Florence's Orsanmichele: A Storied History
Updated: Jan 19
Via Calzaiuoli is a street made for strolling. Along this pedestrian-only thoroughfare, it's easy to wander between some of Florence's most sought after sites including the Duomo, Florence's iconic red-domed cathedral, and the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II. Tucked in between these two sites is the historic church of Orsanmichele, beloved by Florentines but easy for visitors to miss.
Taller than it is wide and without a pronounced front entrance, Orsanmichele resembles, upon first glance, a theater or an office building, rather than a church. But don’t be deceived by its inconspicuous first impression, for Orsanmichele is a storied structure in Florentine history, vital to residents for different reasons throughout different times in history.
From Garden to Granary to Church
The name itself is intriguing, and remains as a nod to the structure's origin. Ancient Florence was occupied by Romans, and it is speculated that the land where Orsanmichele now stands was once the site of a temple dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian god of fertility. By the year 895 -- due to Isis or simply the rich soil -- the fertile land had become the orto, or garden, for the Benedictine monastery of San Michele (St. Michael). Orto San Michele morphed into Or-San-Michele, and the monastery remained for the next few centuries.
By the mid 1200s, Florence was growing and with it, the community's needs were changing. History is quiet on what happened to the Benedictine monks and their monastery, but nevertheless, the structure was ordered destroyed, allowing space for an open-air grain and cereal market, vital to the flourishing population. Around 1290, a structure known in Italian architecture as a loggia (a closed roof with at least one open side) was built, providing a covered and dry space year-round for the market.
"Under its roofed loggia, where the standard prices of grain were marked up on boards, moneylenders and money-changers could be found as well as grain merchants; and, in times of famine, as a warning to any customers who felt disposed to attack the merchants or the officials...guards with axes stood beside an executioner's block."
-- Florence: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert
Given that the loggia was built by Arnolfo di Cambio, the architect responsible for the Palazzo Vecchio, and based on 13th century Florence's track record, it seems safe to assume the architecture of the loggia was as beautiful and artistic as it was functional. Vaulted ceilings to protect from wind, rain or the intense Italian sun, and decorative columns to support it all.
And it's on one of those columns where the future of Orsanmichele, once a kitchen garden to a monastery, then a grain market to a young but powerful republic, took another turn. For on that column was an image of the Madonna, to which miracles were attributed, and which attracted enough believers that the area required the protection of armed guards.
Fast forward 50 years, after the ravages of time and fire, during which the loggia, including the column and its sacred image, was destroyed, the need to rebuild could no longer be avoided. It was also clear that, with Florence's rising power and population, its main food source -- the grain -- needed greater protection. Thus, in 1337, the loggia was ordered reconstructed, this time with with plans for two additional floors above it, to store the grain securely within the confines of the walls of the city.
Florentine financial ingenuity allowed for the construction of the new structure -- the market, granary and a replacement Madonna -- without the use of any public monies.
"This financial wizardry was achieved by allocating one pillar of the new loggia to each of the city's 21 guilds, thus giving rise to one of the world's first acts of corporate sponsorship," writes Maurizio Arfaioli for The Florentine.
Those corporate sponsors -- the guilds -- were an important and powerful force in Renaissance Florence. These associations were formed by each of the various trades of craftsmens and merchants which dominated the economy, to provide protection for workers and to promote their interests. Among the most influential were the Arte di Calimala, the cloth merchants' guild, and the Arte della Lana, the wool guild.
Using guild funds (or possibly votive offerings received during the time of the plage, as one source notes) to replace the Madonna image, leaders commissioned Bernardo Daddi -- trained under Giotto -- to create a new painting. Once finished, this piece was regarded as so beautiful that a second commission was issued to one of the city's leading architects, Andrea di Cione (known as Orcagna, or Archangel), to create a tabernacle to house the painting. Orcagna took ten years to complete his elaborate, gothic structure.
Upon seeing the magnificent tabernacle with Daddi's exquisite art -- still today inside Orsanmichele -- it was clear that the space had become more sacred than its original intent. The tabernacle "was considered far too fine to be kept in a mere grain market; so the market was moved elsewhere; the spaces between the pillars of the open loggia were walled up and Orsanmichele was dedicated as a church." (Hibbert)
The upper two floors, however, retained their original function as a granary, storing the community's grain supply for roughly another 200 years. Inside the church the grain chutes hide in plain site today, tucked quietly along the stone walls of the church's interior. Look for one below, in the bottom left corner.
