Dispersed Medieval Monastic Archives in Florence (18th-19th c.)
Florence, Basilica of Santa Croce, Cloister, Pazzi Chapel
Florence, Basilica of Santa Croce, Cloister, Pazzi Chapel.
Image by Mattana [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Authors Roberta Giacomi, Vinicio Serafini
Period(s) 1870-1866
Status Final Version



















The monastic presence in the florentine and tuscan territory in general has always been widely spread since the early Middle Ages, though it is not easy to reconstruct a coherent line of documentation for each single monastic establishment, due to the variable nature of the phenomenon. In order to attempt to create a consistent dataset and to make it as uniform as possible, the research focus starts from three well-defined events in history that caused most of the documentation, coming from the monastic corporations or relating to them, to regroup and restructure: the three turns of monastic suppressions in the 18th and 19th centuries. These events represent the crucial moment when most of the documents came out of the monasteries and merged into what became the main fonds of some of the most important florentine public libraries and archives. We try to give a general idea of the suppression’s phenomenon in its varied aspects together with a complete list of the monastic entities, supplied with specific bibliography and archival documentation for each one of them.


The period from the second half of the 18th century to the early years of the unification of the Kingdom of Italy was crucial not only for the relationship between Church and State and their respective authorities, but also for the dispersion and aggregation of a huge amount of documentation and "cultural heritage", which had been in monastic hands. In the Florence city area alone more than one hundred religious corporations were suppressed between year 1780 and 1866, in three different rounds. The first one involved the suppression of various congregations between 1776 and 1790, instituted by the Grand Duke Leopold I of Habsburg-Lorraine within the context of his modernisation project for the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The second round occurred after Tuscany was annexed to the First French Empire, which attempted to import legislation and its own relationship between the Church and State. This process of suppression was split in three further phases, carried out in 1808, 1809 and 1810. The last round came in 1866, a few years after the birth of the Kingdom of Italy. Our main goal is to provide a brief but comprehensive overview of the suppressions, focusing Leopold's and Napoleon's decrees reached the Florence city area, along with supplying descriptions and locations of the main archival and manuscript collections, including both archival material from the suppressed monasteries and documentation regarding their own suppression.

Major Research Issues

The Politics of Suppression of Leopold I 

Leopold I of Habsburg-Lorraine arrived in Florence in 1765 as Grand Duke of Tuscany. Soon after, he ordered an enquiry on the economic situation of his State. After this enquiry, he decided that the huge number of religious entities in Tuscan cities was damaging the economy of the State, due to the financial privileges and legal immunities that the Church granted to its organisations. Leopold decided on a series of reforms aimed at reducing the Church's power. He began in 1776 with the suppression of the order of the Romiti. In the following years, he suppressed both orders and religious congregations that he considered socially useless. This was due for many reasons, including the small number of members, the lack of public utility and, last but not least, the scandals in some of them. This process of suppression did not occur exclusively in Tuscany; Leopold was in correspondence with his brother, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, who was pursuing a similar policy. During this period, several European countries attempted to limit the power of the Roman Church, along with many Italian cities, with different results. Through his reforms, Leopold I successfully suppressed the majority of congregations, along with some monastic orders. In 1790, on the death of Joseph II, he left Tuscany for Vienna, for his accession as Holy Roman Emperor. Before his departure, Leopold established a Regency Council, charged with continuing the suppressions program that he had led. Although Leopold's instructions were clear, this transfer of authority caused a period of mayhem and insurrection. The Council, fearful of the possible effects of these revolts, restored the congregations, though without their goods. After Leopold's death in 1792, his son Ferdinand III, now Grand Duke of Tuscany, began a policy of large concessions to the ecclesiastics. Thus, the Tuscan clergy managed to regain lost privileges and, in some cases, restore the suppressed monasteries.

Main Goal of Leopold's Suppressions: the Congregations in Tuscany

Religious congregations made up the bulk of Leopold's suppressions.  These congregations resembled aid organizations, neither completely religious nor lay. They did not belong to a monastic order, although they gathered in religious places and carried out similar tasks to clerical foundations. The congregations had greatly grown in the 18th century, which had resulted in a large increase of members. Leopold was concerned about this increase, and thus decided to act. The congregations, created in the Middle Ages, were devoted to humanitarian support, and well-known and respected. Their popularity, together with the considerable growth of the members, alarmed Leopold, who viewed them as a cause of potential revolt. There was also a need to reform the clergy's privileges, and weaken the Church's control, all reasons for the Grand Duke's suppressions. Leopold began suppressing minor monastic orders and monasteries with small numbers of members. Finally, by edict on the 21 March 1785, he abolished the congregations, allowing just one congregation in every Curia. This was accompanied by a survey led  by the Abbot Lorenzo Mehus, who was a supporter of the reforms. The aim of the survey was to endorse the suppressions and claim that the congregations were against to the "Holy Canon", offensive toward the ecclesiastic class, despised the parish churches and, above all, that they were growing uncontrollably.  However, this edict had a short life-span, as the congregations were restored after Leopold's departure in 1790, due of a series of revolts involving Florence.

Results of Leopold's Suppressions

Religious reforms in Tuscany began before Leopold's arrival in 1765. His father Francis I, when Grand Duke of Tuscany, started the first measures in 1737, with the aid of his Regency Council. He established a deputation for an enquiry on the "Luoghi Pii" (Pious Places), in order to control and verify the real benefits that the religious entities gave to the population. The Regency attempted to confirm the State's prerogatives over some privileges that the Church had assumed without any authority. For example, in Florence the clergy was obliged to pay a universal collection, as they refused to pay taxes, considering themselves exempt. In 1738, a law on the license to carry weapons was issued. In 1743, a law on the press was issued which made the Church's participation optional. In 1744 an order proclaimed that the S. Uffizio jail, the Church's prison, be open until the management was given over to those in religious orders. rather than lay. In 1751 Count Richecourt issued the so-called "Manomorta" law, aimed at preventing ecclesiastical entities from purchasing estates if they kept their properties unproductive. Without the permission of the sovereign, all goods valued at above one hundred zecchini and all estates could not be sold to the Church. In the following years this law was weakened, until 18 September 1763, when an exemption for congregations and hospitals was established. 

This was the situation when Leopold arrived in Tuscany in 1765. In 1766 he immediately decreed the enquiry on the economic situation of his State. He soon intervened in religious matters, insisting that every nunnery have a "secular worker", whose role was to control, judge and gather information regarding the balance sheets. On 2 March 1769 he issued a law that overhauled the "Manomorta" law, and reinforced it by another provision dated from 12 December 1771. On 10 November 1769, he abolished the right of asylum, and ordered the arrest of criminals sheltered in churches and cloisters. On 2 June 1770, the jails of the convents were put under the authority of the State and guarded by the civil court. On 18 march 1770, with a motu proprio, he ended the tax exemptions on ecclesiastic properties. In 1775 Leopold forbade the ecclesiastic profession for the underaged, abolished tax exemptions on secular ecclesiastic goods, and banned the pensions of the Knights of Malta and the Order of Saint Stephan. In 1776, he start the first suppression of a religious orders. The Romiti, considered useless to the State and the Church, was suppressed. In 1777 he banned the immunity of the ecclesiastic court and forbade the request of waivers to the Roman Curia, without the approval given by the Segretario del Regio Diritto. On January 1778, Giulio Rucellai, who held this post, issued a demand for detailed balance sheets to the bishops, who had to give informations regarding a number of their convents and religious members (both males and females), along with the incomes of every convent and the amount of money that they sent to Rome. Rucellai aimed to suppress the less-populated convents and control the rest. On 21 June 1779 the Grand Duke ordered the Regulars not to pay any sum outside the Grand Duchy, without the permission of the government. In the same year, he suppressed the Scopetini order, and, on 4 December he issued a newsletter on the convents, in which he encouraged the bishops to collaborate, in order to cause few economics difficulties and a "more peaceful life for the nuns". 

