This guild building was originally a monastery garden with a church [orti di san Michele, orto = garden]. The church was demolished in 1240. Arnolfo di Cambio built a hall with open arcades for a grain market on the vacant spot. On one of the pillars of this grain hall a painting of St. Michael and Mary was painted in memory of the old church. As it turned out, the fresco of Mary performed all kinds of miracles. Thus this painting became very popular, and even songs (laudi) were sung for it. And so the grain hall not only became a place for trade and later a space for grain storage, but also an oratorio: a place of prayer and singing. Due to a fire, the open hall of Cambio was laid to ashes. The city council decided to build a new grain market.
Between 1337 and 1350 the current three-storey Orsanmichele was built. The ground floor was used for trading and the other floors were used as grain storage. The grain from the upper floors went through two tubes, hidden in pillars, (to your right as you enter) to the ground floor, where it was sold. In the plague year 1348, the brotherhood of the oratorio received 350,000 florins, more than Florence had in one year of income. This money was used as penance – the plague was seen as a punishment from above – for, among other things, the frame of a famous altarpiece that we will examine inside and that was made by Orcagna. In his ‘I Commentarii’, Ghiberti writes excitedly about the tabernacle where he praises Orcagna and mentions the sum of 86,000 gold florins. In 1352 it was also decided to move the grain trade and from then on – until today – the space was only used as oratorio. The frame contained an old painting with magical powers. For a fee, the visitor used to be able to push the curtain in front of this altarpiece to experience the power of the statue of Mary. The Orsanmichele was the pride and joy of the guilds.
The work of Orcagna and Francesco da Sangallo in the Orsanmichele
First we go inside to take a look at the famous painting, but of course we especially look at the tabernacle by Andrea di Cione, better known as Andrea Orcagna, and a group of statues by Francesco da Sangallo.
The original painting that performed miracles was partly burned. Bernardo Daddi painted a new panel of Mary in 1347. When you enter, you see a tabernacle on the right and an altar on the left with the group of statues: Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. The first thing we look at is the tabernacle of Orcagna with the painting by Daddi.
In the southeast corner we see the tabernacle built between 1353 and 1359. The balustrades date from 1366 and have many octagonal reliefs. Four octagonal pillars support a dome. In contrast to the back, the front is open. Behind the pediment is a dome reminiscent of the old design Neri di Fioravanti made for the Duomo. Along the underside, hexagonal reliefs with scenes from the life of Mary are alternated with virtues.
At the back of the relief of Mary, the artist signed with: ANDREAS CIONIS PICTOR FLORENTIN(VS) ORATORII AR CHIMAGISTER EXTITITIT HVI (VS) MCCCLIX The large relief, which has been discussed for a while in comparison with Nanni di Banco’s Ascension (scroll down) to the Porta della Mandorla, can also be found on the back.
The Black Death
In the spring of 1348, Florence was engulfed by the Black Death, resulting in the rapid loss of thousands of lives. Responding to the dire situation, seven young women and three young men chose to take refuge in the countryside, opting to wait until the deadly plague had subsided, congregating at the church of Santa Maria Novella.
“I say, then, that the years [of the era] of the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God had attained to the number of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when into the notable city of Florence, fair over every other of Italy, there came the death-dealing pestilence, […] it began on horrible and miraculous wise to show forth its dolorous effects. Yet not as it had done in the East, where, if any bled at the nose, it was a manifest sign of inevitable death; nay, but in men and women alike there appeared, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits, whereof some waxed of the bigness of a common apple, others like unto an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boil […]” Giovanni Boccaccio ‘Decamerone’ short after 1348 Source: Gutenberg project
Florence found itself inundated with lifeless bodies. Laborers in churchyards excavated trenches reaching the water table, interweaving layers of corpses and soil, creating a somber tableau of bodies upon bodies. The painter Bernardo Daddi stood out as one of the most renowned victims (Wikipedia).
The large relief with the death of Mary and the Ascension has the typical characteristics of a work of art from the middle of the trecento. According to Millard Meiss, the plague that struck devastatingly in 1347 caused a relapse in art (Meiss, M., ‘Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death The Arts, Religion, and Society in the Mid-Fourteenth Century’, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1951 (reprint 1978) pp. 44-53). In short, this relapse means that artists return to twelfth-century art. This twelfth-century art is based on images as sacred signs. This involves:
- a strict hierarchy, in which that which is sacred is depicted larger.
- the use of gold leaf.
- figures that are often depicted frontally.
- the human being is largely banished and realism decreases considerably.
Many of these features can be found in the large relief on the back of the tabernacle. The death of Mary, for example, is a narrow space in which the figures are very close to each other. The effect of too many people in too small a space is further enhanced by the fact that there is hardly any foreground to see. At the top, where Mary goes to Heaven, Orcagna used gilded and coloured marble pieces. There is no realistic background here.
Saint Thomas receives the belt of Mary, just as with the relief of Nanni di Banco at the Porta della Mandorla, where Orcagna also depicted this. Orcagna probably sculpted Thomas because the hymns sung by the brotherhood of the Blessed Virgin here are largely about Thomas and the belt. The two figures in the second row on the far right at Mary’s death do not wear classical robes, but clothes from the period in which this work of art was made. One of the two figures is probably a self-portrait of the artist. These two are larger than the other figures, but are also much more convincing as real flesh and blood individuals.
The top and bottom are connected by the Christ figure in the middle behind the bar on which Mary lies. Christ clasps a child with his left arm. This represents the soul of Mary ascending to heaven and here we are at the top scene of this great relief. When the Renaissance begins after 1400, the Assumption of Mary by Nanni di Banco at the Porta della Mandorla is depicted much more faithfully as we have already seen.
The decline in art can indeed be seen in the large relief, but this certainly does not apply to all the sculptures of this tabernacle.The balustrade shows octagonal reliefs like the ‘Presentation of Mary’. Some of these, such as ‘The Annunciation‘ or ‘The birth of Jesus’ are very convincing in terms of the spatial effect and the reactions of the figures to each other. The entire iconographic program of the tabernacle is anything but pessimistic as you would expect in the middle of the trecento in Florence.
Finally we cast a glance at the altar on the other side. Here we see a statue, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, by Francesco da Sangallo. This statue is quite special in one respect: it has been cut out of one marble block and that is no easy feat. Michelangelo also discovered this when he carved four figures out of one block.
Fourteen years prior, Andrea Sansovino had similarly sculpted an Anna-to-three from a single block, but in this instance, Andrea positioned Anna beside Mary.
Michelangelo failed miserably and out of anger he smashed his Pietà, which we have seen in the Museo dell Opera del Duomo, to pieces. In view of the chronological development of sculpture in this story, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne will be discussed later, with Michelangelo. Buonarroti encountered the limits of carving multiple figures out of one block. If you still want to read this story: click here. We are now going outside to see the statues in the fourteen recesses on the outside of this guild building.