To Outdoor Sculpture Garden
And what of the iconic outdoor sculpture garden dotting the exterior perimeter of Orsanmichele? Fourteen external, decorative niches were created when the loggia was walled in so many centuries ago. Again, Florence's guilds stepped up. The most powerful (wealthiest) guilds were offered the opportunity to decorate the church's exterior, by funding the creation of a sculpture of their guild's patron saint and placing it in one of the niches. The guilds, naturally, turned to the artistic rock stars who populated 14th century Florence, among them Donatello, Ghiberti, Giambologna, Verrocchio, Brunelleschi.
Today, the original statues have been restored and moved indoors for protection, and are housed in a museum on Orsanmichele's third floor. The museum is open just one day a week, Mondays from 10 am to 5 pm, and is an unique opportunity to walk among these imposing figures, still conveying with nearly palpable energy, the power of so much Renaissance genius.
Sidebar from History
Long before Filippo Brunelleschi began his magnum opus which is Florence's cathedral dome, he was commissioned by the Arte dei Beccai (Butchers' Guild) for their niche sculpture of Saint Peter. Meanwhile, Brunelleschi's rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was in the final years of creating his legendary bronze doors for the baptistery, was commissioned for three bronze sculptures by three of Florence's most powerful guilds. One of these was the Arte del Cambio, the banker's guild, which was led and primarily funded by Cosimo de' Medici, the family dynasty whose love and support of the arts launched the Renaissance.
Ironically, just three generations later, Orsanmichele would be host to a future humiliation for the Medici, when Cosimo's great grandson, who had stepped into power after the untimely death of his father Lorenzo the Magnificent, was forced to flee the city after giving it up to the invading armies led by King Charles the VIII of France, and Medici belongings were seized and sold off. Luca Landucci, who lived in Florence and worked as an apothecary during this time, provides first-hand commentary in his diary:
"9th July 1495. Piero de’ Medici’s household effects and clothes were sold by auction; this work took several days, in Orto Sa’ Michele....11th August. All these days they were selling by auction in Orto Sa' Michele Piero de' Medici's household effects; there were velvet counterpanes embroidered in gold, and paintings and pictures, and all kinds of beautiful things; showing what fortune may do in this transitory life, or rather divine permission, to the end that many may recognise that all comes from God, who gives and takes away, and that he may not become proud and set up at being rich and powerful; on the contrary, the more a man has received from God, the humbler he ought to be, appearing more ungrateful to God than others; for the greatest sin is ingratitude." -- A Florentine Diary: From 1450 to 1516
What else has Orsanmichele been host to or witnessed during its seven centuries of sitting majestically, quietly observing the comings and goings along via Calzaiuoil and via dell'Arte della Lana (street of the wool guild)? Faithfully offering its nourishment in the form of garden, grain, or spirituality, depending on the particular needs of the time.
Orsanmichele is special to the story of Florence. The words of Piero Bargellini, who served as Florence's mayor in 1966, explain eloquently: "Orsanmichele is the most Florentine monument in Florence. Palazzo Vecchio is a public palace, as many other cities also have. Santa Maria del Fiore is a cathedral, as all other cities have. But Orsanmichele is only in Florence. Only in Florence could a monument like this be born that was half church and half granary; that served to religious and civil life; that exalted faith and work..."
For travelers to Florence, Orsanmichele offers a peaceful oasis to what can often be hectic travel days. It's a quiet and cool spot for reflection and rest, and with some understanding of its history, allows visitors delve deeper into the fabric of Renaissance Florence.
Sit under the breathtaking vaulted ceiling, and imagine its earlier life as an open-air loggia for the market. Look around for remnants of the granary and market, they are easy to spot. Grain chutes line the walls; iron rings, likely used for pulleys to lift the grain, dangle from the ceiling; iron bars providing support criss-cross the vaults. Even the altar, placed strangely off-center to accommodate the original loggia arrangement, is a reminder of days past. And if you're at Orsanmichele on a Monday, take a few moments to wander the third floor museum with the original statues of the guild's patron saints.
Enjoy the opportunity, while passing from one spot to the next, to be filled by the spirit of the most Florentine monument in Florence.
Join Once Upon a Passeggiata as we stroll through Italian travel, history and culture, one story at a time.