The Speaking Statues of Orsanmichele

Little bears are on a virtual tour of Orsanmichele in Florence 🙂

Orsanmichele was one of the three most important buildings in late medieval Florence, along with the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo) and the Palazzo della Signoria. It is a complex hybrid structure: the ground floor, originally an open, arcaded loggia, was a grain market that shared space with a much venerated image of the Virgin. The two top floors were devoted to grain storage. Located between the cathedral and the Palazzo della Signoria, Orsanmichele fittingly blended civic and religious functions. Its structure stands between the two taller buildings in the Florentine cityscape, as seen in a famous view.

The building is on the site of the orchard (orto) of a Benedictine convent; in the orchard was a small oratory dedicated to Saint Michael. In 1240 the Florentine government appropriated the nuns’ orchard to make way for a grain market that became known as Orsanmichele, a contraction of Orto San Michele (the orchard of Saint Michael). To protect grain vendors from the elements, the Signoria decided to build a brick structure with arcades that opened onto the street. An image of the Virgin was frescoed on one of the piers of this first building and was believed miraculous. In 1291 a lay confraternity, the Compagnia della Madonna di Orsanmichele, was formed to sing hymns to the Virgin and administer the considerable charitable donations that the miraculous image attracted. The members of the confraternity shared space with the grain sellers on the ground floor of Orsanmichele. A charming illumination from a manuscript account of the grain activities at Orsanmichele vividly depicts the market’s chaotic condition during the famine of 1328-1329, with the image of the Virgin of Orsanmichele serenely presiding over the confusion while a confraternity official stands by. In 1304 a large fire devastated the area around Orsanmichele, severely damaging the grain loggia and the image of the Virgin. A new image was installed and repairs were made on the building, but these proved inadequate and, in 1336, the Signoria ordered the construction of what would amount to a new “grain palace,” putting the powerful silk guild (Seta) in charge of the operation, which was financed by grain taxes.

In July 1337 the foundation stone was laid for the new Orsanmichele. Two years later the guilds sponsored legislation that made Orsanmichele something of an official guild center by decreeing that the seven major guilds, plus the five most important minor guilds, should be charged with decorating twelve exterior pilaster faces of the loggia of Orsanmichele with images of their patron saints. A thirteenth pilaster was assigned to the one political party, the Parte Guelfa (Guelph party), and a fourteenth pilaster face was eventually assigned to an additional guild. The pilaster images reflected on the honor of the guilds and were the site of special celebrations on the feast days of the saints.

In 1347 the miraculous image of the Virgin in Orsanmichele’s ground floor was updated with a magnificent new painting by Bernardo Daddi, a pupil of Giotto. The new painting copied the design of the old image, seen in the Domenico Lenzi manuscript, but made it more resplendent. The decision to rebuild Orsanmichele probably reflected the concern in the 1330s with adequately feeding a record-size population of about 100,000. All of this changed in 1348 with the Black Death, a particularly virulent outbreak of bubonic plague that decimated the European population, killing about 50,000 Florentines alone. The abrupt and drastic drop in population lessened the importance of the grain market while increasing the wage-earning power of the surviving population, which had much less need of the charity dispensed by the confraternity of Orsanmichele. In turn the confraternity, already the most important organization of its kind in Florence, was further enriched by a flood of bequests from so many deaths. The surplus capital seems to have fueled construction on the building, as well as the commission of a splendid marble tabernacle with gilding and inlaid colored glass and stones, created by Andrea Orcagna in 1352-1359 to enshrine Daddi’s Madonna. The building’s religious and guild functions gained in importance over the grain market. Thus, starting in the 1360s the open ground floor loggia, where the grain used to be sold, was enclosed, turning the space into a proper oratory church as it still is today.

Since the legislation of 1339, the guilds had been slowly building elaborate niches in the pilasters assigned to them and installing statues there. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, however, only a few of the guilds had fulfilled their obligation. In 1406, the buoyant year of the conquest of Pisa, prompted the Signoria to pass a new decree requiring each guild to complete its niche within ten years, not only to celebrate the guilds themselves, but “for the fame of the country”, or lose its spot.

Though it would be well over ten years before all the niches were filled, a flurry of activity followed, as each guild strove to assert its importance by erecting a more splendid, more exciting statue than its rival organizations. The Four Crowned Saints, by Nanni di Banco, was installed by his own guild, the Masters of Stone and Wood, around 1416. Ghiberti’s St Matthew was installed about 1423 by the bankers guild, which obtained special permission for bronze, instead of the stipulated marble, and specified that its statue be as “tall and beautiful” as one recently completed by the artist for the Arte di Calimala. Six decades later, Verrocchio’s bronze Christ and St. Thomas was placed in Orsanmichele’s central niche, asserting the power of the Mercanzia, the guilds’ regulatory body.

