Curative Miracles? Orsanmichele!

Orsanmichele.  (Say it with me: or-sahn-mi-KAY-lay.   Rolls off the tongue.  Seriously, say it a couple of times and you won’t want to stop.)   When I think Florence, I think Orsanmichele.  Not the Duomo, not Michelangelo’s David.  Don’t get me wrong — I love all of it.  But a church, originally built as a grain market, with statues commissioned by the guilds of Florence around the outside, on the Via dei Calzaiouli (“via day-ee  calz-eye-oo-WOH-lee”), which means, “street of the shoemakers” — it really doesn’t get better than that.  And to top it all off, Via dei Calzaiouli is a pedestrian-only street.  Get it?  The street of the shoemakers is for walkers only!  (I’m sure that’s not intentional, just an interesting coincidence.)   Orsanmichele on Via dei Calzaiouli.  Doesn’t just saying it make you smile?

Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy, 1337-1430

Ok, let’s get down to it.  There’s too much to cover in one blog post, so I’ll hit the highlights.  The building is called “Orsanmichele,” which means “the kitchen garden of St. Michael” (in Tuscan dialect), because it was built on the site of the kitchen garden of the monastery of San Michele (St. Michael) which stood here from the 9th to the 13th century CE.  Don’t you love that?  It’s on a corner and the street isn’t particularly wide, so it’s hard to stand back far enough to get a good photo.  Here’s another shot:

Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy, 1337-1430

Although the first floor is enclosed, it used to be open and looked something like this:

Mercato Nuovo, Florence, Italy, 1550s

The details are still somewhat unclear to me, but a painting of the Virgin and Child on one of the pillars in the grain market worked miracles, described as “curative miracles” by George Dameron. This painting isn’t there anymore, but you can still see its replacement, painted in the mid 14th century by Bernardo Daddi, in a tabernacle made to hold it in 1355-59 by Andrea Orcagna.  Here’s the tabernacle:

Tabernacle (Andrea Orcagna, c. 1359) and Madonna (Bernardo Daddi, c. 1346), Orsanmichele, Florence

And the painting within:

Madonna and Child with Angels, Bernardo Daddi, 1346-47, Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy

It’s very sweet, isn’t it?  The way Jesus touches Mary’s face?  Because of the original miraculous painting, Orsanmichele was eventually converted into a church, and the guilds were directed to commission sculptures for the niches on the exterior of the building.  The niches, which now hold copies of the original sculptures of the patron saints of the guilds (which are in museums, most in the museum on the upper floors of Orsanmichele), were in some cases treated as sculptures, too.  And in some cases the sculptures on the niches are just as interesting as the sculptures of patron saints.  The best example of this, in my opinion, is that of the stonemasons and woodworkers guild, which surrounds the Quattro Santi Coronati (Four Crowned Saints) by Nanni di Banco:

Quattro Santi Coronati (Four Crowned Saints), Nanni di Banco, 1409-17, Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy

The sculpture on the niche (at the bottom) shows the woodworkers and stonemasons at work, as you can see, although I think that my favorite part is the fabric hanging down next to the two outer saints.  I’m sure that it’s meant to represent something specific (maybe Roman?), but I just like it aesthetically, the way the fabric drapes and is bunched up at the top, the texture it adds, and how it somehow adds a little bit of casualness.

A couple of things to note:  While there was nothing new about sculptures of saints on pedestals, the extension of the foot over the edge of the niche was a newer idea (as in the Quattro Santi Coronati).  The artist Verocchio takes it even further by placing Thomas outside the niche in his sculpture of Christ and Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas) from Orsanmichele:

Christ and Saint Thomas, Andrea del Verocchio, 1464-83, Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy

Not only is he standing on the very edge, not only is foot overlapping the edge, it’s almost completely outside the niche:

Christ and Saint Thomas, Andrea del Verocchio, 1464-83, Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy

Why is this a big deal?  Well, think about it this way:  These sculptures represent saints, who are worshiped, who are called on for help and intercession. They exist on a different plain.  And here they are, protruding into our mere mortal space.  Saints were being portrayed as people that we can relate to, which was a perspective that would keep developing throughout the Renaissance.

I love the above photo because it’s taken from below.  These sculptures were meant to be seen from below and were created accordingly.  They might look distorted head-on, because they are, so if you see one that’s at your eye level in a museum, squat or sit on the floor and look up.  You’ll get a better idea of how they’re supposed to look.  The example below isn’t perfect, but it will give you some idea.  This is a sculpture of St. John the Evangelist by Donatello, designed to go on the Duomo in Florence, where it would have been placed above eye level.

From the viewer’s perspective in the museum, straight on:

St. John the Evangelist, Donatello, 1410-11, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

And from below:

St. John the Evangelist, Donatello, 1410-11, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

See the difference?  If something looks a little off to you, think about this, because these were master sculptors we’re talking about.  They knew what they were doing.  If the torso looks a little long or the legs look a little short, there’s probably a good reason for it.

There’s so much more to Orsanmichele, but I’m going to stop here.  If you just can’t get enough, I completely understand.  Try these links for more images and more information:

If you only look at one other site, look at this one for information:

And this one for images:

If you need more:


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