A few steps from Piazza Signoria, the Gothic oratory church of Orsanmichele is an unusual and atmospheric place, that at one time used to be a granary. Entrance is free.
A walk along the Via Calzaioli takes you past the elaborate facades of Orsanmichele. It’s an expression of late Gothic exuberance, with fourteen statues of saints enclosed in richly decorated niches. You might think it doesn’t look like a church, and you’d be right. What you see today used to be a grain market in the 13th century. Later a municipal grain storehouse was added to it on the upper floor to help feed the Florentines in the event of famine and siege.
The entrance is on Via dell’Arte della Lana. Once you enter, you’ll see the interior of Orsanmichele has preserved its Gothic appearance almost completely. Its square layout and the positioning of the piers give a good idea of how the original open loggia looked. If you look carefully you can still see the openings in the walls through which the grain was passed.
The Madonna of the Graces:
The tabernacle by Orcagna in the centre of the church guards a very special painting, the “Madonna delle Grazie” or Madonna of the Graces, by Bernardo Daddi (1347). The story has it that at one time, there was a Madonna painted on one of the pillars of the original market. The Madonna was revered as miraculous, and when it went missing, this new portrait of the Virgin with Child was painted by Daddi, and the elaborate Gothic tabernacle by Orcagna became its frame.
A religious cult was soon founded in honour of the image, called the ‘Compagnia della Madonna di Orsanmichele‘. When the plague arrived and devastated Florence in 1348, the Compagnia of the Madonna was flooded with donations from people looking for spiritual help and redemption. Soon after that, as the religious life of the building became increasingly more important, the loggia was closed off and the Oratory was born.
The Guild’s Statues in Orsanmichele:
The Signoria in 1404 obliged the various Guilds of the city to embellish the exterior of the church with statues. Failure to do so in time meant they would lose their space, and a chance to ‘publicise’ themselves. The guilds competed against one another to use the best artists and the most expensive material, often choosing expensive bronze over marble.
Here artists like Ghiberti, Donatello and Verrocchio perfected their skills that were to shape the history of Renaissance sculpture. Some of the statues including Donatello’s follow a new style, and are particularly vivid and expressive, while those of Ghiberti are more traditional.
Today the statues are copies. Most of the originals can be seen in the Orsanmichele Museum upstairs. You can reach it from the adjacent Palazzo della Lana via the bridge. Open only on Monday 10-17.