The Medici rule
The Oratorio di San Martino is a small hidden attraction in the huge museum that is the city of Florence. To understand the Oratorio di San Martino, we must go back in time to the 15th century when the Medici family started to rule Florence Italy. Cosimo the Elder was the first Medici ruler. He had an uncontested (although unofficial) power after 1433. The Medici had the support of the lower classes, they were very generous, both directly and funding charity organizations. At the same time, in order to keep their power, they often had to get rid of their enemies and competitors. Cosimo de Medici used the official government of the Republic of Florence, that he controlled 100%, to impose special taxes to his competitors, often sending them to bankrupt. Rich people, in a short time, became poor and was too proud to ask for help. And here comes the Oratorio di San Martino.
A Dominican friar of the San Marco convent, Antonino Pierozzi, was well aware of the problem. This was a new category of poor people, they were not born poor, but became poor all of a sudden, making it difficult for them to even ask for help. Antonino in 1441 founded the Compagnia dei Buonomini, a group of 12 people, whose name was rigorously secret, with the goal of helping these new needy families. They were given the church of San Martino al Vescovo (later destroyed), what remains today is the Oratory, hence the name Oratorio di San Martino. Why San Martino? San Martino was a Roman soldier who cut his cloak in two to help a naked man, so a great example of generosity. The Compagnia received many funds, also because Antonino Pierozzi became archbishop of Florence in 1446. Cosimo the Elder tried to corrupt him, but he resisted and is remembered as one of his enemies, ironically coming out from the convent of San Marco, built and decorated with Cosimo’s money.
The Medici Buonomini
Even though, at first sight, the Compagnia dei Buonomini was something started to contrast the power of the Medici family, later Cosimo the Elder himself generously sponsored the organization; next generations of the Medici will be part of the Buonomini, as we can see in archive documents with the list of Buonomini (click pictures to enlarge):
M. Giulio de Medici Cardinale, e di poi Papa Clemente VII
The Oratorio di San Martino
The institution still exists and still helps poor people, even if today the target is needy families in general, they always prefer to help people to “pick themselves up”. The Oratorio di San Martino is in the Piazza di San Martino. It looks like a small church: outside you’ll see a hole in the wall: that’s where the handouts were deposited. Historically, when the funds were lacking, the Oratorio di San Martino used to light up a candle to advise the population. On top of this cross-shaped hole there is a nice plaque, saying that “everytime you give something to the Oratorio di San Martino, you receive a discount of 2800 years of Purgatory, as stated by 5 Popes”!! Worth an offer, don’t you think? Entering the oratory, you will notice another small room on the left where a very old man, the keeper (and sometimes a very old woman too) stay all day. On the right is the box for handouts, I always leave something when i go (I don’t know if the hole outside is still used, but probably it is). On top of the altar, there’s a bust of Saint Antonino, founder of the Compagnia dei Buonomini, while the lateral lunettes are decorated with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop (late 15th century).
This attraction is overlooked by most of the walking tours in Florence. All the groups turn the corner just a few steps away to see the house of Dante Alighieri (fake building made up in 1911) and the church of Dante: actually, the parish church of Dante Alighieri was exactly the church of San Martino al Vescovo, which doesn’t exist anymore… Well, that’s what you get from Tour Operators. It’s a shame, because the Piazzetta di San Martino has more to offer than just the Oratorio di San Martino. If you want to see the real Florence, you can contact us to arrange a nice walking tour.
Oratorio di San Martino map
The Oratorio di San Martino can be found at this location: