The Processions of the Madonna of Impruneta
“A peste, fame et bello libera nos Domine” (i.e., From plague, famine and war, o Lord, deliver us). This was the invocation that accompanied the Virgin of Impruneta during her transfers to Florence. The first procession that brought the Madonna of Impruneta to Florence, giving birth to the very close relation that sprang up between the city and the Impruneta icon, took place in 1354, a few years after the black death of 1348.
The historian Matteo Villani, who had lost his brother Giovanni during this plague, described it in his Cronica: the Madonna wasbrought there because of the drought and the procession ended successfully with the coming of the rains. The original tabernacle of the Madonna, now displayed in the section of sacred paraments in the museum, goes back to this time, executed exactly between 1350 and 1360 by a painter called the Master of Tobias after the frescoes with the Stories from the life of Tobias in the oratory of the Bigallo: the Madonna was placed in this tabernacle to be carried to Florence by the Buondelmonti brothers and other members of noble families.
For almost two centuries, from 1354 to 1540, we can count about twenty-five processions, during which the Madonna, venerated as Our Lady of the Rains, was taken to Florence because of the weather, preventing both drought and flood, thus also facing the problem of famine. But soon after, the recourse to the Madonna of Impruneta against the terrible scourge of the plague which she had already succeeded in defeating in the 1383 and 1400 processions led to attributing specific virtues to the Virgin in order to face any difficulty, transforming her into a telluric mother-god, capable of influencing even the political sphere.
In fact, from the second half of the 14th century until the first half of the 15th century, the Madonna was brought to Florence many times in order either to prevent or end wars, sieges and foreign invasions. During the Florentine Republic, the cult of the Virgin of Impruneta was particularly intense: the Madonna was brought there for the 1502 election of the Life Gonfalonier Tommaso Soderini and during the siege of Florence – a period in which the Madonna remained in the city the whole time – was proclaimed the “only and special Queen”. Even greater was the Madonna’s charisma during the Medici period, when the Medici family made the cult of the sacred Image their own to the point of baptizing her the “Family Madonna”.
Two were the most important processions and to these are related the most consistent groups of objects isplayed in the Museum: the one of 1633 in order to overcome the contagion from the plague and the one of 1711 at the request of Cosimo III in order to avoid the end of the Medici dynasty.
The 1633 procession lasted three days which were declared “solemn and festive”. Soon after, the end of the contagion was declared and on 2 October 1633 a large thanksgiving procession went to Impruneta; Cristina of Lorraine and Ferdinando II, who led it, presented the Madonna with some gifts, which are the most precious ones currently on display in the museum.
The 1711 procession was perhaps even more splendid. The real reason for this procession was to beseech the recovery of the Grand Prince; even if Cosimo put forward the usual motivations: the danger of contagion, famine and drought.
The Madonna returned to Impruneta after two weeks overflowing with gifts. Casotti made an exhaustive and precise list of the most important gifts that proved to be extremely useful in the museum’s re-organization.
Even if the cult of the Virgin was scaled down by the lay policy of the Lorraines, yet the processions have continued up to our time. Recently, the Madonna has returned to Florence twice: the first time right after the war and then in 1988, for the Marian year.
by Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani
in Museo del Tesoro di Santa Maria dell’Impruneta, Guida alla visita del museo e alla scoperta del territorio, a cura di Caterina Caneva. Polistampa 2005