This article was updated August 5th 2022
The Oratory of Orsanmichele is a rectangular Medieval building in the heart of Florence. It began life as a loggia, a covered area that protected grain merchants from the extremes of the weather. The original 13th century brick and timber structure was destroyed by a fire in 1304, and the present building was constructed between 1337-1404. An image of the Madonna painted on one of the pillars of the old loggia had been credited with performing miracles, and with the construction of the new loggia in stone, a new painting of the Madonna by Bernardo Daddi was commissioned in 1347. This image soon became the focus of more veneration, and the loggia began to change from a place of business to one of worship, which culminated with the complete closure of the loggia, circa 1380. The interior of the ground floor was heavily frescoed, and became home to an elaborate tabernacle by Orcagna built to house Daddi’s Madonna.
Writing in the 15th century, the Florentine Gregorio Dati described Orsanmichele as “an Oratory of wondrous beauty”. The loggia had by then become an expression of the mercantile power and pride of the city, a place of worship for the trade guilds, who commissioned bronze and marble statues to stand in niches on the exterior. Today it is still a beautiful building, and its famous statues (now replaced with replicas) are rightly seen as some of the greatest sculptures of the Renaissance, but few people realise that the exterior, the statues themselves, and the niches in which they once stood, were rather more striking 600 years ago, and modern visitors would get a shock if they could see Orsanmichele as it was then.
Classical Art Rediscovered
For Florentine artists and sculptors, the early 15th century was a period of intense interest in Classical Greek and Roman sculpture, which was originally gilded and polychrome (painted). Classical bronze statues could be entirely gilded, like the Hercules shown below, but partial gilding was used to emphasize details, and faces were given extraordinary animation by the insertion of hard stone details into the eyes, and even bronze wire eyelashes; and by applied copper lips and silver teeth. Oxidizing the surface of the bronze (patination) could add red-brown skin tones.
Marble statues could be fully polychrome, but the selective use of colour in areas such as the hair, face and details of clothing, against the natural whiteness of the marble, produced subtle and remarkable effects: the Roman head of a deity shown below still has traces of gilding in the hair and red colouring on the headband and around the eyes and lips. Terracotta sculpture was routinely fully polychrome, and the Etruscan Apollo shown below is a good example. The modern image of ancient sculpture as either gilded bronze, or otherwise plain bronze or marble is a general misconception that has grown up with the excavation of Classical sculpture that has either lost is colourful decoration from centuries of being buried (marble), or had its gilding flaked off or covered by corrosion (bronze).
The Gleam of Gold
Scholars had believed that the Orsanmichele sculptures represented a firm move away from the Medieval tradition of fully polychrome sculpture to a purer Neo-Classical model. However, recent restoration of the Orsanmichele statues has shown that rather than sculpting in plain patinated bronze or pure white marble, early Renaissance sculptors like Nanni di Banco, Donatello and Ghiberti were doing something rather different. In fact, it now seems that they may have been reconstructing exactly what they saw on examples of Classical sculpture that were being unearthed at the time, and Donatello and Brunelleschi are famous for their trip to Rome at the beginning of the 15th century, during which they became known as the ‘treasure hunters’ because they hired locals to help them excavate ancient ruins, and they were part of a circle of artists and connoisseurs in Florence who collected and discussed antiquities.
Of the Orsamichele statues, the shining mercury-gilded surface of Donatello’s bronze Saint Louis of Toulouse (c.1422-25), now in Santa Croce, has survived intact, but restoration of other statues from Orsanmichele has revealed the widespread use of gilded decoration applied as gold leaf, now almost entirely lost because applying gold as leaf lacks the permanence of mercuric gilding. Ghiberti’s bronze statues (actually made of brass*) had gilded borders on their clothes and gilded sandals, and Ghiberti used silver inlay for the eyes of the John the Baptist (c.1412-16), Saint Matthew (1419-22) and Saint Stephen (1428) – creating an effect similar to the eyes of Classical bronze statues – and the lettering of the open pages of his gospel, which Matthew is holding, are also inlayed in silver. In his Lives, Vasari further tells us that when Ghiberti finished his statue of Saint Stephen, “he applied a beautiful varnish to the bronze”. Vasari uses the word “vernice”, by which he meant a varnish or lacquer, but elsewhere in the Lives, when describing varnishing bronze medals, he explains that craftsmen did this to give the bronze a “black” finish. We can infer from this that Ghiberti applied a varnish or lacquer to the surface of the statue, both to darken it, and to protect the surface from the elements. The Saint Matthew, and the other bronze (brass) statues at Orsanmichele were also probably given protective coats of varnish.
*Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc.
Gilding was also used on the marble statues: for example, Donatello’s Saint George (1416-17), now in the Bargello, shows evidence of the use of leaf gilding on details all over the statue, and the figure originally held a gilded iron sword. The warrior saint is depicted again in the predella (the scene beneath the statue), this time on horseback, and a plaster cast of this piece probably taken in the 15th century (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, visible here) has surviving gilding on many details of the scene, so it is almost certain that the original was gilded in the same way. This famous rilievo schiacciato (‘squashed relief’) is not so daringly ‘squashed’ if the details were picked out with gilding, and if this predella originally had gilded details, then it follows that the others probably did as well, together with elements of the carved niches framing all the statues.
