Orsanmichele in Florence

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Orsanmichele: the granary, the church, the museum

The church of Orsanmichele is located right in the heart of the historic center of Florence, halfway between Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo. Seeing it from the outside doesn’t really give the idea of being a church but rather a public building or something like that. In fact, in the past this building has not always been a church, or rather not only, since it also served as a granary and grain market.

The history of Orsanmichele

Originally on the site of the church stood a female monastery which owned land and a kitchen garden. It was in this garden that a small church was built around the middle of the 7th century, dedicated to San Michele Arcangelo, which was called San Michele in Orto. Over time it passed from San Michele in Orto to the current “Orsanmichele”. In 1240 the church was demolished to make room for a loggia, built by Arnolfo di Cambio, intended to house the grain market. Despite this, the building never lost its sacredness. On one of its pillars there was in fact a painting, the Madonna del Popolo, which was the object of great popular devotion because it was considered miraculous.

The current building dates back to the 14th century. Damaged by a fire in 1304, the loggia was in fact rebuilt starting from 1337. The fire also destroyed the sacred image of the Madonna which was replaced in with a new painting, the Madonna delle Grazie, made by Bernardo Daddi in 1347. The The fourteenth century, however, was also the century of the plague, which imposed an abrupt stop to the works in 1349. The resumption of operations took place only in the 60s of the fourteenth century when it was also decided to move the market to another location and recreate the church by closing the arches.

Orsanmichele in Florence
Orsanmichele in Florence

The church of Orsanmichele

Orsanmichele has a rectangular plan and is spread over three levels. The most important artistic elements are found on the lower level: the Gothic triple lancet windows, the niches and the coat of arms. In 1339 the Arte della Lana asked to create a series of tabernacles, to house the statues of the patron saints of the Arts, that were the guilds that regulated the various trades.

Having obtained the OK from the Municipality (in 1404), 14 niches were created which housed a series of magnificent works created by some of the greatest Florentine artists, such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti and Verrocchio. It is one of the most important sculptural cycles in Florentine art and marks the transition from the late Gothic to the Renaissance style. Some of these statues were made of white marble, but the wealthier Arts commissioned works in bronze (much more expensive than those in marble).

Above each niche we find a coat of arms of the Art that had made the tabernacle below. Some of these were made with the fresco technique and unfortunately they have been greatly damaged over time. The best preserved ones, on the other hand, are valuable works in glazed terracotta. The one relating to the Court of Merchandise and the medallions of the Art of Judges and Notaries and the art of the Masters of Stone and Wood were made by Luca della Robbia while the coat of arms of the Art of Silk is the work of Andrea della Robbia. On the other hand, the symbol of the Art of the Beccai is not Renaissance, bat was created only in the nineteenth century by the Ginori Manufacture. The work was financed by Florentine butchers to honor their ancestors (the Arte dei Beccai was a corporation that brought together taverns, fishmongers and butchers).

The interior

The interior of the church, which can be accessed from via dell’Arte della Lana, is rich in works of art. The vaults of the ceiling, walls and pillars are covered with frescoes with characters from the Old and New Testament (on the vaults) and Saints (on the walls and pillars).

In the lunettes of the three-light windows you can admire some of the most beautiful and original stained glass windows in the city. The stained glass windows make up the cycle of the Stories and miracles of the Virgin and the miraculous image of the Madonna of Orsanmichele, created with the collaboration of various artists and glass masters.

At the back of the room, on the left, is the altar of Sant’Anna on which stands the beautiful marble group Sant’Anna, the Madonna and Child by Francesco da Sangallo. On the right, instead, the magnificent tabernacle made by Andrea Orcagna to house the Madonna with Child and Angels painted by Bernardo Daddi. The tabernacle is a triumph of shapes, decorations and marble inlays with twisted columns, statuettes and bas-reliefs to embellish the composition.

Orsanmichele Museum

The museum develops on the first and second floors of the building. It was established in 1996, a few years after a major restoration involving all the works of the church. Inside are kept most of the original statues that once occupied the 14 niches placed outside (now replaced by copies). Inside the museum you will not find the Ghiberti’s San Matteo, that is still in its niche, and Donatello’s San Giorgio that is located in the Bargello. The museum therefore represents an excellent opportunity to admire all together the works of Donatello, Giambologna, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Verrocchio, Nanni di Banco and Baccio da Montelupo… not bad right?

The church of Orsanmichele and the museum are not open every day, so you should inform yourself well before making your visit. For all information on timetables and ticket prices I recommend you visit the official website.

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