Florence day 3 (continuation 8)

The Orsanmichele and its statues 1/3

The entrance to the Orsanmichele
The entrance to the Orsanmichele door

Photo: Jef Debacker
Time-table Entrance Addres
Museum’s plan
The 14 tabernacles around the outside of the Orsanmichele (Clickable scroll down a bit)

Orsanmichele entrance     Video Khan Academy Orsanmichele (4.52 minutes)
Orsanmichele entrance Florence

pictures: Wikipedia and lakikuchi

This guild building was originally a monastery garden with a church [orti di san Michele, orto = garden]. The church was demolished in 1240.66 Arnolfo di Cambio built a hall with open arcades for a grain market on the vacant spot. On one of the pillars of this grain hall a painting of St. Michael and Mary was painted in memory of the old church. As it turned out, the fresco of Mary performed all kinds of miracles.

Orsanmichele and corner recesses
Orsanmichele exterior recesses Florence

Thus this painting became very popular, and even songs (laudi) were sung for it. And so the grain hall not only became a place for trade and later a space for grain storage, but also an oratorio: a place of prayer and singing. Due to a fire, the open hall of Cambio was laid to ashes. The city council decided to build a new grain market.

Orsanmichele facade corner Florence

picture: Steven Zucker

Between 1337 and 1350 the current three-storey Orsanmichele was built. The ground floor was used for trading and the other floors were used as grain storage. The grain from the upper floors went through two tubes, hidden in pillars, (to your right as you enter) to the ground floor, where it was sold. In the plague year 1348, the brotherhood of the oratorio received 350,000 florins, more than Florence had in one year of income. This money was used as penance – the plague was seen as a punishment from above –  for, among other things, the frame of a famous altarpiece that we will examine inside and that was made by Orcagna. In 1352 it was also decided to move the grain trade and from then on – until today – the space was only used as oratorio. The frame contained an old painting with magical powers. For a fee, the visitor used to be able to push the curtain in front of this altarpiece aside to experience the power of the statue of Mary. The Orsanmichele was the pride and joy of the guilds.

The work of Orcagna and Francesco da Sangallo in the Orsanmichele

First we go inside to take a look at the famous painting, but of course we especially look at the tabernacle by Andrea di Cione, better known as Andrea Orcagna, and a group of statues by Francesco da Sangallo.

Orsanmichele interior
Orsanmichele interior tabernacle Florence

pictures: Miguel Calleja and mouseover Lance Griffin

The original painting that performed miracles was partly burned. Bernardo Daddi painted a new panel of Mary in 1347. When you enter, you see a tabernacle on the right and an altar on the left with the group of statues: Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. The first thing we look at is the tabernacle of Orcagna with the painting by Daddi.

Orsanmichele interior
Orsanmichele interior tabernacle

picture: zioWoody

Orsanmichele Orcagna tabernacle with panel of Mary by Daddi Florence


In the southeast corner we see the tabernacle built between 1353 and 1359. The balustrades date from 1366 and have many octagonal reliefs. Four octagonal pillars support a dome. In contrast to the back, the front is open. Behind the pediment is a dome reminiscent of the old design Neri di Fioravanti made for the Duomo. Along the underside, hexagonal reliefs with scenes from the life of Mary are alternated with virtues.

Enthroned Mary with Child      Large size
Daddi panel 'Mary with child' tabernacle Orcagna Orsanmichele

photo: HEN-Magonza

At the back of the relief of Mary, the artist signed with: ANDREAS CIONIS PICTOR FLORENTIN(VS) ORATORII AR CHIMAGISTER EXTITITIT HVI (VS) MCCCLIX The large relief, which has been discussed for a while in comparison with Nanni di Banco’s Ascension to the Porta della Mandorla, can also be found on the back.67

Andrea Orcagna ‘Entombment and Assumption of Mary’       Large size
Andrea Orcagna Andrea Orcagna 'Entombment and Assumption of Mary'  Orsanmichele

In his ‘I Commentarii’, Ghiberti writes excitedly about the tabernacle where he praises Orcagna and mentions the sum of 86,000 gold florins.68

Many had left money after their death, the Black Death, for the miraculous painting of the Madonna that performed miracles (want to read more about the influence of the plague on art? Click here).

The large relief with the death of Mary and the Ascension has the typical characteristics of a work of art from the middle of the trecento. According to Millard Meiss, the plague that struck devastatingly in 1347 caused a relapse in art. In short, this relapse means that artists return to twelfth-century art.69 This twelfth-century art is based on images as sacred signs. This involves:

  • a strict hierarchy, in which that which is sacred is depicted larger.
  • the use of gold leaf.
  • figures that are often depicted frontally.
  • the human being is largely banished and realism decreases considerably.

