One of the most unique architectural examples in Florence and a great source of Florentine civic pride, the church and museum of Orsanmichele is a most rewarding stop in any itinerary of Florence.
NEW: The Orsanmichele Museum is now open on Mondays only from 10 AM to 5 PM
Orsanmichele is famously known for the sculptures of saints placed in the niches or tabernacles on all four sides of the church by the various guilds of Florence. Executed between 1340 and 1602, they form a timeline of gothic and renaissance art that is perhaps unrivaled in one location. The first sculpture, of St. Stephen by Andrea Pisano, was executed in 1340 - 150 years before Columbus discovered America - the last, St. Luke by Giambologna - was completed over 260 years later.
Orsanmichele's unique history as a site that has radically changed function over the centuries is infinitely interesting. It is speculated that in Roman times there was a building here dedicated to the worship of Isis. Later, in the 9th century it was used by the Lombards as an oratory dedicated to St. Michael. By order of the Comune in the early 13th century it became a market where wheat was sold, eventually under a brick and wooden awning constructed by Arnolfo di Cambio. During this period the first "Madonna of the Graces" painting was done on a pillar of that structure, which was soon followed by miraculous events. Eventually destroyed by a fire in 1304, it was followed in 1337 by a more robust structure that was erected by either some or all of the following from a design, according to Vasrai, of Taddeo Gaddi: Francesco Talenti, Simone Talenti, Neri di Fioravante, Benci di Cione and (the most recent favorite of current scholarship) Andrea Pisano. This time made of brick and stone to better withstand fires, the new building had an open loggia on the ground floor similar to the one at the nearby Mercato Nuovo (known to many tourists as the "Straw Market") for the selling of wheat, while the upper was designed to serve as the granary. Two of the piers are actually hollow and were used to move the grain between floors; the slots through which the grain passed are still visible. In 1347 Bernardo Daddi's "Madonna and Child with Angels" was commissioned to replace the original "Madonna of the Graces".
While Orsanmichele continued to function as a commercial site for some time, pilgrims inspired by the story of the miraculous appearance of the Madonna there began visiting the site in increasing numbers, especially in the uncertain times after the Black Plague struck in 1348. As the legend of the new "Madonna of the Graces" grew a tabernacle was commissioned to protect it - still in place, this masterpiece by Andrea Orcagna was completed in 1359. Both the painting and the elaborate tabernacle provide excellent examples of the aesthetics of the late medieval period.
Eventually it was decided to relocate the grain market and to rededicate the building as an oratory. To this end, the open loggia was closed up around 1380. The stained glass windows added around this time are some of the oldest in Florence, and illustrate the miracles of the Madonna of Orsanmichele. In 1410 Ghiberti constructed the two doors that are still in use today.
Here is another photo sent in by a user. This is the museum main floor, with all the original sculptures (the primo piano). The photo is take from the staircase leading to the second floor (third American floor) which is mostly empty but has some great views of Florence.
You will also notice that the statue of St. George is missing from the presentation - this is a question I have been trying to get answered for years. Supposedly the original sculpture is in the Bargello, but there was a copy here at one point, and it has been gone for a while.
Also a note on getting in - the museum is still open on Mondays and is free, but lately instead of entering across the street from the church, you enter from the church and get to go up a spiral staircase in the northwest corner pillar. It is actually pretty cool!
Glide through the streets of Florence on the coolest ride of the 21st century - a Segway! You'll have the time of your life while discovering the many wonders of this wonderful Renaissance city, including an external visit of Orsanmichele. This tour is available from our partners at Florence Journal via Viator.
I returned to Florence to find the restoration work on the Gothic tabernacle (Albizzo di Piero, 1414) housing Ghiberti's St. John finished. It is a job very well done - the missing piece of stone under the base of the statue has been replaced, and the carvings of the tabernacle have been beautifully cleaned. The work on the small eagle emblems is especially fine. There is always a battle to leave things "as is" in restoration, and just clean, without ever adding anything new - but surely these eagles were very brightly painted at one time. The restoration work gives a glimpse to the trained eye of what must have been.
There is also a garland hanging under the tabernacle now, in celebration I suppose, and a new plaque has been put in place crediting the Rotary Club of Florence for the work.
It is important to remember that beside the tabernacle of St. George, all of these tabernacles are the originals. It is a testament to the craftsmanship and materials of the various times (the original construction dates span hundreds of years!) that they still survive the centuries. Pretty amazing.
At the same time as the window replacement project, there is also conservation being done on the tabernacle of St. John the Baptist. All of the tabernacles except for St. George (in the Bargello) are still the original works. All the statues are copies.
You don't know where and how the money comes together for projects like this - the authority of the museum can not even afford to keep it open (that is why it is only open on Mondays by a volunteer staff) - but somehow they are replacing all the glass in the windows. This is great news - the views are excellent and the old glass is in bad shape. I am still amazed however that more isn't done ahead of time to protect the tabernacles and the sculptures when work is performed on the building.
It seems pretty silly that you can't take snapshots inside the museum of Orsanmichele, but I follow the rules. However people obviously can and do (I have witnessed this myself while visiting). Here are a few that someone has anonymously passed on to us: