Located in the square of the same name along Piaggia di Murello, the Church of Santa Maria in Gradi is one of the largest and most important churches in Arezzo.
Located in an area rich from an archaeological point of view – important kilns of the great Roman ceramists were located here – according to tradition it stands in the area where Bishop Donatus and his followers hid from the persecutions against Christians in the IV century.
In the middle of the XI century, the area contained a small church and monastery dependent on the Benedictine abbey of Agnano in Valdambra. Around 1050, the place of worship was rebuilt larger, in Romanesque style. The crypt along the right wall of the present church is what remains of that structure, which was influenced by Ravenna.
In the mid XII century, the Badia di Agnano accepted the Camaldolese rule and from then until 1785, when the Grand Duchy of Tuscany suppressed many religious bodies, Santa Maria in Gradi was the Camaldolese church in the city par excellence.
In the sixteenth century, the building had eighteen chapels, but was too small and now inadequate, so it was decided to rebuild it. The project was entrusted in 1591 to the Florentine Bartolomeo Ammannati, who built the church according to the principles imposed by the Council of Trent, so it had to be a sober place of worship, built with a single nave, which would allow the sermon to be better heard. The work lasted twenty years. On the death of the Florentine, it was continued by Giorgio Vasari the Younger.
Between 1630 and 1633, the bell tower, in late Mannerist style, was built to a design by Giuseppe Betti. In the course of the century, six chapels were also added, three on each side.
The splendid wooden ceiling dates back to 1711. We can appreciate the large coats of arms: the Camaldolese one in the centre and the other two characterised by the acronyms “SMIG” (Santa Maria in Gradi) and “SMDA” (Santa Maria di Agnano).
Immediately to the left is a late fifteenth-century glazed terracotta from the workshop of Andrea della Robbia, depicting the “Madonna of Mercy between Saints Peter and Benedict”.
Further down the stairs is the crypt or Tomb of the Crucifix. It dates back to the XI century and was part of the Romanesque building. It takes its name from a “Crucifix” dating back to the end of the XIII century, now on the main altar.
Going up into the church, we find the Chapel of the Sacred Heart and opposite, on the floor, what is called the “Well of San Donato”, or the hiding place from persecution of the future patron saint of Arezzo. The chapel altar features a 17th-century “Adoration of the Magi” of Florentine origin.
The Chapel of St Boniface and St Andrew is surmounted by the XVII-century organ. The seventeenth-century works enriching it are by Bernardino Santini. The painter also painted “Il Miracolo di Nicea” (The Miracle of Nicaea), “San Bonifazio che supera la prova del fuoco” (Saint Boniface passing the test of fire) and “Cristo in croce tra i santi Bonifazio e Andrea apostolo” (Christ on the Cross between St. Boniface and St. Andrew the Apostle) for the site.
The eighteenth-century high altar, transferred from the Church of San Bernardo, is surmounted by a vault where Ulisse Giocchi painted “Madonna Assunta in Gloria” (Our Lady Assumed in Glory) around 1600. On the right wall, heading back towards the exit, is the Cantoria (choir loft) with the Chapel of St Joseph and St Benedict below, enriched with paintings by Salvi Castellucci dated 1653-54, depicting the “Virgin and Child with Saints”, the “Dream of St Joseph” and “St Benedict knocking down idols”.
This is followed by the altar with “Our Lady of the Assumption between St. Gregory and St. Romuald” by Bernardino Santini dated 1633 and the Chapel of St. Charles adorned by the Florentine artist Vincenzo Dandini’s painting of “St. Andrew Zorard and St. Charles Borromeo” dated 1658.
Finally, the church walls are decorated with large frescoes of the “Twelve Apostles and St Paul”.
The pictorial cycle was started by Ulisse Giocchi in 1600-01 and finished in 1613 by Giovan Battista Manzolini. In the eighteenth century, the figures were covered with plaster and were rediscovered in the fifties of the last century. Their restoration was completed in 2003.
The single-nave interior of Santa Maria in Gradi, the Camaldolese church par excellence in Arezzo
Madonna of Mercy between Sts. Peter and Benedict from the workshop of Andrea della Robbia (late 15th century)
The crypt along the left wall of the present church, i.e. what remains of the 11th-century building