- Published on Monday, 25 June 2012 19:06
The Institute began as a Monastery of Dominican nuns in 1323, thanks to an inheritance from Cardinal Niccolo’ Albertini of Prato.
The first nucleus of Nuns was established in 1328. In the beginning, only basic and essential monastic buildings were erected but over time the nucleus was modified and added to.
On 21st March 1874 Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, transformed the Monastery into a Conservatory and entrusted the nuns with the task of providing young noblewomen with an education and giving them religious instruction.
In order to accommodate the young boarders, the architect Giuseppe Valentini began the building of a new wing in the beautifully refined Neoclassical style.
Following the brief Napoleonic suppression of the Conservatory from 1808 to 1814, the Monastery and the Convent gained new life, partly thanks to the fusion with the nuns of St. Clement, who were also a Dominican Order.
The wisdom and practical work of Cesare Guasti, who was President of the Conservatory for two decades (1869-1889) allowed the Institute to open up to a state education system and to eventually accept external students without, however, making concessions to its cultural tradition.
The Nuns’ teaching was to have a positive effect on generations of Infants and Primary School teachers who graduated from the Istituto Magistrale of San Niccolò and who had, in Mother Cecilia Vannucchi , a prestigious figure in Prato’s cultural scenario, an unsurpassable role model for the personal and Christian education of younger generations, thanks also to her lucid and modern openness to the changing of the times.
It was also Mother Cecilia who set up the library , now containing over 30,000 volumes, located in a renovated section in a particularly evocative setting, given that it overlooks the Renaissance cloister of the convent, making it delightfully suitable for reading and research.
Mother Cecilia, along with the community, received further credit during the Second World War, for daring to take serious risks by generously giving hospitality to a large number of people in the convent during the Resistance period.
Today the Conservatory of San Niccolò, which became a Foundation with the approval of the Final Balance of 21st March 2006, continues its cultural and educational works with its schools that range from the crèche for infants, through to Pre-school, Elementary School, Middle School and the Scientific High School, thereby actively carrying on its deep-rooted tradition.
The imposing complex of San Niccolò, which is becoming more and more well-known and valued for its history and art treasures, is considered one of the most prestigious Institutes in Prato, as it adds prestige not only to the town, but also to the various activities which are carried out within its walls.
Chronology of works and events
With the realization of the first nucleus of the Convent the Romanesque Church was built, which originally had a high central nave, a trussed ceiling and side aisles with wooden-panelled ceilings. Later on, with the separation of the Choir, the 14th-century plan was modified and unified with large cross-vaults: the old frescoes were painted over with those by Niccolò Nannetti, which we can still see today. In order to add comfort to monastic life, the Old Refectory was built, above which we find the corridor and the current nun’s cells, whereas the portico of the monastery garden served as a support for the addition of new cells.
On the back wall of the old refectory there is a large triptych, frescoed by the Prato artist Tommaso di Piero del Trombetto, which features in sequence, the Madonna delle Carceri, a large Crucifixion and the Flagellation of Christ, also known as Christ at the Column.
On the back and side walls, in accordance with the wishes of Francesco di Marco Datini, a section was realized containing wooden choir stalls in order to provide seating for the nuns.
Adjacent to the old refectory is the Capitolo or Chapter house (“Aula Capitolare”), a smaller room but still with semicircular arches, where the nuns would meet with the Prioress in order to discuss problems relating to the Convent.
The Chapter house displays a splendid decorated coffered ceiling and the back wall features a frescoed triptych by Giralomo Ristori, with a view of 14th-century Prato in the background of the central panel, a Crucifixion.
At the side of the Complex, the Noviciate was erected during the Renaissance era. Once completed, it was decorated with frescoes during the Neo-classical period. The Renaissance also saw the building of the Cloister, which supports part of the cells and the whole of the Library. Among the several Refectories, the so-called Refettorio a Grasso, otherwise known as the refettorio a Grasso o di S.Domenico, was used by the nuns who needed a more nourishing diet during a period of convalescence. On the back wall there is a fresco of a Last Supper with San Domenico (Saint Dominic), together with the other Brothers, painted by Bartolomeo Bocchi during the second half of the fifteenth century. This work was donated by Margherita Datini, who is shown at the bottom of the painting with her adopted step-daughter, Ginevra.
By going along the closed Cloister, you can reach the Spezzeria, or druggist’s, whose cabinets are painted with scenes in shades of blue, inspired by Delft pottery. Next to the old pharmacy is the so-called stanza dei Padri(Fathers’ Room), with its refectory table and blue painted cabinets.
The Noviciate dates back to a number of different periods, having been started during the Renaissance and subsequently decorated with frescoes above the doorways of the novices’ chambers.
During the Baroque era, which coincided with the period during which the Convent was a closed order, the Choir was separated from the body of the nave. The ceilings were lowered, forming cross vaults, and the windows were altered from their classical Romanesque structure to a bell shape.
The columns were constructed from serpentine, a green mineral extracted in the outer Prato district of Galceti, and were plastered and painted to look like light-coloured marble, whereas the sandstone capitals were gilded.
Part of the Choir was sectioned off, thereby allowing the nuns of the closed order to receive communion without being seen.
The current wooden choir stalls were built during the eighteenth century.
With the arrival in Florence of the Grand Duke Leopold II of Lorraine, a number of Conservatories were set up in order to provide hospitality and education for a number of categories of young ladies. The purpose of San Niccolò was to “conserve the noble spinsters”.
Giuseppe Valentini (1752 – 1833) was the architect commissioned by the Grand Duke to design the Neoclassical wings, with meeting rooms on the ground floor and accommodation for the young noblewomen on the second floor. The second-floor chambers are now used as spacious classrooms for Infants and Primary School pupils. The elegant meeting rooms on the ground floor were frescoed by Luigi Catani (1762-1840), a painter from Prato.
The school complex, which was set up with the Conservatory, currently includes a crèche, Pre-School, Infants, Primary and Secondary School. The Secondary School is an Italian Scientific High School. As from 2006 the San Niccolò Conservatory has been a legally constituted Foundation.