1781-1782 was the real turning point for these reforms. On 7 January 1780, Leopold warned Tuscan bishops of his intentions to suppress all convents considered useless. The pace of the suppressions increased for monasteries and minor orders. In 1781 the Celestine orderwas ordered to return to their abbeys in Naples and give part of their goods to the diocese of Florence. In 1782 the monasteries of the Discalced Augustinians and five convents of the Minim friars were suppressed. In 1783, Leopold suppressed the Cistercian order, and formed an ecclesiastic patrimony in Romagna with its incomes. From 1782 to 1790, the Grand Duke persevered in his attempt to separate the Tuscan clergy from Rome: he abolished the pensions forced by the Roman Court on Tuscan religious entities and cancelled the collection of benefits from Rome. Leopold proclaimed himself as "Church's protector", relying on the anti-Roman tendencies of the bishops. In 1782 he attempted to limit the number of young women in the convents, ordering that each monastery should rely only on their income, and maintain a proportional number of nuns. He also increased the minim age to enter a convent to 18 years, and to the clerical profession to 25 for friars and 30 for nuns. On 30 October 1784 he instituted the Ecclesiastic Patrimonies: separated in one fund for every diocese, which absorbed the goods of the suppressed congregations and orders.
On 21 March 1785 the congregations were suppressed, probably Leopold's most important act in this field.
In 1786 the first round of suppressions were finished with impressive results. On 2 October 1788, with a motu proprio, the Grand Duke ordered that all regular orders be subject to the Tuscan bishop in their diocese. Finally, in 1790, Leopold returned to Austria to become Holy Roman Emperor, leaving Tuscany in the hands of his Regency Council. Although his provisions had been successful, all these changes destabilised government power, resulting in a series of revolts, which began in 1786, after the synod of Pistoia. The revolts reached to Florence on 9 June 1790 and the reinstatement of traditions and rituals along with the reduction of the price of oil and grain were some of the requests of the rioters. The alarmed Regency Council restored the congregations and some of the religious rituals that were abolished. Leopold was not pleased by the Regency Council's decisions of the Regency Council, and restored the death penalty and sent Austrian troops into Tuscany. Leopold died in February 1792, and his son Ferdinand III succeeded him as Grand Duke of Tuscany. He began with a policy of concessions to the ecclesiastic class. By a law of 19 October 1792, he conceded to the bishops and archbishops of Tuscany the right to decide about the minor orders without his approval. The bishops were also restored to their decisive role regarding the printing of books. In addition, clerics received preferential treatment in criminal cases. For a short while, the Tuscan clergy had recovered its lost privileges.

Dispersion of Ecclesiastic Patrimonies

On 30 October 1784, Leopold I established the Ecclesiastic Patrimonies in order to look after the goods of suppressed congregations, and aimed at developing parishes. These Patrimonies were divided in funds, one for every diocese. The capital was formed from the sale of lands and estates previously belonging to convents, monasteries, cloisters and congregations. Its purpose was to support churches and priests, and consequently the education of populace and public worship. With the Patrimonies, Leopold assigned a suitable endowment to the poorer parishes and to entities that could provide public worship to the population, as well as an adequate instruction. After the reduction of the number of religious men, the suppression of convents, together with the absorption of their goods into the Ecclesiastic Patrimonies, Leopold transferred these goods to private owners. Regarding confiscated objects, these were kept in storage, selected, and placed in different public museums. Written documentation was sent to libraries and public archives. With these funds, Leopold created new churches and parishes just outside the cities' walls. These were furnished with objects confiscated from the suppressed entities. This lack of standards or specific orders for the transfer of objects makes the provenance history of these object complicated for art historians. Provenance history is similarly difficult to trace for all written documentation, which was was scattered to different libraries and archives.

