Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Orsanmichele and Florentine Guilds

OrsanMichele and Guild Symbols and Statues
Travelmarx created the above diagram to help understand how the Orsanmichele in Florence relates to the guilds of Florence. Warning: there could be inaccuracies in it – we're not Renaissance scholars or something.

You can’t help but pass by the Orsanmichele at least once while in Florence and notice the very odd cube-of-a-building with all the statues on the outside. What’s this building doing here in the middle of city and what are all those statues on the façades? Read on.

The Orsanmichele name comes from what used to exist on the spot before the current building: a kitchen garden (“orto”) of the monastery of San Michele. But that’s all gone now and in 1337 the current building was started as a grain store (upper floors) and market (ground floor). Over time, the ground floor was enclosed and turned into a church. (The ground floor prior to becoming a church probably looked a little something like the present day Loggia del Mercato Nuovo – located nearby.)

The Orsanmichele was the church of the guilds. The guilds were Florentine associations of craftsmen and tradesmen that began to form in the 1100s in Florence, across Italy and Europe. (The height of the guilds in Florence was in the 13th and 14th centuries.) For example, the “Arte del Cambio” or the banker’s guild would be the guild you belong to if you were a banker, like the Medici. There were seven major guilds and 14 minor guilds. The difference between major and minor guilds probably was related to the clout the guild had and how important the guild was to bringing money to the city. Each guild has a patron saint. For the banker’s guild it is St. Matthew because he was a tax collector before an evangelist (quite the career change, huh?). Each guild had a coat of arms (or in Italian a “stemma”) that helps everyone, especially the illiterate to understand who a particular building belonged to or who sponsored a piece of artwork.

Guild patron saints and stemma are both recorded in the Orsanmichele outside. Just walk around the building and you can start to learn a little more about the guilds and their importance to Florence. The Italian Wikipedia page for the Orsanmichele has a more complete explanation of the statues. All the images I repurposed, I got from the great site (sorry all in Italian): http://www.globeit.it/caf/

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