The Certosa is comprised of various structures: a church, chapter house, sacristy, refectory, cloisters, workshops, and residences for the monks and lay brothers. It was designed to accommodate a maximum of 18 cloistered monks and 5 lay brothers, as evident from the number of dwellings throughout the entire complex. The cloistered monks occupied rather spacious cells, as they were required to spend the majority of their existence in contemplation. They could only leave their cells on special occasions, such as Sundays, for meals, prayer, and the sole hour of weekly conversation. On all other days, the hermit monks remained within their cells. Only on Sundays and holidays did everyone gather to eat in silence while listening to the reading of the Gospels, sacred texts, and the Rule, which took place from a pulpit located in the refectory. On other days, meals were served by the lay brothers through a hatch next to the door of each cell. Space was crucial for the monks, given their condition of isolation; the only moments of congregation, apart from Sunday/holiday meals, were during church services and the weekly hour of conversation and recreation, held in the so-called “parlor.”
The cells of the lay brothers, on the other hand, were considerably small, consisting only of a single room and a service area. The life of the lay brother, dedicated to the service of the monastery and the hermit Fathers, unfolded outside the cell, except during moments of rest. They tended to the garden and the grounds, took care of cleanliness, food, exchanges, and were thus always in motion. Like the monks, an area for recreation was designated for them, consisting of a cloister with a double order of columns.
Constructed starting from 1341 at the behest of Niccolò Acciaiuoli, the Grand Seneschal of the Kingdom of Naples and a member of one of Florence’s most illustrious families, this cloister was almost completed by the time of his death in 1365. The Certosa was subsequently expanded and enriched through numerous donations over the centuries. Its name and architectural typology are derived from the Grande Chartreuse, the first house of the Carthusian order built in 1084 by St. Bruno in the Chartreuse massif near Grenoble. Like all Carthusian monasteries, it is located away from the city, in an originally solitary and quiet location.
After the suppression of religious orders in 1810, the Certosa was stripped of approximately 500 works of art, only partially returned after the restitution to the Carthusians and the return of the House of Lorraine in 1818. Many furnishings, as well as paintings and sculptures, were irretrievably dispersed. For instance, the altarpiece of the church’s main altar, commissioned by Niccolò Acciaiuoli from Gherardo Starnina (Madonna and Saints), is now divided among foreign museums and collections.
Once again suppressed in 1866 by decree of the Kingdom of Italy, the Carthusians were allowed to return in 1872, albeit only for use, with ownership remaining with the Italian state through the FEC. The earthquake of 1895 necessitated restoration efforts, and a substantial renovation was completed in the late 1950s. The Carthusians, monks of strict enclosure, were replaced in 1958 by the Cistercian Benedictines, who made the extensive complex accessible to the public. Since 2017, the Cistercians have been succeeded by the Community of San Leolino. The complex was carefully studied and became a fundamental creative stimulus for the renowned Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who visited it in his youth.