SAN MINIATO – HALL OF THE SEVEN VIRTUES
The Sala delle Sette Virtù or Sala del Consiglio or, as it was formerly known, Sala Leonis, where we stand, is the place where the governing bodies of the city met until very recently. It is currently used as a reception room for ceremonies of various kind, but for many centuries it was the heart of the political life of the community of San Miniato. The Hall is part – like the underlying site of the oratory – of the first nucleus of the Palace which dates back to the end of the 13th century. It included, on the ground floor – with access from the street – the chapel and the adjoining sacristy and, on the first floor, the Sala Leonis and the nearby Chancellery. The first floor was accessed by an external brick staircase abutting up to the chapel wall. The union of the religious and the political sphere, made explicit in the first layout of the building and, as we shall see, in the decoration of the Council Room, is typical of the Middle Ages and is to be found in all civic buildings in the age of the communi. The hall’s décor is a direct reference to the function it has performed for centuries, that is to host the meetings of the local magistrates: first the Twelve Defenders of the People, later, the Standard-bearer of Justice, and, eventually, in 1369, when San Miniato lost its municipal autonomy and became part of the Florentine Republic, the Priors, the Captains of the People, the Standard-bearer and the Vicar of the city of Florence.
The most striking feature of the room derives from the presence, in any and all reflective surfaces, of the insignia and heraldic coats of arms of the officials who governed the city. Almost all heraldic devices visible today, painted or sculpted, date back to the 15th century, and relate to the vicars of the Republic of Florence who at the time held political and criminal jurisdiction over San Miniato and the lower Valdarno. The officials who followed one another left the coat of arms of their family as a reminder of their work in the city. The custom of leaving the family insignia dates back to an ancient tradition of many Italian communi which required foreign governors to donate their shield or a weapon decorated with the family crest to the governed community. By and by, the use of the gift of the shield was replaced by that of the image of the coat of arms. In the palaces of the Bargello in Florence, of the Priors in Volterra, Certaldo, Scarperia and in many other towns one can see further examples of similar heraldic displays. The oldest insignia in the hall dates back to 1393. It is the coat of arms of one Guicciardini, likely Luigi di Piero, and it can be seen at the bottom edge of the only scene with a sacred subject painted in the room. It is an enthroned Madonna nursing the Child surrounded by the theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity), and by the Cardinal Virtues (Justice, Prudence, Strength, Temperance). On the lower edge the image is commented by a suggestive caption in poetic terms: it is a caudate sonnet, and illustrates the allegorical meaning of the virtues in relation to the government of the Vicar Guicciardini: How perfect and holy his accomplishments were / reader, is shown to you by the seven women / who are the pillars of his government / and make it triumphant of eternal fame. / May follow his example whoever comes after him / of the great gain that he effected / because the hearts of all men and women / he wanted, and never took a single penny for himself. / And in the ninety-third year after the three hundredth / and one thousandth, the vicariate he held / in such a way that each was always satisfied by him. / He kept everyone in peace and in good condition; / each vice extinguished at his court / keeping the virtues you see beside him. / Hence always obliged / to him is everyone, both adults and children / and for his love, to all Guicciardinis. In short, the sonnet explains that the good reputation enjoyed by the Vicar Guicciardini, and the esteem in which he was held by all citizens, were derived by his work modelled on the virtues represented in the fresco. This invites subsequent rulers to practise the same virtues.
Also in this case the themes of religious spirituality and those of civil ethics are joined together. This union worked according to a system of representation of values that followed important models, among which, for instance, can be cited the Majesty of Simone Martini in the Townhall of Siena, which was provided also, with a poetic composition designed to inspire the officials the good governance of the city. The San Miniato fresco is attributed to Cenni di Francesco, a pupil of Andrea Orcagna and active in San Miniato at the end of the 14th century. The remaining décor consists of a large number of coats of arms of different sizes. The shape of the shields is multiform: almond-shaped, notch-shaped for tournaments, horse headed, flagged; just as numerous are the animals: lions, panthers, swans, fantastic creatures with their heads enclosed in plumed sparrow beak helmets, as if to compose a colorful heraldic zoo.
The ornamental uniformity of the room, especially in the mirrors of the plinth and in the architectural scores, is due to the restoration work carried out in 1898 by Galileo Chini, one of the most famous Italian painters, ceramist and illustrator of the Art Nouveau movement (in Italy known as Liberty). Chini’s signature and the date of the restoration can be seen on the faux marble plinth in the middle of the left wall. The restoration work fits well into the late nineteenth-century Italian climate, where the recovery of medieval culture and the history of the ancient municipalities served to express the patriotic ideals, as well as the characters of the people of newly shaped Italy. A more detailed account of Galileo Chini’s operations emerges from the testimony of Professor Roberta Roani Villani, an expert in pictorial and sculptural restorations from the 1500s to the 1900s, who provided historical advice for the last restoration of the frescoes in this room. In San Miniato these ferments led to an intensification of historical studies on the medieval city. In 1876 Giuseppe Rondoni published Memorie storiche di San Miniato (Historical Memories of San Miniato). The book reconstructs the ancient events of the commune. The theme of the coats of arms and that of the history of the illustrious San Miniato occupies the decoration of three entire walls of the current Council Room, formerly the Entrance Hall. The frescoes, created by canon Galli Angelini in 1928, are ideally connected to the decoration of the Hall of the Seven Virtues, and are inspired by Rondoni’s book in the choice of the main characters of the ancient history of San Miniato.