A Brief History of Orsanmichele in Florence
What is Orsanmichele?
Orsanmichele is an unusual 14th-century church that once served as a commercial and social hub of the city.
Reflecting the blended religious and commercial function of Orsanmichele, the name is a combination of three words. The church was originally founded in the 9th century as an oratory for the monastery of San Michele and was surrounded by a large vegetable garden (or orto in Italian). Over time, the name Orto di San Michele melded into Orsanmichele. The building subsequently served an important function for the Florentine people by acting as a grain storage and market.
The current stone structure you see was erected in the 1330s after the previous wooden one was destroyed by fire (quite common in medieval Europe). The two upper floors would have been used as offices and storage for grain, whilst the ground floor would have been an open market, with the large external arches welcoming in passers-by. Inside you can still find the original rectangular grain chutes built into two large columns. The loggia was home to the miraculous image of the Blessed Madonna, which allegedly performed many miracles, particularly during plagues. Eventually, in the early 15th century, the market was converted into a chapel for Florence’s artisanal and trade guilds.
Orsanmichele is also notable for its 14 elegant exterior sculptures, commissioned by the major guilds of Florence. Guilds were powerful unions that represented the different trades in the city, such as banking, silk weaving, wool manufacturing and medicine. The guilds used the opportunity to decorate Orsanmichele as a way to demonstrate their power, wealth and influence. Each guild attempted to outdo their rivals by commissioning the best sculptors of the day and using particularly expensive materials. The sculptures vary wildly in style and date of construction, the earliest being the 1399 Madonna of the Rose by Pietro di Giovanni Tedesco for the guild of doctors and spice merchants, and the latest being a 1601 rendering of Saint Luke by Giambologna in bronze for the guild of judges and notaries. This figure, facing Via dei Calzaiuoli, is in contrapposto (a position where the body has most of its weight on one foot and exhibits a twisting torso), a popular pose of Renaissance figures. While the serenity of Tedesco’s Madonna, round the corner on Via dei Lamberti, created a century earlier, demonstrates the Gothic taste for solemn depictions of religious figures.
Other standout sculptures include Donatello’s Saint George, facing Via Orsanmichele, who stares out in stoic solidarity, and Andrea del Verrocchio’s Christ and Saint Thomas, on Via dei Calzaiuoli, which was made for the merchants’ court. The scene immortalises the moment Thomas feels the wounds of Christ and thus comes to believe in the Resurrection. The merchants’ court was where guild matters were adjudicated, and so the imagery of Thomas needing proof would have appealed to them. Verrocchio’s sculpture is in bronze (ten times more expensive than marble) and so was produced with a flat back to save money. The stillness of the central figure encapsulates the divinity of Christ, while the dynamic pose of Thomas imbues the figure with humanity.
The sculptures have been damaged over the years and so the originals are now kept upstairs in the former granary, while Donatello’s Saint George can be seen in the Bargello.
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