Many of these features can be found in the large relief on the back of the tabernacle. The death of Mary, for example, is a narrow space in which the figures are very close to each other. The effect of too many people in too small a space is further enhanced by the fact that there is hardly any foreground to see.

Andrea Orcagna ‘Entombment and Assumption of Mary’ detail bottom side
Andrea Orcagna 'Entombment and Assumption of Mary' detail bottom side Orsanmichele

At the top, where Mary goes to Heaven, Orcagna used gilded and coloured marble pieces. There is no realistic background here.

Saint Thomas receives the belt of Mary, just as with the relief of Nanni di Banco at the Porta della Mandorla, where Orcagna also depicted this. Orcagna probably sculpted Thomas because the hymns sung by the brotherhood of the Blessed Virgin here are largely about Thomas and the belt.70

Andrea Orcagna ‘Entombment and Ascension of Mary’ detail
Andrea Orcagna 'Entombment and Ascension of Mary' detail Orsanmichele

The two figures in the second row on the far right at Mary’s death do not wear classical robes, but clothes from the period in which this work of art was made. One of the two figures is probably a self-portrait of the artist. These two are larger than the other figures, but are also much more convincing as real flesh and blood individuals.

The top and bottom are connected by the Christ figure in the middle behind the bar on which Mary lies. Christ clasps a child with his left arm. This represents the soul of Mary ascending to heaven and here we are at the top scene of this great relief. When the Renaissance begins after 1400, the Assumption of Mary by Nanni di Banco at the Porta delle Mandorla is depicted much more faithfully as we have already seen.

Nanni di Banco ‘Assumption of Mary’ detail tympanum of the Porta della Mandorla 
Tympanum of the Porta della Mandorla whole tympanum
Nanni di Banco 'Assumption of Mary' detail tympanum of the Porta della Mandorla  Duomo Florence

The decline in art can indeed be seen in the large relief, but this certainly does not apply to all the sculptures of this tabernacle.71 The balustrade shows octagonal reliefs. Some of these, such as ‘the Annunciation‘ or ‘the birth of Jesus’ are very convincing in terms of the spatial effect and the reactions of the figures to each other. The entire iconographic program of the tabernacle is anything but pessimistic as you would expect in the middle of the trecento in Florence.

Relief balustrade of the tabernacle ‘Birth of Christ’
relief balustrade of the tabernacle birth of Christ Orcagna Orsanmichele


Francesco da Sangallo ‘Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’
Francesco da Sangallo 'Virgin and Child with Saint Anne' Orsanmichele

Finally we cast a glance at the altar on the other side. Here we see a statue, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, by Francesco da Sangallo. This statue is quite special in one respect: it has been cut out of one marble block and that is no easy feat. Michelangelo also discovered this when he carved four figures out of one block.

Altar     Chapel Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
altar Chapel Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Francesco da Sangallo Orsanmichele

This failed miserably and out of anger he smashed his Pietà, which we have seen in the Museo dell Opera del Duomo, to pieces. In view of the chronological development of sculpture in this story, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne will be discussed later, with Michelangelo. Buonarroti encountered the limits of carving multiple figures out of one block. If you still want to read this story: click here. We are now going outside to see the statues in the fourteen recesses on the outside of this guild building.

The statues in the recesses of the Orsanmichele

“The Silk Guild asked the ‘Comune’ to place niches against the pillars of the loggia [ Orsanmichele] that would allow the guilds to place statues of their patron saints.
The fourteen niches in the facade, save for one, were all sponsored by a guild, namely the seven largest guilds and six of the smaller ones. Their coats of arms are visible high above the niches in the medals, ten in the fresco and four in glazed terracotta. They are often repeated in the tympanum or at the base of the niches. In mutual rivalry, the guilds would have renowned architects design a niche and subsequently commission statues of their patron saints from the most prominent artists at the time, making this a very impressive overview of two hundred years of Florentine sculpting. The ornaments, which were scheduled before 1339, would have to wait close to another hundred years.  In 1408, the Signoria was forced to impose a ten-year ultimatum. Only the large guilds were allowed to create bronze statues. Smaller guilds were restricted to stone.
There were twenty-seven guilds in total. Seven large ones, the ‘Arti Maggiori’: the so-called ‘Calimala’, the Merchant and Cloth-finishers guild; Lawyers and Judges; Bankers and Money-Changers; Physicians and Pharmacists; the Wool guild; the Silk guild and the Furriers. The fourteen smaller guilds, the ‘Arti Minori’ were:  Swordsmiths; Locksmiths; Cobblers; Harness-makers; Tanners; Linen merchants and Antique dealers; Smiths; Masons and Carpenters; Shrine workers; Bakers; Butchers; Wine traders; Oil traders; Innkeepers.”