Suppressions in Florence

Institutions suppressed by Pietro Leopoldo

Annexation to the French Empire and Financial Crisis

The Kingdom of Etruria was created in 1801 by the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte to replace the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, after the Treaty of Aranjuez. It was annexed to the French Empire in 1807 by the Treaty of Fontainebleau. The new administration faced the problem of a deeply rooted crisis in the Tuscan economy, caused mostly by requisitions and taxes imposed by the first French occupation, along with mismanagement of the Bourbon government of the Kingdom of Etruria. These issues, accompanied by a growth in speculation, had led to a huge national debt of c. 32 millions of francs. Leopold's suppression of several years before had a strong impact in the short term but the ecclesiastic authority had gradually managed to regain their lost privileges and possessions by the beginning of the 19th century, thanks to the restoration politics of Ferdinand III and the later Bourbon regents. In 1804 a court was instituted by the regent Marie Louise de Bourbon in order to supervise the financial situation but it was disbanded in 1805 without significant outcome. The new French administration decided to embark on the expropriation of ecclesiastic patrimonies together with a radical rearrangement of the religious corporations.

Napoleon I: a new round of suppression

On 10 February, 1808, by decree of the "Soprassindaco della Camera delle Comunità", the community chancellors were ordered to gather information concerning any convent in their jurisdiction. Similar demands were made of bishops' palaces, cathedrals, collegiate churches, churches in general, seminaries, colleges and any other kind of ecclesiastic congregation. This was done in order to compile an assessment of all goods held by the Church. On 29 February, 1808, the "Segreteria della Giurisdizione", the appointed authority for the management of ecclesiastical patrimony, was abolished and its duties were directly transferred to the French Ministry of Culture.
On 24 March, 1808 Napoleon I issued a decree suppressing every abbey, convent and monastery within the territory of the old Grand Duchy. The only congregations temporarily spared the ones specifically dedicated to social assistance or instruction. The members of suppressed congregations would be regrouped by order of affinity and salaried with a 500 to 600 francs pension. At the same time no novice was to be admitted to any order without authorization, which could be obtained by depositing a 4000 francs endowment in the public finances. Every possession, income or credit previously held by any of the suppressed or temporary spared corporations became part of the State's patrimony and was registered and disposed of according to the laws of France.
The imperial decree of 13 September, 1810 suppressed the previously spared corporations and, by 1 November 1810, the wearing of monastic clothes was banned.

Sale of ecclesiastic patrimony

While the total amount of the public debt was c. 32 million francs, the huge financial measures concerning the suppressions adopted by the French government returned c. 90 million, three times more than what was needed to restore the territory's situation. The sale of the new confiscated properties started by decree in 9 April, 1809 and was extended for several years. The final goal of this process was not just to reduce public debt but also to institute a stable economy in Tuscany, along with paying those who had advanced credit towards the state in previous decades. The government composed a Public Debt Administration with one director, two associates and 30 counselors, each chosen among the 100 greater creditors. On 21 January 1810, Napoleon I issued a decree to allocate the needed 32 millions and soon the Administration council released a plan to regulate the sale process. The sale phase began in August 1810 and sold 91% of the whole patrimony by March 1813. The operation stopped on the 1  January of 1814, with the start of the fall of Napoleon I's Empire.

Vivant Denon's journey to Florence: the exodus of artworks

The vast number of suppressions caused a peculiar situation for artistic patrimony. The requisition of ecclesiastical assets had produced a huge accumulation of artworks, ornaments and ancient manuscripts in a certain number of warehouses assigned by the new government. This artistic and cultural estate was easy to retrieve, due to lists that were compiled before the first 1809 suppressions, but the real issue was its cataloguing, conservation and sale. A large part was destined for Tuscan museums and libraries but this particular moment was also ideal for collectors and art traders. While no official research commission was sent from Paris, Vivant Denon, director of the Musée du Louvre, managed to be personally dispatched to Italy by the Emperor in 1811 in order make new acquisitions for French collections.

