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  • Herodotus: bust with head from Roman times, 2nd century A.D., copy of a Greek   original, Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence.zoom in altra finestra
  • Portrait of Herodotus, detail of the profile. Bust with Roman Age head from the 2nd century A.D., copy of a Greek original, Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence.zoom in altra finestra

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

Undoubtedly founded prior to the 11th century, Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the Florentine churches most steeped in history. Of its Romanesque architecture the bell tower, in which are inserted Roman marbles taken from ancient ruins, still remains clearly legible. The interior shows the Gothic features conferred on it in the remodelling that took place in the 13th century, when the church passed under the jurisdiction of the Vallombrosians. The ground plan, of the Cistercian type, has three naves divided by pointed arches, while the presbytery terminates in three shallow chapels. The present-day aspect of the church results from radical restoration carried out in the early 20th century, in which the Baroque superstructures were eliminated in the attempt to restore the Gothic style of the building which, according to Vasari, should be attributed to a certain Maestro Buono. Notable among the numerous works of art adorning the presbytery and the side chapels is a polychrome wooden bas-relief of the Virgin with Child, traditionally attributed to the school of Coppo di Marcovaldo but which according to recent hypotheses might be one of the extremely rare examples of mid-Byzantine painting in Florence.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is interesting for the history is science because of its commemorative monument to Salvino degli Armati, for years erroneously held to be the inventor of eyeglasses. The origin of this legend is rooted in the spirit of local pride of seventeenth-century Florence. It all started with the Lettera intorno all'invenzione degli occhiali [Letter on the invention of eyeglasses] written by Francesco Redi in 1678, in which the erudite scientist from Arezzo published part of a sermon preached by Friar Giordano da Rivalto in 1305 from the pulpit of the church of Santa Maria Novella. The Pisan monk had stated that twenty years had just elapsed since the invention of eyeglasses, a discovery praised by him as one of the most useful to the world. Based on this chronological limit, Redi decided that eyeglasses were invented in Tuscany in the late 13th- early 14th century. Six years after this text was written the Florentine antiquarian Ferdinando Leopoldo del Migliore, moved by his great love for his city, saw this news as a golden opportunity to enhance its glories. In his famous sermon, in fact, Giordano da Rivalto had also stated that he was personally acquainted with the inventor, a personage whose name he failed to reveal. Accordingly, Del Migliore had only to conceive of a plausible historical figure who could play the part of the mysterious inventor. Based on his sound knowledge of the history of the pre-eminent Florentine families, he chose Salvino d’Armato degli Armati as the ideal candidate. The Armati family had died out years ago and its funerary monuments, originally found in Santa Maria Novella, had been destroyed for centuries. Del Migliore thus had little difficulty in stating in his Firenze cittą nobilissima illustrata [Florence, most noble city, illustrated] (1684) that the tombstone of Salvino d’Armato, on which the man was expressly recalled as the "inventor of eyeglasses" had been visible in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore up to a few years earlier. He chose this church not only for its vicinity to the houses of the Armati family (whose name still survives today in the narrow lane nearby), but also because the building had undergone radical restoration in the first half of the 17th century, which easily justified the loss of the tomb. As proof of his claim Del Migliore cited an imaginary Sepoltuario antico [Ancient burial places] of which he possessed a single copy, never seen by others, in which the epigraph appeared in full as follows:

[Here lies Salvino d'Armato degl'Armati of Florence
inventor of eyeglasses
may God pardon his sins]

Del Migliore constructed this historical fraud very skillfully, knowledgeably exploiting objective data taken from previous publications. It is thus unsurprising that, over fifty years later, a serious scholar (although one equally enamoured of Florentine glory) such as Domenico Maria Manni fully confirmed the information, going so far as to compose a work called Degli occhiali da naso inv entati da Salvino Armati [On the nose spectacles invented by Salvino Armati (1738), so successful in Florence at the time that two editions of the text were published. Despite some sporadic criticism, such as that of Tempesti in 1787, Canovai in 1791 and Cantini in 1796, it can be stated that the communis opinio of the scientific world recognised Salvino degli Armati as the inventor of eyeglasses without a shadow of a doubt. The seal of approval to this now widespread belief was given in 1841, a century after Manni's work that had most strongly contributed to consolidating the myth of Salvino, when a monument was erected in the cloister of Santa Maria Maggiore to eternalise the rediscovered glory of the city, with an epigraph that faithfully reported the text cited by Del Migliore, surmounted by a bust with a second-century head from Roman times. In this austere bearded figure, in reality a replica of a Greek portrait of the historian Herodotus, the face of the brilliant inventor who had long remained in the shadow of history was perceived. Leopoldo del Migliore's clever hoax held good until the 1920s, when Isidoro del Lungo subjected the epigraph to methodical philological analysis. Obvious linguistic anomalies, such as the term "inventor", not in use the first half of the 14th century, showed the poor documentary reliability of the inscription. Moreover, no confirmation of the historical existence of a Salvino degli Armati who died in 1317 could be found in other documents from the times. This was the beginning of the systematic demolition of Leopoldo del Migliore's myth conducted by such scholars as Giuseppe Albertotti and Edward Rosen, unfortunately for the monument erected in Santa Maria Maggiore. Already at the end of the 19th century, when the church was secularized and occupied by a school that took the name of Salvino, the monument had been moved to the chapel on the right of the presbytery. On this occasion the original epigraph had been replaced by a replica in which the glaring error "la peccata], a form not used in medieval Italian, had been corrected to "le peccata". After the fraud had been exposed by Isidoro del Lungo, the monument became embarrassing to the local authorities, who had promised since the 1920s that it would be rapidly demolished. Fortunately, not everything was destroyed. The epigraph, walled into a hidden corner of the left chapel, and the head of Herodotus, conserved in the church sacristy, still remain today as testimony to that singular episode in the Florentine scientific culture of the Baroque Age.


Texts by Elena Fani

English translation by Catherine Frost

Last update 16/apr/2009