Christ and Saint Thomas, by Andrea del Verrocchio
Original inside the museum

In 1325 the Sienese excavated a Roman copy of a statue to Venus by the 4th century BCE Greek sculptor Lysippos, and proudly mounted it on the communal fountain. Soon feeling that it brought bad luck, they took it down and broke it into pieces, burying them in the territory of the arch-enemy Florence. This incident, reported by Ghiberti and recoded in the Sienese documents, attests to the age-old belief that sculpture somehow hovers between flesh and stone, possessing magical powers, and a potential to work both good and evil.

“Speaking” statues, or the association of speech with sculpture (or lack of it) were a commonplace of the period. In the mid 14th century Petrarch wrote of “breathing statues” in which “only the voice is lacking”, and in his poetry stone is the most common image after laurel. In Rome at the end of the 15th century certain Roman statue fragments supposedly began to speak, and be spoken to; and several decades later a Florentine writer escorting a foreigner around Florence, stopped to speak to Donatello’s St George at Orsanmichele.

Between 1410 and 1425 a wholly new public sculpture arose in Florence, whose premises are a compelling physical and psychological presence, figures intended to be “in dialog” with the people in the streets below. These sculptures seem to possess a larger than life heroism, breaking out from the niche-constricted passivity of sculpture on Gothic cathedral facades, from which they evolved. This radically new sculpture pre-dates any comparable innovations in architecture and painting, and unequivocally constitutes the point of departure for a new art in Florence. This new sculpture is clustered in three main places, the cathedral façade, the adjacent campanile figures, and the Orsanmichele located roughly mid-way between the cathedral and the Palazzo della Signoria.

Lorenzo Ghiberti is sometimes seen as a relatively traditional figure whose art developed out of the graceful late Gothic style, a foil for the expressive genius of Donatello. However, for his innovative construction of pictorial space and the classically inspired beauty of the figures he devised, he was one of the most original and influential sculptors of the century. He was also a technological innovator in the casting of bronze, achieving results that had not been seen in Europe since classical antiquity.

While Lorenzo’s career centered on his great bronze doors for the Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence’s baptistery, he also found time for major commissions like the colossal bronzes of Saint John the Baptist (1412-1416), Saint Matthew (1419-1423) and Saint Stephen (1427-1428) for Orsanmichele – the first monumental bronzes to be cast since antiquity. All three guild statues were executed for a major guild, as the only ones allowed to use the expensive medium of bronze.

St John the Baptist, by Lorenzo Ghiberti

Lorenzo Ghiberti’s St John the Baptist was commissioned by the Arte di Calimala. The statue is dated 1414, indicating completion of the model from which the bronze cast was taken. While Ghiberti had already proved his mettle as a bronzeworker, the over life-size dimensions of the piece made it technically problematic. The nervousness of the guild is reflected in the contractual stipulation that Ghiberti was to be held financially responsible should the casting fail. The worry was legitimate, for casting involves the complex process of getting an even flow of molten metal between the model of the sculptor and an outer shell that encases it.

St John the Baptist, by Lorenzo Ghiberti

Stylistically what the guild got must have been much what they expected, for a mellifluous flow of drapery in complementary curves is the hallmark of the Florentine “late Gothic” style, in particular the first panels that Ghiberti made for the Baptistery doors. While St John is a large sculpture, it cannot be called monumental in the sense of presenting an imposing body, for there is scant suggestion of bodily substance beneath the suave crescents of repeated drapery folds: the face is mask-like, hair and beard abstracted through repetition of the drapery patterns in miniature; the figure seems incapable of motion, for an even distribution of weight between the two legs anchors the body; and the hands are limp, almost pneumatic, adding to the impression of stasis. Lest this analysis seems to imply a negative judgement, it is clear that the composition is beautifully unified within the stylistic choices that inform it. Nor is there any indication that the statue was received other than with enthusiasm.

St John the Baptist, by Lorenzo Ghiberti
Original inside the museum

While Ghiberti was executing two bronze sculptures between c. 1412 and 1422, Donatello produced two remarkable marble sculptures that broke with the past, and whose form moved Ghiberti in his second bronze, the St Matthew, toward a more monumental, classicizing vision. By the early 1420s, Donatello had, in turn, learned from Ghiberti, and completed his first sculpture in bronze.

