Via Calzaiuoli is a street made for strolling. Along this pedestrian-only thoroughfare, it’s easy to wander between some of Florence’s most sought after sites including the Duomo, Florence’s iconic red-domed cathedral, and the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in town which survived World War II. Tucked in between these two sites is the historic church of Orsanmichele, beloved by Florentines but easy for visitors to miss.
Taller than it is wide and without a pronounced front entrance, Orsanmichele resembles a perhaps a theater, rather than a church. But don’t be deceived by its inconspicuous first impression, for Orsanmichele is a storied structure in Florentine history, significant for different reasons throughout different times in history.
The church’s name itself is intriguing, and remains a nod to the structure’s origin. Ancient Florence was occupied by Romans, and it is speculated that the land where Orsanmichele now stands was once the site of a temple dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian god of fertility. By the year 895 — due to Isis or simply the rich soil — the fertile land had become the orto, garden, for the Benedictine monastery of San Michele (St. Michael). Orto San Michele morphed into Or-San-Michele, and the monastery remained for the next few centuries.
By the mid 1200s Florence was growing and with it, the community’s needs were changing. History is quiet on what happened to the Benedictine monks and their monastery, but nevertheless, the structure was ordered destroyed, allowing space for an open-air grain and cereal market, vital to the flourishing population.
Around 1290, a loggia was built, providing a covered and dry space year-round for the market, yet allowing the market to retain its open-air feel. Based on 13th century Florence’s track record, and given that the loggia was built by Arnolfo di Cambio, who designed the Palazzo Vecchio, it seems safe to assume the architecture of Orsanmichele’s new loggia was as beautiful and artistic as it was functional. Vaulted ceilings to protect from wind, rain or the intense Italian sun, and decorative columns to support it all.
And it’s on one of those columns where the future of Orsanmichele, once a kitchen garden to a monastery, then a grain market to a young but powerful republic, would quietly, gradually, take another turn. For on that column was an image of the Madonna, to which miracles were attributed, and which attracted enough faithful pilgrims that the area required the protection of armed guards.
Fast forward 50 years, after the ravages of time and fire, during which the loggia, including the column and its sacred image, was destroyed, the need to rebuild could no longer be avoided. It was also clear that, with Florence’s rising power and population, its grain — vital food source — needed greater protection. Thus, in 1337, the loggia was ordered reconstructed, this time with with plans for two additional floors above it, to store the grain securely within the confines of the walls of the city. It is this loggia of 1337 which was eventually enclosed and incorporated into the interior of today’s Orsanmichele church.
Florentine financial ingenuity allowed for the construction of the new structure — the market, granary and a replacement Madonna, without the use of any public monies. How? “By allocating one pillar of the new loggia to each of the city’s 21 guilds, thus giving rise to one of the world’s first acts of corporate sponsorship,” writes Maurizio Arfaioli for The Florentine.
Those corporate sponsors — the guilds — were an important and powerful force in Renaissance Florence. These associations were formed by each of the various trades of craftsmens and merchants which dominated the economy, to provide protection for workers and to promote their interests. Among the most influential were the Arte di Calimala, the cloth merchants’ guild, and the Arte della Lana, the wool guild.
Using guild funds (or possibly votive offerings received during the time of the plage, as one source notes) to replace the Madonna image, leaders commissioned Bernardo Daddi , who trained under Giotto, to create a new painting. This prompted a classic case of one thing leading to another, Renaissance style.
Once finished, Daddi’s Madonna was regarded as so beautiful that simply installing it on the wall just wouldn’t do. A second commission was issued to one of the city’s leading architects, Andrea di Cione (known as Orcagna, or Archangel), to create a tabernacle in which to frame the painting. Orcagna took ten years to complete his elaborate, gothic structure.
Upon seeing Orcagna’s magnificent tabernacle, now completed and displaying Daddi’s exquisite art, it was clear that Orsanmichele’s ground floor had become more sacred than its original intent as the city’s grain store. The market was moved, the loggia enclosed, and Orsanmichele’s life as a church began.
