il Cielo di Giotto”. On the 750th anniversary of the great artist’s birth (1267-2017) a monumental panel painting of the Madonna with child by a very young Giotto was put on display. From the museum it is easy to reach the historical centre of Vicchio on foot.
VICCHIO was one of the three “new lands” founded by Florence to preside and control over Mugello. In 1324 the walls and gates of the city were built (some are still visible today). In Renaissance times the artist Benvenuto Cellini stayed in the town off and on for more than ten years. He bought a small estate there “which is two miles from Vicchio immersed in the Alps.” The Casa di Cellini is found on what is now Corso del Popolo: it was restored and holds modern goldsmithing machines and apparatuses, and it is also a venue for meetings, courses and exhibitions.