by Gloria Chiarini

the art of the Guilds

We can find a most unusual building in the heart of mediaeval Florence, between Por Santa Maria, Via Calimala and Via Calzaiuoli, and only a few steps away from the Ponte Vecchio. Orsanmichele started out as a nuns' convent, only to be converted first as a church, then as a corn market, back to a church again and, later still, as a store for grain and archives. Built in stone, the unusual design of this square-shaped two-storey high building, illuminated with huge two-light trefoil windows, more than reflects its eventful history, giving it more the appearance of a large house than a church. 14 statues, priceless masterpieces from the Florentine Renaissance, encircle and decorate the exterior, while the magnificent Gothic tabernacle by Andrea Orcagna (1349-59), containing the painting of the Madonna of Grace by Bernardo Daddi (1347), stands in the interior. We know that this was the site of a nun's convent in early Christian times and that the extensive grounds around the building, cultivated as a market garden, probably stretched as far as the Arno. In 750 the Longobards substituted the oratory with a little church dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, immediately nicknamed "San Michele in Orto" (St. Michael's in the Garden) or, more commonly still, Orsanmichele: a name that has survived to this day. The first church was demolished completely in 1240, when the Florentine Republic decided to build a "public" building on its site, in other words, a loggia to contain the corn and cereals market.

Perhaps carried out in around 1284-90 by Arnolfo di Cambio, the building was destroyed by fire in 1304 and replaced by a new loggia (the present one) in 1337-50, assigned to some of the most famous Florentine architects of the day: Francesco Talenti, Benci di Cione and Neri di Fioravante (who also built the Ponte Vecchio). The project included the enlargement of the loggia with the addition of new floors above; the external pilasters were instead individually assigned to the patronage of some of the Guilds, who were then expected to decorate them with statues and Tabernacles. The corn warehouses were situated on the upper floors: the grain was sent down to the loggia below (then open), through and then out of the supporting pilasters by means of openings that were specially designed for this purpose. We can get an idea about how this curious mechanism worked if we enter the church through the main doorway in Via Arte della Lana, and look out for the various elements that composed it. The first of these is the small door with three steps in the pilaster on the left, which catches the eye almost immediately, while the bas-relief above the architrave shows us what a "modius" looked like (an ancient measure as well as a container for grain); the staircase leading up to the upper floors is built inside the pilaster. Looking upwards, we can see the opening in the ceiling through which the grain and oats brought here for storage were hoisted up with winches and pulleys. Last of all, the empty sacks that had to be filled with grain were placed beneath the rectangular openings that can be seen in the two other pilasters that stand beside the staircase: the pilaster on the right was connected up with the stocks on the first floor and the one on the left with those on the second floor. The structure was altered again in 1367-80 (and completed in 1404) by Simone Talenti: the arches were closed and it was once again dedicated to religion, however the beautiful Gothic rooms on the two floors above the loggia were left. The grain reserves were still kept here until Grand Duke Cosimo I Cosimo I decided to transfer the city's notarial archives here in 1569, assigning the new project to Buontalenti (1571). Today this part of the building, which can be visited on request, is used for storing archives and for holding temporary exhibitions of art. These rooms can also be reached from Palazzo dell'Arte della Lana, which stands opposite Orsanmichele and whose upper floors are linked to it via a large 16th century arch. The interior of the church is also unusual. The rectangular hall is divided into two naves, one of them containing the magnificent marble tabernacle by Orcagna which we mentioned above. Orcagna carried out his self-portrait in the bas-relief of the Death of the Virgin at the rear: he is the figure with the covered head on the extreme right, underneath the tree. The Altar of St. Anne, sculpted by Francesco da San Gallo in his youth (1526) stands at the end of the left-hand nave. The pilasters and walls of the church contain fragments of several 14th-15th century frescoes, the work of Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Jacopo Casentino, Spinello Aretino, Lorenzo di Credi, Mariotto Albertinelli and Sogliani: the church was originally decorated throughout but all the paintings were covered in whitewash in 1770 and not discovered again until 1864. There was nothing unusual about this: even Giotto's frescoes in Santa Croce were painted over in the same period. Outside again, we can admire the statues and 14 Tabernacles, a real anthology of sculpture covering the entire period of the Renaissance in Florence. They were all designed and financed by the 14 "Major" Arts or Guilds, who had also brought so much wealth and fortune to the city. The Guilds were associations that originated as "union" Brotherhoods for people working in similar professions. In this period, however, they already occupied a prominent position within the Florentine Republic and, by the mid 14th century, the wealth and power of some of these guilds (like that of the merchants and bankers) was so great that they were often able to finance the construction of great monuments, like the Cathedral or San Miniato. The Guilds asked some of the finest artists of the day to decorate the 14 Tabernacles of Orsanmichele, commissioning costly statues in marble or bronze that were dedicated to their patron saints. If we start walking around the church from Via dell'Arte della Lana, we can see as follows: the Tabernacle of the Exchange Guild (St. Matthew, bronze by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1420), the Tabernacle of the Wool Guild (St. Stephen, bronze by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1426-28) and the Tabernacle of the Blacksmiths' Guild (St. Eligius, marble by Nanni di Banco, 1415). Turning left into Via de' Lamberti, we next find the Tabernacle of the Linen Drapers and Second-Hand Dealers, dominated by the marble statue of St. Mark by the great Donatello (1411-13): it was one of the first of the statues in the series and it is easy to see how it started up a sort of competition between the various Guilds to produce a finer statue than anyone else. It is followed by the more modest Tabernacles of the Furriers and Doctors and Pharmacists and lastly by the Tabernacle of the Silk Merchants and Goldsmiths (St. John the Evangelist, bronze by Baccio da Montelupo, 1515). The Via Calzaiuoli side of the church is decorated with the Tabernacle of the Guild of the Calimala (importers of foreign cloth) and the St. John the Baptist by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1416), who was completing his North Door of the Baptistery at the time. The Tabernacle of the Merchants' Tribunal follows next, with one of the most beautiful sculptures on the facade, the marble group of Doubting Thomas by Andrea Verrocchio (1484). The splendid Tabernacle is yet another masterpiece carried out by Donatello and Michelozzo in 1425. The last Tabernacle in the row, with the St. Luke by Giambologna (1601), belonged to the Judges and Notaries. Round the corner from Via Calzaiuoli into Via Orsanmichele, we come to the Tabernacle of the Butchers' Guild with the St. Peter in marble by Donatello (1408-13), and two works by Nanni di Banco for the Tabernacle of the Tanners and for that of the Masons and Carpenters (the splendid group of Four Crowned Saints, 1408). The series ends with the Tabernacle of the Armourers, also assigned to Donatello, who created his proud and vigorous St. George, an extraordinary statue in marble (1416), today in the Museum of the Bargello, and replaced by a copy, considered to be one of the masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture.
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