Although the documentary attestation of the ecclesia S. Maria Forisportam is rather late (XII century), the church has far more ancient origins. It dates from certainly before the building of the second circle of walls (half of the XII century), which included it inside the structure of the town. It has been assumed that the church could even date back to the VIII century, when the extra-urban name of S. Maria Forisportam is documented in other Longobard centres like Lucca and Castelseprio.
Under this name the church is mentioned in the tithe and pastoral visit registers until the end of the XV century; but, from the XVI century on, it appears with the new name of S. Maria de Humilitate. In 1495, indeed, the works for the construction of a new big octagonal base temple began, after the Madonna of Humility image, kept in the old church, was attributed some miraculous events. The project for the new church, with a cupola and a wide vestibule, was carried out in stages by Ventura Vitoni, Sangallo and Giorgio Vasari.
After the new sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Humility was completed in December 1579, the miraculous image was transferred in it; than the ancient S. Maria Forisportam was pulled down. Until then it had been regularly served within the monumental vestibule. Finally the new church, appointed prioress by Leone X, was consacrated by the bishop of Sarsina and apostolic delegate Angelo Peruzzi, on December 31st 1583.
The church was under the patronate of the "General Council of Pistoia", which had liberally contributed to the construction. With the 8th December 1931 brief, Pio XI granted the sanctuary the name and the rank of minor basilica. The building is considered the most important Renaissance testimony of the monumental architecture in Pistoia.
It has a central octagonal plan, surmounted by a cupola and preceded by a vestibule with a hemispheric calotta small cupola.The construction of the temple was decided in 1494, to provide the miraculous fresco figure with a worthier seat. It represents the Madonna of Humility and was painted by an unknown painter on the walls of the small church S. Maria Forisportam. On July 17th 1490 this image would have given off sweat to show the Virgin's sorrow for the fraticidal wars which afflicted the town at that time.
On September 3rd 1495, the bishop of Pistoia Niccolò Pandolfini laid the fist stone of the new building, while the small ancient medieval church was being pulled down, except for that part of the wall containing the miraculous figure.
The project is probably due to the famous Florentine architect Giuliano da Sangallo (about 1443-1516). Shortly before he realized the sacresty of the Holy Spirit Church in Florence, whose octagonal base structure with vestibule is similar to that of the church in Pistoia. In the first stage of the works, Sangallo was helped by his brother Antonio (1453-1534), who measured the foundations of the church.
The carpenter, architect Ventura Vitoni, from Pistoia, was entrusted with the building and, later, he also made changes in some parts of the project, especially in the internal decoration structure. The works on the building grounded to a halt on the death of Vitoni (1522), but they had already been languishing since 1509, for lack of appropriate financial supports. So, after the realisation of the vestibule with beautiful vaults covered by stone caissons, it was necessary to complete the tribune, which was only at the second level of the windows, and to plan the cupola.
This was accomplished by the architect Giorgio Vasari between 1561-1562 and 1567: a third level was added to the octagonal drum and a massive cupola with a lantern at the top was set out in imitation of the one planned by Brunelleschi for the cathedral of Florence. Because of serious problems of instability in the cupola, the grand-ducal architect Bartolomeo Ammannati (between 1575 and 1585) was called to solve them. He was entrusted also with the tasks of finishing the decorations of the chapels in the octagon and of transferring the miraculous Madonna figure to the place of the present high altar, after a difficult but perfectly accomplished operation of removal (1579).
The church was inaugurated the 31st december 1582. The high altar, where the removed Madonna of Humility fresco is, has been realized by the mannerist Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca (1612); the balustrade of the presbytery was planned by the architect from Pistoia Jacopo Lafri in 1597, while the four candle holder angels upon it are by Domenico Marcacci and Pietro Tacca. The basilica and the sacresty next to it are rich in valuable works of art of different kinds.
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