The gilded decoration of Donatello’s Saint George has a direct parallel in his Cavalcanti Annunciation in the basilica of Santa Croce. This relief sculpture is carved from pietra serena, and the composition is placed in a Neo-Classical frame very similar to the niches of Orsanmichele. Just like the sculpture of the warrior saint, details of the hair and clothing of the figures, and the architectural setting, are highlighted with gold leaf. This relief gives us a good impression of the original appearance of the Orsanmichele marble statues and their niches.
There was also colour. 14th century sculptures were decorated in full colour, and this taste for colour on sculpture persisted into the 15th century, as can be seen on many Florentine terracotta busts and wooden sculptures, and the marble Madonna of the Rose (1399) at Orsanmichele, now attributed to Simone di Ferrucci, may have been fully polychrome in this tradition. But the Orsanmichele statues of the early 15th century seem to have been an intentional departure from this style: possibly a direct and conscious evocation of Classical forms of partial polychrome (and gilding). The mitre of Donatello’s gilded Saint Louis is further decorated with blue enamel and silver, and on the marble statues painted colour was applied to some details. On Nanni di Banco’s Four Crowned Martyr Saints (c.1412-15), not only did the figures have gilded hair and beards, but the gilded borders of the robe of one saint also bear traces of azurite blue, so we should re-imagine the group as a composition in blue, white and gold (echoed by the blue and white veining of the marble architrave of the base upon which the figures stand). And whilst it was much more heavily gilded, with its blue enamelling and silver, Donatello’s Saint Louis shares this colour scheme to an extent. Interestingly, the use of blue, white and gold (or yellow) was adopted by Luca della Robbia on many of his terracotta sculptures and reliefs.
The shields bearing the devices of the guilds who commissioned the statues are proudly displayed on their niches, and I would be surprised if they were not originally decorated in full colour: they were, after all, the corporate ‘logos’ of the guilds. If we take the Armourers and Swordsmiths again as an example, on either side of the predella of the Saint George are the Guild arms: a shield bearing a low-relief carving of a sword and a velvet-covered cuirasse (a corazzina). We know that the sword was usually depicted with a black scabbard and grip, with the guard, pommel and fixtures gilded, and the cuirasse was red. If we apply these colours to one of the (copy) shields on the niche today, set against the gleaming white surface of the marble that Donatello’s original would have had when new (or a painted white field), we see a dramatic transformation as shown below. This theory for polychrome arms gains strength when we look at the shields on other niches. Those of the Blackmiths and Shoemakers use coloured marble inlays to depict their arms, and Ghiberti’s arms for the Guild of the Calimala (the Cloth Merchants) have cast brass eagles on them which retain traces of their original gilded decoration, in keeping with the colouring of the arms of the Guild. But on the niche for Donatello’s Saint Mark: the shields of the Guild of Linen Workers have no relief carving on them whatsoever, and nor do they have coloured marble inlays, so the arms of the guild (a shield divided vertically in two, with the left side red and the right white: technically ‘per pale, gules and argent’) must have been painted onto the plain marble shields (or at the very least least the red colour), or those shields would make no sense at all. In addition, the different niches and their frames also feature the use of coloured marbles and mosaic inlay, which would have created a more striking effect when new, so leaving the important corporate symbols of the various guilds as plain white marble (whether carved in relief or not) is simply not credible. The arms of the guilds in the roundels above the niches were certainly polychrome, the best preserved being the glazed terracotta roundels of the Butchers, the Physicians and Pharmacists, and the Cloth Merchants (see photos above).
Returning to the Cavalcanti Annunciation by Donatello, terracotta putti decorating the top of the architectural frame - and some sprays of feathers carved into the frame itself - are in fact polychrome, strengthening the probability that the niches of the statues at Orsanmichele had certain details picked out in colour.
We also have eye-witness evidence that the exterior of the building itself was indeed brightly coloured: in his description of the oratory, Dati wrote that above every niche (and by inference beneath the roundels) “is painted an angel of different colours”, by which he meant each angel was multi-coloured. If the exterior was surrounded by a series of painted angels, it therefore seems reasonable to consider the possibility that the elaborate tracery filling the ground floor arches also had gilded, and even painted decoration in the Gothic tradition. I would also suggest that the details and arms on the marble columns and tracery of the windows of the two upper floors were also picked out in polychrome and gilding.
So rather than embodying the rediscovery of ‘pure’ Classical statuary that has been erroneously credited to the sculptors of the early Florentine Renaissance, these discoveries allow us to see the Orsanmichele and its sculptures of 600 years ago through very different eyes, and on a bright day, those eyes would probably have needed sunglasses!
Most of the original statues are on show at the Museo di Orsanmichele on the first floor of the building. Entrance is free. The museum is open from 10am to 5pm on Mondays. Donatello’s Saint George is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello and his Saint Louis of Toulouse is in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce.
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