Discovering Orsanmichele, the church between market and trades
An artistic and architectural jewel in the heart of Florence with a history of arts, crafts and miracles
Looking at Florence from above, you can see that near Piazza della Signoria there is another building almost as tall as Palazzo Vecchio. It is the fascinating church of Orsanmichele, the ancient granary of Florence, which is located in the heart of the city, in Via de' Calzaiuoli, just halfway between the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Palazzo Vecchio.
A jewel that Florence has jealously guarded since 1200. Today we could call it an open-air art gallery, thanks to the 14 external niches adorned with statues. But it is its history that makes it one of Florence's wonders.
One of these statues has recently been restored: Donatello's San Marco, which is now in the Orsanmichele Museum (while the one outside is a copy). The statue, 2.48 metres high and made of Apuan marble, was commissioned by the corporation of Linaioli e Rigattieri. Its restoration was presented on 19 May in the Orsanmichele museum.
The interior of the church has two naves and six cross vaults. To reach the upper floors you can either go up a steep spiral staircase or from the building opposite, the Palazzo della Lana, connected by an arch to the church of Orsanmichele. One of the most characteristic views of Florence.
Orsanmichele, also known in ancient times as the church of San Michele in Orto, was originally built for the grain market. It was a loggia that was only later transformed into the church of the Arts, the ancient Florentine guilds.
In 1240 the City of Florence had the small ancient church of San Michele in Orto, affectionately called Or San Michele by the Florentines, destroyed to make room for the covered grain and cereal market. Later it would be called by the citizens the ancient granary of Florence: in addition to housing the market, the upper floors were later used as grain stores.
On one of the pillars there was a fresco, that of the Madonna del Popolo, considered miraculous. At that time, people began to bring gifts and offerings for the graces received. However, the sacred image was destroyed in a fire that broke out in 1304 and demolished the loggia.
After the fire, the space dedicated to the loggia was rebuilt by Simone Talenti, and the sacred image of the Madonna was replaced by Bernardo Daddi's painting of the Madonna delle Grazie. Meanwhile, over the years new details were added to the marvellous architectural construction, thanks to the financial support of the 21 guilds of trades. A stone, marble and bronze tabernacle was built to enclose the Madonna delle Grazie.
Until 1404 when the City of Florence gave permission to the powerful Florentine guilds of arts and crafts to build a series of tabernacles with statues of the patron saints of the Arts.
Thus were born the marvellous 14 tabernacles that, set on the outer walls of the Orsanmichele building, create an astonishing sculptural cycle. In fact, as you walk around the church, you can admire statues by Donatello, Brunelleschi, Verrocchio, Giberti and many others.
Later, the building became the seat of the confraternity of the Laudesi, also known as the Madonna di San Michele in Orto.