Donatello’s St Mark for the Arte di Linaiuoli (linen-workers guild, hence the witticism of the pillow on which the saint stands) was probably begun before Ghiberti’s St John. As early as 1409 the guild had ordered a marble block, and in February 1411, a committee was charged to identify an appropriate sculptor. Donatello was selected and told to finish the work by November 1412. He delivered 6 months late.

St Mark, by Donatello

The linen-workers probably expected something along the stylistic lines that Ghiberti produced, but instead received a work that can only be described as an artistic mutation, a figure at once more physically and psychologically compelling that anything produced for centuries. Mark stands with his weight heavily on his right leg, a pose that activates the whole body by tilting the pelvis and shoulders, movement complemented by slight turns of the torso and head. In stunning contrast to Ghiberti’s wholly decorative treatment of drapery, Donatello used drapery to reveal the forms and relations of the body beneath it. The right leg is sheathed in stiff vertical folds of drapery that possess the character of the parallel flutings of a column, while the relaxed left leg is defined by a simpler and softer flow of drapery. Throughout, the drapery suggests the quality of flesh and muscle beneath.

St Mark, by Donatello
Original inside the museum

The psychological vivacity of the figure cannot be separated from its physical energy. Mark gazes into the space of the spectators on the street, forehead furrowed, deep-set eyes intense. Even the hands convey energy, more an extension of the mind than of the body. The record is silent concerning what contemporaries may have thought of this prodigy.

St Mark, by Donatello Head (detail)

St Mark, by Donatello Hand and book (detail)

Together with Donatello and Ghiberti, Nanni di Banco is one of the artists responsible for introducing a new, more fully realistic, and individually expressive style of sculpture – a style that occurred most notably at Orsanmichele. Nanni’s fame is overshadowed by that of his two longer-lived contemporaries. Of the three, he was most faithful to ancient Roman precedents, as shown in his masterpiece, the Four Crowned Saints.

Four Crowned Saints, by Nanni di Banco

The Four Crowned Saints, done for the guild of stonecarvers and woodworkers, in undocumented but must date from about the same years as Donatello’s St Mark and Ghiberti’s St John, or possibly slightly earlier.

The rather confusing story of the four crowned martyrs was well known in Renaissance Florence, principally as told in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend by Jacopo da Voragine. It appears that the original four martyrs were beaten to death by order of the emperor Diocletian. Their story became conflated with that of a group of five stonecarvers, also martyred by Diocletian, in this case because they refused to carve an image of a pagan idol. Because of their profession, the five early Christian martyrs were an obvious choice for the guild of stonemasons, but their number seems often to have been understood to be four, as in this case.

Four Crowned Saints is notable for being the only sculpture at Orsanmichele whose subject represents the guild members as much as their religious patrons. The four saints are easily conflated with the four consuls who served as the guild masters. Beyond their intertwined identities as sculptors and saints, Nanni’s four men – grave but interacting easily with one another – can be seen as paradigms for the corporate camaraderie at the heart of the guild system. The saints’ identification with guild members is reinforced in the lively marble relief at the base of the niche, where they are depicted not as martyrs, but as masons, carvers, and sculptors busy at work – their professions seemingly more important than their faith.

Sculptors in their workshop; Relief sculpture below niche of the Four Crowned Saints, by Nanni di Banco

The sources for the four figures are explicitly Roman: what has been dubbed the “old saint,” the figure farthest to the left, echoes portraits of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Next to him is the figure known as the “young saint,” whose portrait is strikingly like the one of Lucius Junius Brutus, cast in the 2nd century BCE and now in the Musei Capitolini, Rome. The “middle-aged saint,” third from the left, amicably rests his left hand on his companion’s shoulder, in direct quotation of a gesture seen on Roman funerary monuments. His right hand is placed next to the right hand of his companion and recalls another gesture seen on similar monuments: the dextrarum iunctio, or joining of the right hands. The somber, earnest gaze of the “middle-aged saint” is also fully in keeping with Roman portraiture. The “speaking saint” anchors the group to the right and, his mouth open, seems to be addressing his companions. It is fitting that Nanni di Banco, or an advisor for him, should have also positioned this figure’s right hand and arm in a pose recalling Roman statues of orators.

