The Church of Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence is located in the pretty little square that bears the same name, in the heart of the city, at a few steps away from Ponte Vecchio.
By Romanesque-Mannerist architectural style, it was built starting from the 12th century. The works continued, in fits and starts, until the 20th century. And just the numerous interventions carried out in such a long period of time give us a structure with unique characteristics.
The first list of Florentine churches, dating back to 1116, also testifies to the presence of the Church of Santo Stefano al Ponte.
Most likely the structure was built well before: according to some Florentine legends it existed since the time of Charlemagne.
Over the years many wealthy families kept tombs and chapels there: Lamberti, Montagliari, Gherardini, Girolami, Baldovinetti, Riccomanni, Bellandi, Bertoldi, Ragaletti, Bartolommei, Gucci.
Among the most significant works we point out those carried out between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which contributed to creating what is the current appearance of the church: three single lancet windows were built, a portal, the single nave, the roof with exposed trusses, the three chapels of the choir.
The cloister was built in the 15th century.
A century later, new side altars were created according to the Council of Trent rules.
In the mid-1600s the works involved the internal part, with a complete remodelling and the redefinition of the choir and crypt.
In 1783 the church received numerous furnishings from the Church of Santa Cecilia and was re-consecrated as the priory of Stefano and Cecilia Saints.
Then, let’s jump to the period between the nineteenth and twentieth century’s, when the whole city of Florence was protagonist of an urban modernization.
At this juncture, it comes one of the most beautiful works of the church: the stairway of Santo Stefano al Ponte was inherited by the Basilica of Santa Trìnita. It is a great staircase with a balustrade by Bernardo Buontalenti.
Together with this, numerous furnishings made by Giambologna also arrived here.
Other restoration works involved the internal Gothic niche, the construction of retaining walls for the staircase, the Romanesque mullioned windows on the façade.
After the destruction of the Second World War and the flood of 1966, it was reopened for worship in 1981.
It was suppressed again in 1986 because of the reduction of parishes in the historic centre of Florence and the depopulation.
At this moment, however, the second life of the Church of Santo Stefano al Ponte begins. In fact, numerous works of art from churches no longer officiated begin to converge in the sacristy, in the Cappella degli Orafi and in the adjacent rooms.
In this way the future Diocesan Museum was born.
Since 2015 Santo Stefano has hosted the Crossmedia Group exhibitions.
The Church of Santo Stefano al Ponte blends three styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Florentine Baroque.
Let’s find out its features:
- The facade: the lower part immediately refers us to the Romanesque style. The portal framed by a facing in white and green marble from Prato is striking. The two side doors suggest the old structure with three naves. More modern aspects in the upper part, with a facing made between the 13th and 14th centuries;
- Interior: among the most important features we find the sixteenth-century side altars, built on the model of Vasari’s ones in Santa Croce. Particularly interesting are the seventeenth-century decorations commissioned by Bartolommei, on the model of the Florentine Baroque. Central tribune-chapel and two lateral chapels form the presbytery. The staircase with a marble balustrade by Buontalenti is decidedly suggestive, with the steps resembling the valves of a shell;
- Counter-façade: here we can admire the tombstone by Ferdinando Bartolommei and a stoup in Carrara marble;
- Bellandi Chapel: next to the presbyter we find this chapel which in the XIV century boasted a painting by Taddeo Gaddi and today it presents a Virgin dating back to the XVIII century;
- Main altar and choir: the main altar comes from Santa Maria Nuova and it was made by Giambologna, with a white marble counter. The choir has a square plan and it was rebuilt in the Baroque era. The walnut wooden choir was carved in 1650 by the Florentines directed by Jacopo Sani;
- False chapel on the left: built to obtain a service area, it boasts the Baptism of Christ by Jacopo Confortini;
- The crypt: with architectural elements and broken lines, pillars, capitals with only mouldings, low vaults, pillars instead of columns, decorative members of the ceiling;
- Courtyard: of fifteenth-century origins, it boasts mullioned windows in ‘pietra serena’ and a circular well. Grants access to the Orafi Chapel. The portico has medieval characteristics, with tombstones and funeral inscriptions, a fountain with a mask and a stone well.
