Today I want to tell you about a beautiful building in Florence that you will walk past multiple times, no doubt wondering what it is. Like pretty much everything in Florence it has a good story behind it too!
Diagonally opposite the Porcellino Market (Mercato Nuovo) and just up the street from Piazza della Repubblica, in between via Calimala and via Calzaiuoli you will see a square building with statues inside niches the entire way around it. It is beautiful and it is remarkable, but at first glance it is hard to tell exactly what it is.
This is the church of Orsanmichele.
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It Wasn’t Always A Church
In 895 A.D this was an oratory in the garden of the monastery of St Michele. The word for garden was orto, so over the years Orto-San-Michele became shortened to Or-San-Michele.
This first structure burned down in 1239 and was rebuilt as a wooden loggia. The loggia had a column with the Madonna on it, accredited with several miracles. Once again, this structure also burned down. In 1336 the Silk Guild decided to rebuild it as a grain market. This is why the church has the odd shape – it is square because it originally was a grain market with a grain storage space above it.
At the time it made sense to keep a granary inside the city walls. During times of siege and wars you couldn’t always safely go out to the countryside to get the grain needed for the city.
It was still an open loggia and the city flowed through it. Bernardo Daddi painted a replacement Madonna, the Madonna delle Grazie, to replace the one lost in the fire. Once again she had miracles attributed to her, especially during the plague of 1348. With miracles come pilgrims, and they showed up in such numbers to pray at her feet that it became impossible to keep the space functioning as a market. A new market was built across the street, the Mercato Nuovo (Porcellino Market), and this space was walled in and converted into a church.
Each of the city’s guilds (artisan unions) was given a tabernacle on the exterior of the building and had to provide a statue or sculpture to put in it. These are the niches you see around the outside of the building.
The project wasn’t completed until the mid 15th century, so many of the guilds benefitted from the expertise of the greatest Renaissance sculptors, including Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The grain storage space above the old grain market has since been converted into a museum and all of the original sculptures are safely kept there. The sculptures you see outside are replicas. (It is well worth a trip upstairs to the museum)
For a breakdown of the art in each tabernacle, who sculpted it and which guild it was built for check this link
Inside the church the miracle giving Madonna delle Grazie by Bernardo Daddi is housed inside an incredible tabernacle created by the artist Orcagna in 1348-59. It is quite something!
Cool Things To Look For
There are some other really cool features to look for inside the church. If you sit back for a moment and watch you will see most of the travelers in here miss them. I say travelers rather than tourists because even though there are hordes of tourists swarming down the street outside, very few bother to come inside and have a look.
Two of the columns on the left side of the church have open grain chutes. The grain stored above would be dispensed down these chutes into the market. It’s a quirky little detail but I love it.
Being that this is Florence of course the artwork inside this church is gorgeous. But as you look up at the paintings on the ceiling, look a little closer and you will see metal rings embedded in them.
These are not part of some creepy inquisition torture devices but actually date back to the days when this was a granary. The metal rings were used to work the pullies, hoisting huge blocks of grain.
Unless you go upstairs to the museum (recommended) your entrance to the church is free. You won’t need an enormous amount of time here so it is a great place to whip into on your way to the Piazza della Signoria, the Porcellina Market or Ponte Vecchio.
You may need to loop around it a couple of times to find the entrance – head up, it’s at the back. Be sure to walk around the building exterior at least once to see all the tabernacles and identify each of the guilds. The magnificence of buildings like Orsanmichele are part of what makes Florence so totally incredible.
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