Tourists who find themselves in Florence on Mondays and want to plan a cultural day often find themselves in a bit of a quandary as to what to do, being that the State museums are closed (Uffizi gallery, Accademia gallery & the Pitti Palace). However, Monday is the only day that the Museum of the Orsanmichele church is open 10am-5pm & it is free! You will probably be one of very few in the museum (fantastic!) as not many know that it exists at all & it takes only a short time to visit but it is one my favourite ‘hidden gems’ in the city.
The statues of saints in the niches on the ground floor exterior of the church are all copies & the originals (except one) are all displayed on the second storey in the museum. It is a real treat to see the original sculptures both in bronze and marble executed by some of the most important artists from the early Renaissance as well as later & they are displayed around the large room in the same order and position as downstairs in the niches.
The city of Florence at the beginning of the 1400’s passed a decree that those guild corporations who had been already allocated a niche on the church in the 1300’s in an attempt to beautify the structure, & had yet to fill it with a sculpture of their patron saint, had ten years to do so, otherwise their niche would be taken from them. This caused a flurry of artistic commissioning & spurred on the competition as well as challenged the virtuosity amongst the artists themselves.
As art was used as a display of the wealth of the patron (just as advertising & sponsorship today displays the wealth of companies) these guilds wanted to show the importance and power they held in the city & the government by commissioning elaborate and innovative sculpture to show their status.
Young Donatello received three commissions (which would launch his career), as did Lorenzo Ghiberti (who was in the midst of working on the bronze doors of the Florentine baptistery which would take him 50 years to complete). These works reflect the atmosphere of the early Renaissance in Florence, as they depict man as the thinking intellectual, being both in representation of the human form true to life and the psychological presence of the individual character. This reflects the rejection of the medieval mentality of a world governed solely by God & the new era dawning of ‘man as the measure of things’ - as he had once viewed himself in antiquity.
The statues also date to periods after the early Renaissance with a masterpiece by the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Verrocchio, from the second half of the 1400’s, & the elgant St Luke by the Medicean court artist Giambologna from the later 1500’s.
The sculptures are arranged so that you can walk behind them and see exactly how the casting of bronze is done and the different stages of refining the materials, whether it be in marble or metal.
Also, the building itself is a superb example of a medieval structure. It was originally built to house the grain storage for the city. Starting simply as a large open portico in the 1200’s & then with the additional storeys later in the 1300’s. The ground floor open portico was closed in & made a church when an image of the Madonna, painted on a column of the structure, was believed to have miraculous healing properties & they retained the upper storeys for grain. This then gave birth to the idea of creating external niches on the outside for the beautification of the ground floor church of Orsanmichele . The second storey is where now the original sculptures are displayed. The third storey is also open for visiting & here you can have an almost bird’s eye view of the city below.
Pietro Bargellini, a Florentine historian and ex-mayor, wrote of Orsanmichele: Orsanmichele è il monumento più fiorentino di Firenze. Palazzo Vecchio è un palazzo pubblico, come hanno anche molte altre città. Santa Maria del Fiore è una cattedrale, come hanno tutte le altre città. Ma Orsanmichele c’è soltanto a Firenze. Soltanto a Firenze poteva nascere un monumento come questo che fosse mezza chiesa e mezzo granaio; che servisse alla vita religiosa e a quella civile, che esaltasse la fede e il lavoro
Orsanmichele is the most Florentine monument of Florence . The town hall is a public building, as in many other cities. The Holy Maria of the Flower is a cathedral, as in many other cities. But Orsanmichele is only in Florence . A monument like this could only have been born in Florence , being half grainary half church, that served both religious & civil life, exalting faith and work.