In 1233, seven Florentine nobles had a spiritual crisis, gave away all their possessions, and retired to the forests to contemplate divinity. In 1250, they returned to what were then fields outside the city walls and founded a small oratory, proclaiming they were Servants of Mary, or the Servite Order. The oratory was enlarged by Michelozzo (1444–81) and later redesigned in the baroque style. The main art interest is in the Chiostro dei Voti (Votive Cloister), designed by Michelozzo with Corinthian-capitaled columns and decorated with some of the city’s finest Mannerist frescoes (1465–1515). Rosso Fiorentino provided an “Assumption” (1513) and Pontormo a “Visitation” (1515) just to the right of the door. Their master, Andrea del Sarto, contributed a “Birth of the Virgin” (1513), in the far right corner, one of his finest works. To the right of the door into the church is a damaged but still fascinating “Coming of the Magi” (1514) by del Sarto, who included a self-portrait at the far right, looking out at us from under his blue hat.
The interior is excessively baroque. Just to the left as you enter is a huge tabernacle hidden under a mountain of ex votos (votive offerings). It was designed by Michelozzo to house a small painting of the “Annunciation.” Legend holds that it was started by a friar who, vexed that he couldn’t paint the Madonna’s face as beautifully as it should be, gave it up and took a nap. When he awoke, he found an angel had filled in the face for him—and the painting became one of a rare group of images known as “acheiropoieta,” miraculous objects reputedly made “without hands.” Newlywed brides in Florence don’t toss their bouquets: They head here after the ceremony to leave their flowers at the shrine for good luck. This is very much a working church, hence the restricted opening hours for the interior. The cloister is open all day, however.
On Piazza Santissima Annunziata outside, flanked by elegant Brunelleschi porticos, is an equestrian statue of “Grand Duke Ferdinand I,” Giambologna’s last work; it was cast in 1608 after his death by his student Pietro Tacca, who also did the two fountains of fantastic mermonkey-monsters. You can stay right on this spectacular piazza, at one of our favorite Florence hotels, the Loggiato dei Serviti.