Luc Verhuyck ‘Firenze Een Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep Amsterdam 2006 p.159

The outside – the open arcades were soon bricked up – has ten pillars. In each corner pillar there were two recesses and in the others six: one recess per pillar, so fourteen in total. The oldest statue, Mary with the rose, by an unknown sculptor from c. 1399 is typical for Gothic architecture.

Orsanmichele and corner recesses
Orsanmichele exterior recesses Florence

The other statues were not really progressing, so in 1406 it was decided that every guild that was allowed to place a statue in one of the recesses forfeited this right after ten years. As a result, the guilds rushed to find good sculptors and were prepared to pay more than the usual price.  We will look at and discuss some famous statues – the recesses are now filled with replicas.

Entrance to the the museum at the top floor with the original statues

Exit from Orsanmicheleto Palazzo dell’Arte view from Palazzo dell’Arte
Orsanmicheleto Palazzo dell'Arte view from Palazzo dell'Arte

The statues are currently being restored. The top floor of the Orsanmichele is now the museum of the Orsanmichele. Entrance at Via Arte della Lana and then left at the door in the corner pillar. The exit goes via the Palazzo dell’Arte. Open only on Monday for free. Read and see more? Click here for the official site of this museum and about the Palazzo dell’Arte click here at Wikipedia.

photo: xmeli554x

Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana
Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana staircase Florence


Orsanmichele top floor with the original statues from the recesses Florence


Orsanmichele top floor with the original statues from the recesses Florence large size       From above
Orsanmichele top floor with the original statues from the recesses Florence


Orsanmichele corner Via Calimala and Via Lamberti
Via dei Calzaiuone
Orsanmichele corner Via Calimala and Via Lamberti Via dei Calzaiuone

photos: mberry and Ray Streeter

Donatello made three statues for the recesses (Louis of Toulouse was later removed for a statue of Verrocchio), just like Ghiberti and Nanni di Banco. Furthermore, Lamberti, Baccia da Montelupo, Ciuffagni and Giambologna each made one statue.72 Click here for a map with an overview of the recesses, the statues and the sculptors.

Madonna della Rosa 

First we walk into the Via de’Lamberti. Here you can see the oldest statue. The ‘Madonna della Rosa’ is entirely in the style of Gothicism as we saw at the first doors of the Baptistery with the work of Andrea Pisano. The guild of doctors and pharmacists had ordered this statue for their recess. Mary’s frontal posture, the proportions of her body, the folds in the robe, are not natural. The same cannot be said for the posture of the child Jesus. Here you can already see a human element shimmering through, something Giotto started with. If you take this Madonna with Child as your starting point, you can see how sculpture developed very rapidly in the first half of the fifteenth century.

Recess with Mary and Child original zoom in
Orsanmichele Recess with 'Mary and Child' Madonna della Rosa

Three bronze statues of Ghiberti in front of the recesses of the Orsanmichele: John the Baptist, Matthew and Stefanus

We now walk around the corner and stand in the busy shopping street: the Via dei Calzaiuoli. On this short side of the Orsanmichele you can see the first life-size free standing bronze statue cast in Florence at the left corner pillar. It is John the Baptist by Ghiberti.73 In 1406, it was decided that the three most important guilds – the Calimala, the Lana and the Cambio – could each have one bronze statue made. A bronze statue is at least ten times more expensive than a marble version. Only the richest guilds could afford this. Each guild had to have its patron saint made. It is striking that all three guilds chose for Ghiberti to create the statues. His name as a bronze founder was already firmly established by his work on the first door he made for the Baptistery.

Ghiberti: John the Baptist

The first sculpture Ghiberti made was John the Baptist. It was likely made between 1413 and 1416. In that last year it was recessed and it was cast at the end of 1414 or the beginning of 1415. The Arte di Calimala insisted that casting was at the artist’s risk. Casting was rather risky and certainly for a figure of 254 cm high. In addition, John the Baptist was cast in one go.74 Ghiberti writes the following in his diary on December 1, 1414:

‘In what follows I will note down all the costs I incur for casting the figure. I took it upon myself to cast the figure at my own expense: in the event of failure, the costs would be for me, in the event of success […] the board and the opera […] would they use the same conditions as they would when they ordered another foundry’75

The costs were around 1100 florins. Ghiberti himself received 530 florins. The Matthew that Ghiberti made after John cost 1100 florins, of which Ghiberti himself received 650. The casting was big business. Bronze founders belonged to the class of bankers, but it was still a dangerous affair, if the casting failed, one could incur big losses.