When he came to Florence in October 1811, Denon addressed his requests to Cav. Giovanni Degli Alessandri, director of the Accademia delle Belle Arti, who operated as a guide and tried to obstruct the paintings' exodus at the same time. As he did in Pisa before, his project was to mark and send the best artworks to Paris along with compensating the Accademia and Florence for the loss with other pieces as well as with copies of the removed ones. Before leaving the town, the director selected, among the others, works made by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi, Cosimo Rosselli, Beato Angelico, Raffaellino del Garbo, Filippo Lippi, Gentile da Fabriano. After the first shipment, a dispute began between Degli Alessandri and Denon, as the latter claimed that one of the paintings sent to Paris, and presumably painted by Alessandro Botticelli, was not the one that he personally selected. Due to further requests by Denon in May and August 1812, it is clear that the dispatch to Paris was not easy, as some works were damaged, some turned out to be copies, and some were simply not the ones that had been originally chosen. On 2nd December 1812 Denon informed the French Ministre de l’Intérieur that all the selected works from Italy, apart from those from Florence, had arrived. The dispute likely ended shortly before 13 February 1814, when Denon sent a letter of thanks, as all the pieces he required had finally arrived.

After the fall of the Empire, Denon attempted to legalise the possession of these artworks. He claimed that no appropriation had been imposed as Tuscany was part of the Empire and thus the movement of the paintings was merely part of a reorganisation and not a requisition. Despite his efforts, the "restitution mission" carried out by Degli Alessandri, Pietro Benvenuti and Cav. Karcher in the name of Tuscany was quite successful and 110 boxes containing a large portion of the artworks were sent back from Paris on 24th October 1815. On 26th December 1815 the boxes reached Florence amid the celebration of the populace.

Suppressions in Florence

Institutions suppressed during the French domination

After the unification of the Kingdom of Italy: the final round of suppression

The Third Italian War of Independence resulted in a heavy financial crisis for the young Kingdom of Italy, with a public debt which reached 721 million. The government decided to expropriate ecclesiastical patrimony.

Ecclesiastic suppressions in 1866 and 1867

On 7th July, 1866 the Italian Chamber of Deputies approved, exceptionally and without a further debate by the Chamber of Senators, the law no. 3036, in which every order, corporation or congregation, convent, girls' school or similar religious institute was deprived of any State recognition. Their goods were devolved to the state for public use and the government would return an income to a new ''Fondo per il Culto'' (which took the role of the previous ecclesiastical fund) commensurate with the income of new public patrimony, with a 5% deduction for administration costs.

On 15th August, 1887 a further law (n. 3848) suppressed all 'unnecessary' ecclesiastical institution, sparing seminars, cathedrals, parish churches, rectories, and councils of maintenance. The goods and buildings coming from the suppressed institutions were again turned into public property,although lay patrons were granted the right to claim their respective parts of those goods for 24-30% of their effective price. This law also imposed an extraordinary tax consisting of the 30% of the ''Fondo per il Cult''o.

The estates from the three suppression decrees that followed went partially under control of the State and mostly went directly under local administrations. Documentary and manuscript assets, with a plan to return cultural heritage to public use, were sent form specific collections in the National Archives and Libraries. These newly reorganised institutions were in a critical phase of their existence, which led in many cases to their current structure. In Florence, for example, the BNF (Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze, instituted in 1860 and named BNF in 1885) was given 425 manuscripts from the suppressed convents. With this last suppression the BNF collections containing documents and manuscripts from the ecclesiastical orders reached the current size.

Suppressions in Florence

Institutions suppressed after the Italian Unification


Primary  sources

AsFi (Archivio di Stato di Firenze)

Capitoli Compagnie Archivio di Stato

Corporazioni Religiose Soppresse dal Governo Francese

BNFC (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze)

Fondo Conventi Soppressi

Regione Toscana - Giunta Regionale

I Luoghi della Fede

Secondary sources