Orsanmichele and its statues II

The statues in the recesses of the Orsanmichele

Orsanmichele Florence
photo: Steven Zucker

The outside – the open arcades were soon bricked up – has ten pillars. In each corner pillar there were two recesses and in the others six: one recess per pillar, so fourteen in total. The oldest statue, Mary with the rose, by an unknown sculptor from c. 1399 is typical for Gothic architecture.

““The Silk Guild asked the ‘Comune’ to place niches against the pillars of the loggia [ Orsanmichele] that would allow the guilds to place statues of their patron saints. The fourteen niches in the facade, save for one, were all sponsored by a guild, namely the seven largest guilds and six of the smaller ones. Their coats of arms are visible high above the niches in the medals, ten in the fresco and four in glazed terracotta. They are often repeated in the tympanum or at the base of the niches. In mutual rivalry, the guilds would have renowned architects design a niche and subsequently commission statues of their patron saints from the most prominent artists at the time, making this a very impressive overview of two hundred years of Florentine sculpting. The ornaments, which were scheduled before 1339, would have to wait close to another hundred years.  In 1408, the Signoria was forced to impose a ten-year ultimatum. Only the large guilds were allowed to create bronze statues. Smaller guilds were restricted to stone.There were twenty-seven guilds in total. Seven large ones, the ‘Arti Maggiori’: the so-called ‘Calimala’, the Merchant and Cloth-finishers guild; Lawyers and Judges; Bankers and Money-Changers; Physicians and Pharmacists; the Wool guild; the Silk guild and the Furriers. The fourteen smaller guilds, the ‘Arti Minori’ were:  Swordsmiths; Locksmiths; Cobblers; Harness-makers; Tanners; Linen merchants and Antique dealers; Smiths; Masons and Carpenters; Shrine workers; Bakers; Butchers; Wine traders; Oil traders; Innkeepers.” Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Firenze Een Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep Amsterdam 2006 blz. 159 Wikipedia: Guildes of Florence

The outside – the open arcades were soon bricked up – has ten pillars. In each corner pillar there were two recesses and in the others six: one recess per pillar, so fourteen in total. The oldest statue, Mary with the rose, by an unknown sculptor from c. 1399 is typical for Gothic architecture. The other statues were not really progressing, so in 1406 it was decided that every guild that was allowed to place a statue in one of the recesses forfeited this right after ten years. As a result, the guilds rushed to find good sculptors and were prepared to pay more than the usual price.  We will look at and discuss some famous statues – the recesses are now filled with replicas. Donatello made three statues for the recesses (Louis of Toulouse was later removed for a statue of Verrocchio), just like Ghiberti and Nanni di Banco. Furthermore, Lamberti, Baccia da Montelupo, Ciuffagni and Giambologna each made one statue (Click here for Orsanmichele plan, streets and overview statues).

Orsanmichele:b  Pietro di Giovanni 'Madonna della Rosa'
photos: Dimitris Kamaras replica

 Pietro di Giovanni ‘Madonna della Rosa’ c. 1399      Zoom in
Original statue      Faces of Mary and her Child

First we walk into the Via de’Lamberti. Here you can see the oldest statue. The ‘Madonna della Rosa’ is entirely in the style of Gothicism as we saw at the first doors of the Baptistery with the work of Andrea Pisano. The guild of doctors and pharmacists had ordered this statue for their recess. Mary’s frontal posture, the proportions of her body, the folds in the robe, are not natural. The same cannot be said for the posture of the child Jesus. Here you can already see a human element shimmering through, something Giotto started with. If you take this Madonna with Child as your starting point, you can see how sculpture developed very rapidly in the first half of the fifteenth century (Wikipedia: Madonna della Rosa).

We now walk around the corner and stand in the busy shopping street: the Via dei Calzaiuoli. On this short side of the Orsanmichele you can see the first life-size free standing bronze statue cast in Florence at the left corner pillar. It is John the Baptist by Ghiberti. In 1406, it was decided that the three most important guilds – the Calimala, the Lana and the Cambio – could each have one bronze statue made. A bronze statue is at least ten times more expensive than a marble version. Only the richest guilds could afford this. Each guild had to have its patron saint made. It is striking that all three guilds chose for Ghiberti to create the statues. His name as a bronze founder was already firmly established by his work on the first door he made for the Baptistery.

Three bronze statues of Ghiberti in front of the recesses of the Orsanmichele: John the Baptist, Matthew and Stefanus

Ghiberti ‘John the Baptist’ 1412-1416 replica
Original statue       John’s head

The first sculpture Ghiberti made was John the Baptist. It was likely made between 1413 and 1416. In that last year it was recessed and it was cast at the end of 1414 or the beginning of 1415. The Arte di Calimala insisted that casting was at the artist’s risk. Casting was rather risky and certainly for a figure of 254 cm high. In addition, John the Baptist was cast in one go. Ghiberti writes the following in his diary on December 1, 1414: “In what follows I will note down all the costs I incur for casting the figure. I took it upon myself to cast the figure at my own expense: in the event of failure, the costs would be for me, in the event of success […] the board and the opera […] would they use the same conditions as they would when they ordered another foundry.” The costs were around 1100 florins. Ghiberti himself received 530 florins. The Matthew that Ghiberti made after John cost 1100 florins, of which Ghiberti himself received 650. The casting was big business. Bronze founders belonged to the class of bankers, but it was still a dangerous affair, if the casting failed, one could incur big losses.

Orsanmichele: Ghiberti 'John the Baptist'
photos: Rufus46 and Mongools

The hem of the garment bears the signature: POVS LAVR (E)NTII. Of course the statue was gilded. This statue was cast while Ghiberti was still working on his first door. Not surprisingly, then, that the drapery also reminds us of this: highly decorative in the style of the international Gothicism. John the Baptist has a somewhat exaggerated contrapposto attitude, just like the marble David by Donatello or the Isaiah by Nanni di Danco for the buttresses. Decorative elements can be seen everywhere: in the folds of course, but also in his hair, the beard, the hairs of his dress and the knot that holds the garment together. The folds of the drapery run exactly to the right foot. The face of John the Baptist is remarkable when you compare this with the graceful and endearing lines in the robes. The recess made for John the Baptist is quite deep and the statue is clearly positioned in the recess itself. Very different from the recess for the second statue of Ghiberti: the Matthew. We now walk along Via de’Lamberti to the back of the Orsanmichele and arrive in Via dell’Arte della Lana where the two other bronze statues of Ghiberti can be seen: Matthew and Stephen.

Orsanmichele: Ghiberti 'Matthew'
photo: Dan Philpott

Ghiberti ‘Matthew’ 1419 – 1432       Book

First we look at the statue of the evangelist, Matthew, in the left corner pillar. On 26 August 1419, Ghiberti was commissioned by the Arte del Cambio to produce a Matthew. A year later Ghibeti signed the statue on the hem of the cloak with OPVS VNIVERSITATIS CANSORVM FLORENTIE ANNO DOMINI MCCCCXX as you can see here. The contract expressly states that this statue should be at least as high as that of John the Baptist. It was also demanded that the statue be cast in one go. Only the head could be cast separately if Ghiberti so wished. The bronze came from Venice. The first time, the casting did not work out entirely as Ghiberti informed the clients. Some parts had to be cast again.


The difference between the Matthew and the previous statue of Ghiberti is the difference between Gothic and Renaissance. In this respect, this sculpture fits well with the reliefs of Ghiberti’s second door (the Paradise Gate) and with his views that you can read in his ‘I Commentari’. The interior of the recess with pilasters, the classical drapery under which seems to really be a body, the powerful posture of the evangelist who steps forward and the classical facial features are very different from the recess with the statue of John the Baptist. John’s exaggerated contrapposto has given way to an unaffected attitude. The graceful decorative lines and pleats have disappeared with the Matthew, the pleat is much more natural. Although Matthew is only fourteen centimetres taller than John, the evangelist makes a monumental impression in contrast to the statue of Ghiberti, which we have looked at before. Matthew is made according to mathematical proportions that Cennini still describes in his ‘Libro dell’Arte’

Ghiberti 'Matthew' detail: Head
photo: Sailko

Chapter 70 Of the proportions of the human figure
“Take note that, before I proceed further, I will make you acquainted with the proportions of a man; I omit those of a woman, because there is not one of hem perfectly proportioned. First, as I have said before, the face is divided into three parts, namely, the forehead, one; the nose, another; and from the nose to the chin, the third; from the bridge of the nose through the whole length of the eye, one of these parts; […] The length of a man is equal to his width with the arms extended. The arm with the hand reaches to the middle of the thigh. The whole length of a man is eight faces and two of these measures.” Cennino Cennini, ‘The handbook of the artist Il Libro dell’Arte’ (originally written around 1400) Gutenberg chapter 70

It is clear that Vitruvius’ views on man, as we have already seen in architecture, are adopted by Cennini. Mattheus is ¼ braccia, about fourteen centimeters higher than John. The height of the tabernacle is exactly twice as high as the statue with the pedestal. This classical relationship, which, as we have already seen, also played such an important role in architecture (among others at the façade of the Santa Maria Novella), is seen here in the church father and Christian philosopher Augustine. He was convinced that the Creator had created the cosmos according to divine proportions.

Ghiberti: Stephen

Ghiberti ‘Stephen’ 1427 – 1428 replica       Original

In the middle recess next to the Matthew is also the Stephen by Ghiberti. This is the last statue Ghiberti made for the Orsanmichele. It was an assignment of the wool guild: Arte della Lana. This guild was the first to have a statue, Stephen, made of marble. This statue now seemed very old-fashioned compared to the bronze statues Ghiberti had made for the other guilds, the Calimala and the Cambio. And that was out of the question. So Lana decided to have a new Stephen made from bronze ‘because of the beauty of this guild, which always strived to be the best of its kind and to be at the head of all guilds’. Who else other than Ghiberti would be the one to do this. Ghiberti was commissioned in 1425 and three years later the sculpture was placed in the recess. The way in which the folds of Stephen’s garment are depicted is more reminiscent of the John the Baptist and resembles the international style. The face of Saint Stephen is almost expressionless, especially when you compare it to the speaking face of John the Baptist. Needless to say, this statue was also gilded.

Continuation Florence day 3: Orsanmichele and its statues III