The Museo Diocesano di Arte Sacra of San Miniato is an institution that dates back to 1966, albeit it was conceived long before that. In the aftermath of Second World War, the threat to the cultural heritage pushed the Episcopal Curia and the Superintendency of Pisa to take necessary steps towards the restoration and preservation of art works. Hence, the premises where had formerly taken place the complex of the cathedral sacristies, were converted into a museum which was to house an artistic collection made from various pieces coming from the parishes of San Miniato and its surroundings. The museum – which resembles an art gallery – unequivocally reflects some aspects of past local, religious and social life of this small Tuscan community. A chronological criteria informs the works disposition throughout the five rooms allocated, displaying art pieces ranging from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.
The collection chronology is in step with a complex evolution of the pieces. It starts with obvious signs of a still partially medieval world, where symbolism, gold backgrounds and hieratic figures of saints take the stage. The various pieces tell of a mystical religious vision whose essence is immediately traceable in a well-known iconography such as ‘The Madonna and Child’, attributed to Lorenzo Monaco ((late 14th century), the young warrior in ‘San Michele Arcangelo’ by Pseudo Ambrogio Waldensian (1420 ca.), or ‘The Annunciation’ by the Lombard stonecutter Giroldo di Iacopo da Como (1274), just to name a few.
The Virgin is portrayed in the canonical pose of the genre, a bittersweet, gentle mother who displays her tender love, her face nonetheless darkened by an expression that incapsulates the ominous omen for the fate, by now sealed, of the child. The hands, finely chiseled and enriched by a refined linearism, effortlessly encircle the child’s body, restless and tense outwards. The artist’s fine anatomical study of the infant’s body emphasizes the care free attitude of the child engrossed in an innocent game with a little goldfinch, another omen of Christ’s passion. Saint Michael is represented as an elegant and equally dignified character. The chiaroscuro strongly strengthens the volume of the figure, the bold strokes do not allow for more than some little ‘movement’ of the garments. The victorious pose of the saint is underlined by the attributes of power, the sword in the right hand and the globe in the left: with their “visual weight”, they make for a nice balance for the otherwise precarious stillness suggested by the saint standing on the defeated dragon, thus reduced to mere background. In the Annunciation, the otherworldly space, occupied by the archangel, contrasts with the architectural frames – barely outlined – introducing the Virgin and a handmaid further away. The engraved words underscore the solemnity of the meeting: written from right to left for the Virgin, they give substance to the christian message ‘The Word become flesh and dwelt upon us’, a visible image of the Father, a powerful iconographic invention of great ingenuity. Another reminder to the period is the collection of ceramic basins of African origin from the late twelfth century – originally placed as a decoration for the façade of the cathedral, as suggested by a local architectural tradition of Pisan influence.
The first rudiments of the spirit of Humanism, on the other hand, are embodied in the two panels by Neri di Bicci (1419 -1470), whose imperfect perspective seems suspended between a medieval past and an emerging Renaissance inspired by Botticelli. The elongated characters with their fixed and astonished gazes, adorned with owerflowing garments that sustain their plasticity, or the golden decorations of the edges, finely chiseled, confirm the authorship of these two works. Ludovico Cardi known as ‘Il Cigoli’, whose painting experience matured under the influence of important artists such as Correggio, Tiziano, Tintoretto and Veronese, is the author of the ‘Madonna enthroned with the Child Jesus amongst the Saints Michele Arcangelo and Pietro Apostolo’, which steers the way towards the 17th century. Signed and dated 1593, the work accompanies the viewer into the world of Mannerism, a style of graceful elegance that will subsequently take to the opulence characteristic of the Baroque age. Fully inserted in this historical context are the two canvases by Lorenzo Lippi (1606-1665) which portray two scenes from the Old Testament: strong chiaroscuro and an accentuated plasticism denote the high artistic level achieved, and a certain Caravaggesque influence.
At the end of our journey we find the two most evocative pieces in the 5th room: ‘The Education of the Virgin’ by Giovan Battista Tiepolo (1696 -1770), and Lorenzo Lippi’s ‘Jesus receiving the Eucharistic bread’. The first, whose authorship is still under discussion – given the prevailing fashion of producing copies of the originals for rich clients – does not do justice to the supreme painting skills achieved by this artist, who worked right between the historical period of decorative excesses known as Baroque. The scene portrayed is striking, yet quite unusual, as it offers a little-known moment in the life of the Virgin, that of her youth. Conversely, the modus operandi of Lippi – one of the principal vehicles for the dissemination of Florentine figurative stances – is embodied in the second painting.
This is the mission of the museum: to tell the order system and other expressive means of thought of a distant, as well as more recent past, crossed by multiple conflicts but producer nonewithstanding, of unparalleled beauty.