Ghiberti ‘John the Baptist’ in the recess replica
Head     Original
Ghiberti John the Baptist in the recess replica Orsanmichele

photos: daniel_philpott and original bishopsavas

The hem of the garment bears the signature: POVS LAVR (E)NTII. Of course the statue was gilded. This statue was cast while Ghiberti was still working on his first door. Not surprisingly, then, that the drapery also reminds us of this: highly decorative in the style of the international Gothicism. John the Baptist has a somewhat exaggerated contrapposto attitude, just like the marble David by Donatello or the Isaiah by Nanni di Danco for the buttresses. Decorative elements can be seen everywhere: in the folds of course, but also in his hair, the beard, the hairs of his dress and the knot that holds the garment together. The folds of the drapery run exactly to the right foot. The face of John the Baptist is remarkable when you compare this with the graceful and endearing lines in the robes. The recess made for John the Baptist is quite deep and the statue is clearly positioned in the recess itself. Very different from the recess for the second statue of Ghiberti: the Matthew. We now walk along Via de’Lamberti to the back of the Orsanmichele and arrive in Via dell’Arte della Lana where the two other bronze statues of Ghiberti can be seen: Matthew and Stephen.

Ghiberti: Matthew

First we look at the statue of the evangelist, Matthew, in the left corner pillar. On 26 August 1419, Ghiberti was commissioned by the Arte del Cambio to produce a Matthew. A year later Ghibeti signed the statue on the hem of the cloak with OPVS VNIVERSITATIS CANSORVM FLORENTIE ANNO DOMINI MCCCCXX as you can see here. The contract expressly states that this statue should be at least as high as that of John the Baptist. It was also demanded that the statue be cast in one go. Only the head could be cast separately if Ghiberti so wished. The bronze came from Venice. The first time, the casting did not work out entirely as Ghiberti informed the clients. Some parts had to be cast again.

Ghiberti ‘Matthew’ replica and original
Details: head      Book
Ghiberti 'Matthew' recess replica Orsanmichele

photo: Matteo Bimonte

The difference between the Matthew and the previous statue of Ghiberti is the difference between Gothic and Renaissance. In this respect, this sculpture fits well with the reliefs of Ghiberti’s second door (the Paradise Gate) and with his views that you can read in his ‘I Commentari’. The interior of the recess with pilasters, the classical drapery under which seems to really be a body, the powerful posture of the evangelist who steps forward and the classical facial features are very different from the recess with the statue of John the Baptist. John’s exaggerated contrapposto has given way to an unaffected attitude. The graceful decorative lines and pleats have disappeared with the Matthew, the pleat is much more natural. Although Matthew is only fourteen centimetres taller than John, the evangelist makes a monumental impression in contrast to the statue of Ghiberti, which we have looked at before. Matthew is made according to mathematical proportions that Cennini still describes in his ‘Libro dell’Arte’.76 Cennino Cennini has written a book for artists in which he gives many practical and artisanal tips, including ‘the proportions that a perfectly formed male body should have’:

‘[…] I want to give you in detail the right proportions of a male body. I will skip a woman’s, because she has no perfect proportions. Firstly, as I said before, the face is divided into three parts, namely the forehead, the nose, and from the nose to the chin. From the side of the nose over the entire length of the eye is one size. [….] A man is as tall as his spread arms. The arms, including the hands, extend to the middle of the femur. The full height of a man is eight faces and two of the three measures.’

Cennino Cennini, ‘The handbook of the artist Il Libro dell’Arte’, Contact, Amsterdam/Antwerp 2001 pp. 115-117 (originally written around 1400)

It is clear that Vitruvius’ views on man, as we have already seen in architecture, are adopted by Cennini. Mattheus is ¼ braccia, about fourteen centimeters higher than John. The height of the tabernacle is exactly twice as high as the statue with the pedestal. This classical relationship, which, as we have already seen, also played such an important role in architecture (among others at the façade of the Santa Maria Novella), is seen here in the church father and Christian philosopher Augustine. He was convinced that the Creator had created the cosmos according to divine proportions..

Ghiberti: Stephan

In the middle recess next to the Matthew is also the Stephen by Ghiberti. This is the last statue Ghiberti made for the Orsanmichele. It was an assignment of the wool guild: Arte della Lana. This guild was the first to have a statue, Stephen, made of marble. This statue now seemed very old-fashioned compared to the bronze statues Ghiberti had made for the other guilds, the Calimala and the Cambio. And that was out of the question. So Lana decided to have a new Stephen made from bronze ‘because of the beauty of this guild, which always strived to be the best of its kind and to be at the head of all guilds’.78 Who else other than Ghiberti would be the one to do this. Ghiberti was commissioned in 1425 and three years later the sculpture was placed in the recess. The way in which the folds of Stephen’s garment are depicted is more reminiscent of the John the Baptist and resembles the international style. The face of Saint Stephen is almost expressionless, especially when you compare it to the speaking face of John the Baptist. Needless to say, this statue was also gilded

Ghiberti ‘Stefan’ replica and original    Head
Lorenzo Ghiberti 'Stefan' recess replica Orsanmichele

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