Certosa di Pontignano Congress Centre - University of Siena
UniveritÓ degli Studi di Siena


The history of the Certosa di Pontignano

In 1341 Bindo di Falcone, a Sienese gentleman who had become wealthy through trade, in particular with the Papacy, acquired land and properties in the small “community” of Pontignano and donated them to a Carthusian monk from Aquitaine, Brother Amerigo, to build a monastery (Certosa) dedicated to St Peter. At the time the Carthusian order was expanding throughout Italy, and Tuscany was one of their preferred locations. This led to the construction of several monasteries: first the Certosa di Maggiano, built in 1314 on the orders of Cardinal Riccardo Petroni, a cousin of Bindo di Falcone, then the Certosa di Belriguardo, realized with the support of the banker Niccolò Cinughi, and finally Pontignano.

Bindo di Falcone, who had already supervised the construction of Maggiano (as the executor of the will of his cousin the Cardinal), received an authorization from the Bishop on 8 August 1343 to build the monastery at Pontignano, which was to include a church, cloisters, cells and other buildings to “house twelve monks, three lay brothers and their servants”. Despite the interesting project, the Carthusians were reluctant to move to Pontignano: Master Bindo therefore decided to pay a rich indulgence to Pope Clement VI in favour of the monks who, by going to live and die in the monastery, would have their sins forgiven. The Certosa di Pontignano is the only one to have preserved its original atmosphere as an oasis of peace, while the monasteries of Maggiano and Belriguardo were used for purposes other than those for which they were built. The architecture of Pontignano as a whole has naturally changed in time, as it has been renovated and modified over the centuries.
The model of construction, typical of Carthusian monasteries, is divided into three parts: an area for the monks’ accommodation, comprising cells arranged around the largest cloister; an area for the lay brothers’ accommodation, and an area dedicated to the church, chapterhouse and refectory, which were situated around the small cloister at the heart of the complex. The church was the first part to be built and retains some fourteenth century characteristics, such as the thickness of the external walls and the arcades.

Situated in open countryside on the border between the States of Siena and Florence, the Certosa needed to mark its boundaries and defend itself against the raids of mercenaries. In 1385 the State of Siena had a sturdy wall built around the monastery in acknowledgement of the settlement’s importance. In the same year St Catherine’s favourite disciple, Stefano Maconi, was appointed prior of Pontignano. It was probably Maconi who obtained the Saint’s ring finger as a relic for the monastery, for which the chapel (later painted by Nasini) was built. The Certosa also enjoyed the protection of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, thanks to the merits acquired by a monk at Pontignano who had overseen much of the construction of the Certosa di Pavia.
Despite its defences, Pontignano was broken into and plundered during the war between Siena and Florence. In 1449 a band of Florentines broke in, and during the “Congiura dei Pazzi” in 1478 (a conspiracy against the Medici rule) the monastery was set fire to. It was immediately rebuilt but plundered again in 1554 by German and Spanish militias.

Construction of the monastery was significantly boosted by renaissance contributions during the late fifteenth century. These interventions are mainly visible in the cloister adjacent to the long side of the church, whose square layout with five spans per side and domical vaults supported by columns with Ionic capitals are a clear example of balance and sobriety. Other minor modifications were made at the end of the seventeenth century, when the rooms along the eastern side of the monastery were renovated and six small chapels were converted into one large chapel (Cappellone). The Cappella di Sant’Agnese (St Agnes’ chapel), whose entrance is situated at the end of the east wing of the large cloister, was built in 1703.
The Carthusians, who had devoted so much care to Pontignano and made it an oasis of peace, left the Certosa around the end of the 18th Century. With a document dated 16 July 1785 the ownership of Pontignano was transferred to Camaldolite monks, who were subsequently forced to leave it following the Napoleonic suppression of monasteries.The parish of San Martino a Cellole was later moved to Pontignano; the buildings, except the home of the parish priest, together with the former monks’ dwellings and some farms were purchased by the Masotti family. In 1886 the buildings were sold to the Cecchini family, who in turn passed them to the Sergardi family in 1919. In 1939 the complex became the property of the Certosa di Pontignano company, one of whose shareholders was professor Mario Bracci.
In the same period Bracci, who was later to become a Judge of the Constitutional Court, had the villa and the small central cloister renovated at his own expense. Throughout the second world war, Pontignano was a secure refuge for Jews and the victims of political persecution. In 1959, the complex was purchased by the University of Siena, who transformed it into a university residence.

The extensive renovations undertaken during the Renaissance and subsequently have not altered the harmony that lay at the basis of the Carthusians’ life and symbolised man’s equilibrium with faith and nature. Here the Chianti countryside shows its softer aspects; the Certosa is separated from nearby Siena by gentle hills, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves and penetrated by carefully tended countryside that merges into its precious gardens.

There is therefore little distinction between inside and outside – between the environment and the Certosa’s harmonious architecture and the works of art that enrich it. The churches in particular provide the most important evidence of this harmony. The first, built with a single nave and divided into three spans covered with domical vaults, has a masonry wall on the inside with an opening in the middle that divides the space into two areas of different sizes: the larger one was for the monks and the smaller one for the lay brothers. The works of art are mainly by the Florentine painter Bernardino Poccetti, who had also worked for the Carthusians in Calci and Florence according to the canons of painting laid down by the Counter-Reformation. Samples of his work can be seen on the walls, telling the Carthusian stories of Saint Bruno and Saint Peter, in the painting behind the altar and the decorations on the main altar.

The rest of the decorations were the work of Orazio Porta, Stefano Cassini and Sienese painters whose style is clearly influenced by that of Francesco Vanni and Alessandro Casolani. Poccetti also painted the fresco of the “Last Supper” in the refectory (1596), a fresco of the “Samaritan at the Well” in one of the monks’ cells and a lunette of the “Death of Saint Bruno” above a door to the cemetery. In the “Cappellone” next to the church, the painting on the main altar is attributed to Francesco Vanni, while the decorations and frescoes on the walls are attributed to Nicola Nasini and his son Apollonio.

In the chapel to the right of the small church, the altar bears the “Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints”, a work which has recently been associated with the name of Cristofano Rustici and provides further evidence of the activities carried out here by artists of the Siena school.

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