Four Crowned Saints, by Nanni di Banco
Original inside the museum

St. George, by Donatello

About 1417, Donatello carved the marble St George for the niche of the armorers’ guild at the Orsanmichele. George is a younger and leaner version of Mark, equally vigilant, clasping his shield with one hand, and holding a metal sword (now missing) in the other. If Mark looks out upon his audience, George seems almost to stare down at a specific something or someone, presumably the menacing dragon who has come to ravage the princess. The urgency of his glance recreates the psychological exchange between sculpted figure and spectator, missing since antiquity, and a forerunner of the unforgettable face of Michelangelo’s David. While the story of St George and the Dragon is in the chivalric tradition, here it is interpreted as nothing less than a confrontation in the streets of 15th century Florence.

St Matthew, by Lorenzo Ghiberti

Ghiberti must have studied Donatello’s marbles intently, for their lesson is absorbed in his St Matthew, done between 1419 and 1423 for the bankers’ guild. St Matthew is one of Ghiberti’s most stylistically innovative and technologically daring sculptures. It marks a new development in the artist’s work toward a more realistic, elegantly balanced, and imposing style overtly influenced by classical culture and moving away from the Gothic expressiveness of the St John.

While the mellifluous flow of complementary drapery patterns recalls the earlier St John, in contrast to him Matthew assumes an animated pose, his drapery at once decorative and descriptive of the body beneath. This physicality joined to a mental intensity marks Ghiberti’s definitive graduation from the elegant if psychologically void style once evocatively described as “the endless melody of Gothic line”.

St Matthew is the most fully documented Orsanmichele sculpture and interesting insights emerge from that record. The sculpture was to be as large or larger than the St John, and “to be made as beautiful as possible”. To read between the lines, it was not only the artists who were in competition with one another, but also the patrons. The cost of materials and technique were on the patrons’ minds, for not more than 1134kg of bronze were to be used, and the figure was to be cast in either one of two pieces; if two, the head and body were to constitute the separate parts.

Ghiberti made his model during 1419, and the date on the bronze marks the close of his first stage. The subsequent work was not without setback, for the first casting failed, and the sculptor had to begin again. Finally there was the time consuming work of chasing the cast (finishing the surface). Throughout, as usual for public commissions, the work was overseen by a committee of the guild, which included the young Cosimo de’ Medici.

The culmination of the work at the Orsanmichele in the 1410s and the 1420s is Donatello’s St Louis of Toulouse, the sculptor’s first venture in bronze. It was done in the 1420s for the Guelf party, a conservative political organisation whose name recalls the old Guelf party, the only entity other than a guild to sponsor a niche. Occupying the central niche on the street running between the Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, every effort was expended to make it the most magnificent combination of sculpture and architectural niche achieved to date.

St Louis of Toulouse, by Donatello

Louis was the boy-heir to the throne of Naples who was permitted to renounce his succession to enter the service of God, and who subsequently became Bishop of Toulouse; he was canonized in 1317. The message of this exemplar, devotion and humility placed before the exercise of power, could not have been lost on the Florentines and their rulers, who contemplated this lad with his unearthly face and demure gesture of blessing, an image of religious selflessness paradoxically enfolded in the pomp of ecclesiastical garb.

The figure is remarkably three-dimensional in effect, the deep and varied drapery folds arranged both to reflect light and enclose dramatic pockets of shadow. In comparison, the earlier niche figures seem somewhat flat, as if constrained by an invisible sheet of glass dropped in front of them. Here that glass is broken, offering an effect of volumetric billowing rather than compacted mass. To achieve this, Donatello abandoned a cast in one piece in favour of a number of shaped bronze sheets that were screwed together from the rear, a technique that had the added advantage of facilitating the gilding of the sculpture.

St Louis of Toulouse, by Donatello

The niche is quite as remarkable as the sculpture. It provides a measurable, rational space in which the figure is comfortably accommodated. The major framing element is classical, and the Corinthian pilasters rest on a base bounded by heads on either end, with a central motif of two flying putti bearing a wreath derived from ancient sarcophagi. Arches recessed in steps behind the outer frame are supported on two spiral Ionic columns, with a paneled wall and shell apse behind. It is a beautifully proportioned and sophisticated piece of architecture, replete with antique references.

As Medicean power rose in the second half of the 15th century, the Guelph party’s importance waned, and it was most probably Medici influence that, in 1462, persuaded the party to sell its prominent niche at Orsanmichele to the Mercanzia, a body that regulated the guilds and served as a merchants’ court. The Guelphs removed their statue, and the Mercanzia commissioned from Verrocchio the Christ and St. Thomas to go in Donatello’s niche. It was an immediate success. On the day of the unveiling a contemporary Florentine, Luca Landucci, wrote in his diary: “It is the most beautiful thing and the most beautiful head of Christ ever made.”

