An Intriguing Monument
Orsanmichele is a rather long name for a church, with three different words all compressed into one. First documented in the year 895, it stood as an oratory in the monastery St. Michael (San Michele). The construction was surrounded by a vegetable garden (orto) belonging to the Benedictine monastery.
It is speculated that in Roman times a temple on this spot was dedicated to the worship of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility. She worshiped by the Greeks & the Romans who believed in her to be the supreme deity who created the world.
Thus the name, a bit modified over the years, became known as: Or - San - Michele.
The austre external portion of the church shows that it is set on three floors, much like an office building, and is a mix of simple walls in gray stone, intricate Gothic arches and windows, outdoor nichè with various sculptures. And if you look for it, you won't find a regal formal entrance.
The sructure was destroyed in 1239 and around 1290 Arnolfo di Cambia was hired to build a loggia for the market. This building, made of wood, was severely damaged in a fire and rebuilt again in 1336 as a market and grain storage area, as on commission of the Silk guild (silk union).
Two of the columns are actually hollow and were used to move the grain between floors; the slots through which the grain passed are still visible.
The architecture of the loggia was characterized by large arched openings for the market area for wheat, straw and grain. The second floor was devoted to offices, while the third housed one of the city's municipal grain storehouses, maintained to withstand famine or siege.
Why did it become a church?
Within the original structure of the loggia, one of the columns held the image of the Blessed Mother (in Italian: Madonna), which was accredited with several miraculous events. The image was damaged during the fire - and the "Madonna delle Grazie" was repainted by Bernardo Daddi. Over the course of the years, pilgrims came to visit and pray in front of the Madonna and even with the “new & improved” image, there were still more miracles credited to the fresco during the plague of 1348.
At this point, with all the worshippers, the loggia could no longer be regarded as a suitable place for a market; it was transformed into a church and the market was moved elsewhere.
An Architectural Oddity
It is a common fact that most churches are noted for their particular and beautiful architecture, and this church is no exception. However, it doesn't uphold the same canons which were well estabished in church-architecture as seen in other examples throughout Tuscany. In fact, this building stands out a bit as you take a stroll between the government building at Piazza Signoria and the spiritual heart of the city and the Duomo; it was, and still demonstrates, a mix of charactieristics of a civic building that has became a religious building.
In 1339 it was decided that each of the major guilds (unions representing various arts and labors in Florence) should provide a statue of their respective patron saint to decorate the exterior. By happy coincidence, nothing was completed until the Renaissance was in full swing in the 15th century, so the commissions were executed by artists of the calibre of Verrocchio, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Luca della Robbia. Most of the niches for the saints are now empty or filled with copies. In the Museo di Orsanmichele, in the upper two stories of this building, you can see many of the sculptures.
Take a Look Inside
The interior of Orsanmichele is atmospherically gloomy. On the walls there are patchy traces of frescoes; these, like the statues outside, depict the patron saints of the various guilds. The central feature, however, if the tabernacle (1348-59) by Orcagna, which frames the exquisite Madonna and Child (1347) by Bernardo Daddi, to which many miracles were attributed.
To appreciate the architecture of Orsanmichele, visit the museum: here you can admire the superb vaulting and brickwork and get a true impression of the immense size of the building. The views are also superb.