It has to be said that the church of Orsanmichele does not look much like a church. The building is surrounded by narrow streets, and the best way to observe it from a distance is to find a high lookout point. The tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, some 160 metres to the southeast, is a good spot. Standing at a height of over 80 metres, I was finally able to get a good look at this rather peculiar building.
The name Orsanmichele is a bit peculiar too. It derives from the Italian word for “kitchen garden” (orto) and San Michele, or Saint Michael the Archangel. A Lombard church named San Michele in Orto once stood at this location, but it was demolished in 1239. Several years later, it was replaced with a grain market for which the architect Arnolfo di Cambio built a loggia. The grain market in turn burned down in 1304. The present building was constructed between 1336 and 1347 and financed by the mighty Arte della Seta, or silk merchants guild. The Arte della Seta was one of the seven major guilds or Arti Maggiori, to which the Arte di Calimala (cloth merchants guild) and Arte della Lana (wool workers guild) also belonged. The new building was once again a grain market. Its religious function, though certainly important, seems to have been subsidiary.
The grain market was moved in the 1360s, and in 1382 the arcades of the Orsanmichele loggia were bricked up and the former market was converted into a proper church for the guilds. This process was completed in 1404. All the seven major guilds and several of the less important smaller guilds paid handsome sums to decorate the exterior of the church with statues by some of the city’s most important sculptors, such as Nanni di Banco (ca. 1384-1421), Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Donatello (1386-1466). Most of these statues were executed in stone, but a few were actually done in bronze, which was much more expensive. It is clear the three richest guilds – the cloth merchants, wool workers and bankers – really wanted to flaunt their wealth.
The statues that we see outside today are copies. Most of the originals have been moved to a museum on the first floor, which can be visited for free, but is apparently only open on Mondays. I say most of the originals for a reason: Donatello’s famous statue of San Giorgio (Saint George), commissioned by the armourer’s guild, is now in the Bargello museum. The statue of Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297), also by Donatello, was moved to the church of Santa Croce as early the 1450s. It was replaced with a statue of Christ and Saint Thomas by Andrea del Verrocchio (ca. 1435-1488), which can be admired in the Orsanmichele museum. The reason for the swap is simple: the niche which held Saint Louis was originally owned by the Parte Guelfa, not a guild, but the Guelph Party in Florence (i.e. the supporters of the pope against the Ghibellines, who supported the emperor). The Parte Guelfa sold the niche around 1459 and the new owner, the Tribunale di Mercatanzia, the tribunal which settled disputes between the guilds, hired Verrocchio to cast a new statue.
The interior of the church is very odd. It looks a bit like a hall church with the right aisle missing. The right side of Orsanmichele is where we find its most prized possession: a truly magnificent tabernacle sculpted by Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368) in ca. 1350. Inside the tabernacle is a Madonna delle Grazie by Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1280/90-1348), painted around the year 1347, so just before his death. The left side of the church is less spectacular. Here we can admire the Madonna and Child and Saint Anne by Francesco da Sangallo (1494-1576) and some frescoes on the walls.
I noticed that the Orsanmichele has a rather unusual policy with regard to photography. A sign near the entrance clearly indicates that taking pictures and filming are prohibited. However, since I saw many people taking pictures anyway without being harangued by the custodians, I decided to ask one what the rules were. His answer: “Il foto si, il flash no”.
So apparently a sign (in English!) that literally says “No Photo” actually means “No Flash”. Glad we got that sorted out! And very glad that I could legally take a few pictures to embellish this post.
More information about the statues in the niches outside and in the museum can be found here and here.
Updated 6 May 2023. The church will be closed until at least 22 September 2023.