Christ and Saint Thomas, by Andrea del Verrocchio

The story of the incredulity of Saint Thomas is narrated in John 20:24-29. When Thomas was told by the other apostles that they had seen Jesus, he replied that he would not believe them unless he could see for himself the marks of the nails on Christ’s hands and put his hand in the wound on his side. Jesus appeared to all twelve apostles eight days later and exhorted Thomas to put his hand in the wound on his side and to believe. Upon doing this Thomas exclaimed: “My Lord and my God and Savior of the people.” These words, in a slightly modified version from the Latin vulgate Bible, are inscribed on the border of the tunic of Verrocchio’s Saint Thomas: TV ES DOMINVS MEVS ET DEVS MEVS ET SALVATOR GENTIVM. Christ’s reply, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed,” is on the border of his own tunic: QVIA VIDISTI ME THOMA CREDIDISTI BEATI QVI NON VIDERVNT ET CREDIDERVNT.

Christ and Saint Thomas, by Andrea del Verrocchio

The words spoken by the two protagonists serve to underscore the drama of what we see: Thomas moving forward to touch the wound while Christ holds his tunic open with his left hand and blesses Thomas with his right. The dynamic complexity of the action is heightened by Thomas’ placement on the outside ledge of the niche. This brilliant innovation, unique at Orsanmichele, also allows more room for Thomas. The issue of limited space in the niche was important, and Verrocchio further addressed it by casting the two figures without backs, like very thick high reliefs. None of the other statues at Orsanmichele are conceived in this way and, once again, Verrocchio demonstrated his inventiveness. It is a mark of the artist’s genius that, far from being limited by the physical constraints of the niche, he was inspired to technological and stylistic innovations that brought narrative drama to Orsanmichele for the first time. The niche is no longer a mere container for the sculptures, but becomes rather the frame of reference for Thomas’ movement toward Jesus.

The Mercanzia seems not to have had an official patron saint, but the incredulity of Saint Thomas was a very appropriate subject for a merchants’ court since, in the 15th century, it was typically associated with justice and, specifically, the truth sought by Thomas and the clemency of Jesus. The Medici seem to have been particularly fond of Saint Thomas; since both Piero de’ Medici and, later, his son Lorenzo were on the committee in charge of the commission, their influence was probably also at work. The subject must have appealed to the guilds in general, since it placed a statue of Christ on the most important pilaster of Orsanmichele – as if, appropriately, in charge of the saints.

For the casting of powerful and monumental figures in bronze, Verrocchio must have looked back to Ghiberti’s giants, while for the placement of multiple figures in a single niche he must have had in mind Nanni’s unique precedent. Benefiting from the lessons of both of his predecessors, in Christ and St Thomas Verrocchio introduces moving narrative drama that, in turn, brilliantly foreshadows sculptural developments that would only become fully realized later on in the baroque period.

Why should this artistic revolution occur in Florence at this time? The question is of course in what some would call the major issue in the history of art: to what extent the impetus for change in art forms comes from innovation within the discipline and to what extent, if any, change is triggered by external influences.

It could have been one of those moments – Athens in the mid 5th century BCE and Paris at the beginning of the 20th century are others – that are mysteriously blessed by a congregation of artistic genius. In the case of Florence, the crucial factor was the economic recovery from the plague, which enabled the allocation of resources to projects other than those of religious and civil buildings. The turn of the century, however, was a perilous time for Florence; the city had almost miraculously escaped defeat by Milan in 1402, and out of that close brush with loss of freedom the Florentines became more keenly aware of their status and responsibility as one of the few free republics on the peninsula. The body of literature generated out of that experience, much of it inspired by writings of the ancients, stressed humanity’s responsibility for its own destiny, and the need for a liberal education in the interests of a moral life lived in freedom, and the supreme virtues of public service, moderation and self-control. Ideas like this were in the air in Florence around 1400, not as intellectual baubles, but as articles of faith, and many have had more than a little to do with the poise and confidence of the heroic race of humanity at Orsanmichele.

On the other hand Giorgio Vasari, writing the life of the Umbrian painter Pietro Perugino (c. 1445/50-1523), attributed Florentine preeminence to three factors: an art of continuous critical appraisal, industriousness and the exercise of good judgement, and a lust for glory and honour.

While touring from the comfort of home was a new experience, little bears are looking forward to when they can speak to the statues of Orsanmichele in person 🙂

Categories: Beary Artist, Italy

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