A few steps away from the well-known square, Piazza Signoria, is the Gothic church of Orsanmichele. The old and unique place has gone through many incarnations over the years. Although it is not one of the impressive architectural works of the region, the business carries an interesting and unusual historical story.
Orsanmichele is a rather strange and long name for the church. It is a combination of three words: Or-San-Michele, which went through different incarnations over the years and became one word. According to various testimonies, the place was founded in the 9th century and was initially used as a court operating within the Saint Michel monastery. The Or in his name is from the word Oratory (court).
In the 13th century, the original building was destroyed, and a loggia made of wood began to be built instead. The wooden portico was burned in a fire, and the building was rebuilt. The first floor was created as a barn and trading place for grain such as wheat, barley, and straw. If you look carefully, you will see that you can still see signs of this: there are some small windows carved into the walls through which the grain was transported. The second floor of the building was dedicated to offices, and the third was used as a municipal grain warehouse in preparation for periods of siege or famine.
You must ask yourself, what is the connection between the place and the church? The answer lies in the famous picture of the holy mother “Madonna” that stood on one of the walls in the building. The photo was damaged in a fire that took place there in the 13th century, and the painter Bernardo Daddi was ordered to repaint it. Over the years, pilgrims visited the location to witness the renewed image and pray to the Holy Madonna. A second disaster befell the region in 1348 – the Black Plague. During this period, the crowd of pilgrims was already too large to contain, so it was decided that the place would become a church.
In 1404 it was decided that each art association in Florence (“guild”) would have to prepare a statue of a particular Christian saint, to decorate the church’s exterior. The work was not completed until the end of the 15th century. The task was carried out by great artists of the time, including Verrocchio, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Luca Della Robbia. The sculptures you see today are mostly copies of the originally designed ones. The originals can be seen on the upper floors of the Orsanmikaela Museum. The museum is located right in front of the church.
When you arrive in the area, from the outside, you notice that the church’s large structure is not typical and very different from the Italian landscape. It consists of 3 floors and is designed in a mixed way. Gray walls, a bit like an office building WITH elements such as Gothic arches, decorated windows, and outdoor space with large alcoves, where 14 different statues of Christian saints sit. The unusual appearance of the church betrays the incarnations it went through as an office building, a grain warehouse, and a municipal building.
The church’s interior space carries a somewhat gloomy and mysterious atmosphere. The walls are decorated with a kind of sloping terraces. In each one, a saint is shown, similar to the statues outside.
The main exhibit in the church is the tabernacle, a kind of magnificent niche designed by Andrea di-Orcagna, which contains a picture painted in the 14th century by the same artist who painted the famous Madonna – Bernardo Daddi.
If you want to deeply understand the church’s architecture, history, and beauty, you are recommended to visit the neighboring museum (which bears the same name as the church). From there, you can also get a spectacular view overlooking the entire area and witness the original works created in honor of the church.
Entrance to the church is free.
Church opening times – throughout the week, 10:00-16:50.
Opening times of the museum – Mondays from 10:00-16:50 and Saturdays from 10:00-12:30.