The upper two floors, however, retained their original function as a granary, storing the community’s grain supply for roughly another 200 years. Inside the church the grain chutes hide in plain site today, tucked quietly along the church’s stone interior. It’s a little tricky to see, but look on the bottom of the left pillar in the foreground below, and you’ll see the small rectangular opening of the chute. Look for them the next time you’re in Florence, and take a moment to meditate at the tabernacle, still situated proudly inside Orsanmichele,
One thing that may catch your eye before entering the church are the sculptures dotting Orsanmichele’s exterior. When the loggia was walled in so many centuries ago, fourteen decorative niches were created. Again, the guilds stepped up. The most powerful (wealthiest) guilds were offered the opportunity to place a sculpture of their guild’s patron saint in one of the niches. Fourteen niches, fourteen guilds, fourteen statues. The guilds, naturally, turned to the artistic rock stars who called 14th century Florence home — Donatello, Ghiberti, Giambologna, Verrocchio, Brunelleschi — all of whom contributed a statue or two.
Today the original statues have been restored and moved indoors for protection, and are housed in Orsanmichele’s third floor museum. It’s open just one day a week, Mondays from 10 am to 5 pm, and provides a unique opportunity to walk among the imposing statues. These serene beauties still convey, with nearly palpable energy, the power of so much Renaissance genius.
History Highlight: Orsanmichele Hosts the Medici Fall From Glory
Long before Filippo Brunelleschi began his magnum opus which is Florence’s cathedral dome, he was commissioned by the Arte dei Beccai (the Butchers’ Guild) for their niche sculpture of Saint Peter. Meanwhile, Brunelleschi’s rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was in the final years of creating his legendary bronze doors for the baptistery, was commissioned for three bronze sculptures by three of Florence’s most powerful guilds. One of these was the Arte del Cambio, the banker’s guild, which was led and primarily funded by Cosimo de’ Medici, the family dynasty whose love and support of the arts launched the Renaissance.
Ironically, just three generations later, Orsanmichele would play a role in the Medici fall from glory. Cosimo’s great grandson Piero had stepped into power after the untimely death of his father Lorenzo the Magnificent. Nothing like his father, Piero the Unfortunate — as he has been nicknamed by history — was forced to flee the city after giving it up to the invading armies led by King Charles the VIII of France. Medici belongings were seized and sold off…with Orsanmichele as the auction site.
Luca Landucci, who lived in Florence and worked as an apothecary during this time, provides first-hand commentary in his diary: “9th July 1495. Piero de’ Medici’s household effects and clothes were sold by auction; this work took several days, in Orto Sa’ Michele….11th August. All these days they were selling by auction in Orto Sa’ Michele Piero de’ Medici’s household effects; there were velvet counterpanes embroidered in gold, and paintings and pictures, and all kinds of beautiful things; showing what fortune may do in this transitory life, or rather divine permission, to the end that many may recognise that all comes from God, who gives and takes away, and that he may not become proud and set up at being rich and powerful; on the contrary, the more a man has received from God, the humbler he ought to be, appearing more ungrateful to God than others; for the greatest sin is ingratitude.”
What else has Orsanmichele been host to or witnessed during its seven centuries of majestic, quiet observation of the comings and goings along via Calzaiuoli and via dell’Arte della Lana? Faithfully offering its nourishment in the form of garden, grain, or spiritual grace, depending on the particular needs of the time.
For travelers to Florence, Orsanmichele offers a peaceful oasis to hectic travel days. It’s a quiet, cool and serene spot for reflection and rest, and with some understanding of its history, allows visitors to delve deeper into Renaissance Florence.
Sit under the breathtaking vaulted ceiling, and imagine its earlier life as an open-air loggia for the market. Look for the remnants of the granary: grain chutes line the walls; iron rings, likely used for pulleys to lift the grain, dangle from the ceiling; iron bars crisscross the vaulted arches and provide support. Even the altar, placed strangely off-center to accommodate the original loggia arrangement, is a reminder of days past. And if you’re at Orsanmichele on a Monday, take a few moments to climb the staircase to the third floor museum housing the original statues of the guild’s patron saints.
Enjoy the opportunity, while passing from one spot to the next, to be filled by the spirit of Florence’s beloved Orsanmichele. From garden to granary to church, and the “most Florentine monument in Florence.”
“Orsanmichele is the most Florentine monument in Florence. Palazzo Vecchio is a public palace, as many other cities also have. Santa Maria del Fiore is a cathedral, as all other cities have. But Orsanmichele is only in Florence. Only in Florence could a monument like this be born that was half church and half granary; that served to religious and civil life; that exalted faith and work…”
— Piero Bargellini, Mayor of Florence 1966-67