Thursday 6 February 2014

The Transition of Orsanmichele: Medieval to Renaissance, Market to Holy Site

Like many of the buildings of Florence, Italy, Orsanmichele has a rich history and use of spolia. According to the National Gallery of Art Washington DC, Orsanmichele is speculated to have once housed a place of worship to Isis in Roman times, and was later utilized by the Lombards of the 8th-9th centuries as an oratory in dedication to San Michele in Orto.[1] In 1239, the building was demolished and later rebuilt in 1290 by Arnolfo di Cambia as a loggia to host the sale of grain.[2] The two-story building allowed for the grains to be housed on the second level of the building where it was less likely to be consumed by pests. The grains were then sent down a shoot (a hollow pillar, meant to mimic the rest of the décor) to the first-story market to be sold through the loggia that welcomed the shoppers of Florence.[3] Upon one of these pillars was an image of the Virgin. Unfortunately now destroyed, the Virgin was said to have blessed visitors with miracles, making the building a holy site.[4] The Virgin’s miracles led to a number of restorations, alterations, and added ornamentation to the building. In this post, I would like to observe the architectural alterations made to the building as it transitioned not only from grain market to sanctuary, but from the Medieval period to the Renaissance. The stylistic changes from one time period to the next and the new function of the building has thus resulted in a unique architectural aesthetic.

In 1304 the loggia suffered a fire, allowing for a great many changes to happen through the mid fourteenth century.[5] The first of the renovations was contributed by the Silk Guild, who provided a new loggia (started and finished between 1337 & 1349) that still stands today.[6] The arches of the loggia consist of a traditional three lancets that form a rounded arch. The columns are topped with Corinthian capitals and the interior of the arch is adorned with geometric forms, most predominately a Catherine Wheel at the top-centre of the arch. The smaller of the geometric forms is a six-lobed flower, possibly a reference to the Florentine Lily also seen in the nearby Palazzo Vecchio.  Do note that at this time of the completion of the loggia it was still open and in-part still used as a market until 1357.[7]

The now closed loggia of Orsanmichele with Gothic ornamentation

Six-lobed Florentine Lilies of Palazzo Vecchio
By 1346, the sacred image of the Virgin began to fade away and was replaced by Madonna delle Grazie (Madonna of Graces) by the artist Bernardo Daddi.[8] Daddi’s Madonna had a surge in popularity just two years after its placement at Orsanmichele due to the spread of the plague.[9] The image was revered as the great healer and was complimented with an ornate tabernacle featuring the life and virtues of Mary, a treat for the eyes of the many pilgrims who sought her blessing. The tabernacle is a hybrid of both the French and Italian Gothic styles—incorporating the more ornate style of the French and the more geometric style of Italy. Although the Italian love of simple mathematics remained the basis for Orsanmichele’s layout, the French ornate style dominated the ornamentation as seen in the image below. The quadripartite ceilings and stained glass are the most prominent of the decorations adopted from the French style.

Daddi's Maddona delle Grazie

As Florence entered the Renaissance, it was decided that Orsanmichele was in need of aesthetic renewal. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, niches were added to the façade in the same style of Daddi’s tabernacle.[10] Within each of the niches, the guilds of Florence commissioned a statue of their patron saint, the most recognisable being the David by Donatello representing the armourers.[11] Most of the niches are currently filled with copies of the original statues which are being restored in the former granary on the second level of Orsanmichele. Some, however, like Donatello’s David, have been moved to museums throughout the city including the Bargello and the Museum of Santa Croce. These statues are the contribution from the Renaissance era, but aside from their date of creation, they are testament to the style of the time period, representing a rebirth of Classical statuary. The figures are adorned in draped clothing, often stand in a contrapasto-like fashion, and have Classical-style curly hair.

Copy of Donatello's David on the exterior wall of Orsanmichele

Over the centuries, Orsanmichele was transformed from an oratory, to a grain market, to a pilgrimage site, and finally, a sanctuary. Although its functional transformation is often emphasised, its architectural alterations are what serve as visual evidence of the building’s improved status. My original objective was to point out the architectural transitions of Orsanmichele, however, this study has also introduced the building's functional changes, which underscores not only its physical transformations, but also its  versatility. 


[1] "NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence." NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[2] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[3] "Orsanmichele." Orsanmichele. SUNY Oneonta, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[4] Orsanmichele Church and Museum.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Zucker, Steven, and Beth Harris. "Orsanmichele | Art History: Florence |Khan Academy."Khan Academy. Khan Academy, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[7] Orsanmichele Church and Museum.
[8] "NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence." 
[9] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." 
[10]  "Orsanmichele." Orsanmichele. SUNY Oneonta, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[11] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." 

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