THE ORATORY OF ST. SEBASTIAN is the ancient heart of the famed Basilica of Santissima Annunziata (the Holy Annunciation). Originally, it was a simple farmhouse surrounded by woods, two hundred yards outside the northern city walls. After a four-month siege in 1081 and daily barrages of arrows, the walls did not fall and, in memory of that resilience, the farmhouse became a place of prayer devoted to Saint Sebastian because he too had been pierced by arrows and survived.
It is here that the founders of the order “Servants of Maria” – bound by the vow of poverty – first gathered. Eventually, they built a convent and a church attached to the Oratory. Over time, the church grew into a basilica called, Santissima Annunziata, where the Florentine cult of Mary flourished over the centuries. The symbol of Florence became the Madonna, the “feminine divine” that later so inspired Renaissance Art. At that time, Brunelleschi’s cupola was seen as the Madonna’s cape metaphorically protecting the city below with her mercy. Florentine brides come here to leave their bouquets of flowers. Outside the church, extends a large square once described by the noted historian of architecture Lewis Mumford as “the most beautiful piazza in the world”. Looking at the arched loggia of the Basilica, the Oratory is on the right corner.
In 1404, the monks agreed to sell the Oratory to Antonio Pucci, whose son Puccio Pucci would later become a banker of great wealth, and closest ally of the Medici family. Puccio’s son, also named Antonio, restored the Oratory, with the noted architect Michelozzo. He then commissioned the master Piero Pollaiolo to paint the altarpiece: The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. In 1475, the huge painting was hung above the altar in splendor.
Over time, the Pucci family suffered tragedies and setbacks. The suffering of St. Sebastian began to carry a profound meaning. In 1601, a new renovation took place. A beautifully decorated cupola rose in gold leaf stucco, mother-of-pearl and sapphire-tinted glass. Circling the cupola’s base, Bernardino Poccetti painted a sequence of magnificent frescoes. The walls were lined with rare inlaid marble imported from quarries in Carrara, Elba, Egypt and the Aegean island of Chios.
The altar was fashioned in translucent alabaster and lapis lazuli from distant Persia. No expense was spared. On either side of the altar hung two large paintings: one by Aurelio Lomi and the other by Giovanbattista Paggi, representing crucial moments in the life of St. Sebastian. The Oratory became a “jewel in the crown” of Florence: an intimate, beautifully conceived work of art crystallizing an important spiritual message for the city and future generations: “That which is seen is transitory; the unseen is eternal.”
In 1966, another calamity struck when the banks of the Arno River burst open and flooded Florence. Over three feet of water and mud gushed into the Oratory that already badly needed repair. Saint Sebastian and the Pucci family were being tested yet again.
Today Giannozzo Pucci and his sister Idanna are bringing back the Oratory to its original splendor with the valuable help of Friends of Florence. The project began in March 2018 with master restorer, Daniela Dini, responsible for the cupola, the statues, the frescoes, as well as all the marble work, and master Stefano Scarpelli and his son Marco devoted to restoring the paintings. The restoration has been serving as a “teaching site” for the students of the American International School in Florence.
A state-of-the-art reproduction on wood of Pollaiolo’s masterpiece (now in the National Gallery in London) will be placed above the altar in its original frame. As we live in such a troubled world and witness the increasing destruction of our planet, the symbolic message of this painting – the healing power of resilience and hope – seems now more important than ever.
The restoration is 75% completed and, with additional funding, the project can be finished by July 2021.