What to see
Let’s find out which are the most important artistic works in the Church of Santo Stefano al Ponte:
- Bronze frontal with bas-relief of the Martyrdom of Santo Stefano by Ferdinando Tacca;
- Marble relief in pietra serena of Madonna and Child by the Master of Marble Madonnas;
- San Filippo altarpiece by Francesco Bianchi Buonvita;
- Altarpiece Crucifixion;
- Altarpiece Deposition by Santi di Tito;
- Altarpiece Apparition of the Madonna and angels in San Lorenzo by Matteo Rosselli;
- Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria of the Cigoli school;
- San Zenobius resurrecting a boy by Mauro Soderini;
- Conversion of Paul by Francesco Morosini;
- Death of Santa Cecilia in the presence of Urbani I by Francesco Curradi;
- Saint Augustine, Saint Monica and other Augustinian saints in the presence of the Virgin of Santi Tito.
Diocesan Museum of Santo Stefano al Ponte
In the premises of the rectory and in the spaces adjacent to the Church of Santo Stefano al Ponte we find the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art.
The museum opened in 1983 and suffered serious damage during the Via Georgofili bombing in 1993. It was re-opened in 1995.
As soon as we enter we find ourselves in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, with an eighteenth-century tablecloth on the altar, a seventeenth-century chalice, a lectern, bronze candelabra, a nineteenth-century missal, a bag.
Next to this, there is the Cappella degli Orafi of the San Luca company. Inside it, we can admire a painted cross dating back to the fourteenth century and attributable to Taddeo Gaddi. Among the paintings we find the Crucifixion by Cenni di Francesco, the Madonna with Child of the neo-Byzantine school, the Madonna of Humility, three Madonna with Child by masters of the end of the fourteenth century from Valdelsa.
In the museum we can admire the painting Meeting of Abraham’s servant with Rebecca at the well by Santi di Tito, paintings by Giovanni del Biondo, a table by Bicci di Lorenzo with Saint Lucy, Saint Magdalene and San Donato bishop, a table by the Master of Santa Verdiana, the triptych of Lorenzo di Niccolò Gerini, the table of Domenico di Michelino, the Polyptych by Gàliga, the Annunciation by Bicci di Lorenzo, the Annunciation, Master of the Madonna Straus.
The largest room in the museum is the sacristy. Inside it we find the most important painting of the structure, namely the Madonna di San Giorgio alla Costa by Giotto.
But also the Predella of Quarate by Paolo Uccello and the San Giuliano by Masolino da Panicale.
Also noteworthy are the bronzes, such as the bust of Blessed Davanzato by Pietro Tacca. Or the silverware, with the Bust of San Cresci based on a design by Giovan Battista Foggini and the Reliquary of San Frediano.
In the small rooms of the museum we observe liturgical objects, ten statues by Benedetto Buglioni which make up a crib, the statue of the Madonna with Child by Nino Pisano, fourteenth-century paintings.
Among the peculiarities that make unique this church we find the broken lines, an architectural feature that distinguishes the interiors.
The renovations carried out between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought with them the use of modules based on sequences of broken lines, instead of circular modules.
The goal was to propose modules that approximated a circle. Geometrically we can conceive the circle as a polygon in which the number of sides tends to infinity.
For example, we do not find traditional round arches in the church. But with an approximation of the semicircle, drawn with sequences of broken lines.
The choice pertains to theological symbolism: the sequence of broken lines aims to obtain an increasingly defined circle as the number of lines increases. But it can never be superimposed on a perfect circle.
All of this is a metaphor for the Faithfull’s growing efforts to imitate Christ.
How to reach it
The church is in a very central and privileged position. It is located in Piazza di Santo Stefano. It is within walking distance by Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery.
It can also be reached on foot from the Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station, at only one kilometre away.