I don’t know about you, but when I’m walking around Florence, I often think, “There just aren’t enough churches.” The skyline is spotted with spiritual domes and spires, but what if any of those aren’t just right, Goldilocks? Then it’s time to head to Orsanmichele, the granary-turned-worship house with unique architecture, masterful sculpture, panoramic city views – and free entry.
The first floor of the church is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but only on Mondays can visitors make their way to the second floor sculpture gallery. Surprisingly (and maybe due to its limited hours) the museum is often not very crowded, meaning you can get up-close-and-personal with the artwork instead of with fellow tourists. Plus, you don’t have to elbow anyone for a front-row view of downtown Florence. There is no better way to start your week.
Directions: Only 350m down Via Roma from the Duomo.
Back in the day, the kitchen of a monastery dedicated to St. Michael (hence the name) stood on this site. In the late 13th century Arnolfo di Cambio (of designed-the-Duomo fame) built a loggia to cover a marketplace to sell grain – similar to the fish market near Sant’Ambrogio. His structure was expanded on and improved upon until it took on the tall, square structure we see today.
A fire, a plague, and a few miracles later, the space had become important for both corporal and spiritual reasons. Not only was this the place to buy goods for daily sustenance, but visitors claimed to have visions of the Madonna on site. When the Plague hit in 1348, many believed she saved people who prayed here from certain death.
Word got out about the miracle market and people began to make pilgrimages to the site. The decision was eventually made to consecrate the loggia as a church. The grain was hauled away and the arches filled with stained glass at the turn of the 15th century.
One of the most striking aspects of the church is the series of outdoor niches that decorates the building. Each major Florentine guild was given one space to fill with a sculpture of their patron saint. The guilds could commission whomever they liked to help, and some of the richest guilds scored some of the greatest artists of their time. Crowd favorites include Donatello’s St. George (for the Guild of Armourers and Swordmakers) and Verrocchio’s Doubting Thomas (for the Merchant’s Guild). Just try not to get kicked by Thomas’ protruding foot – he is literally sharing our space, making him (and the scene) appear even more lifelike! Think of it as Renaissance 3D.
Once you’ve taken a good look at the outdoor statues, enter the church and enjoy the interesting oddness of its interior. Unlike all of the carefully calculated layouts of other Florentine churches, Orsanmichele is a bit off-kilter, but even more charming, thanks to its architectural history.
First floor highlights include Bernardo Daddi’s famous Madonna delle Grazie, which has been in situ since its unveiling in 1346 and was the icon responsible for the proclaimed miracles mentioned earlier. The painting was so important, in fact, that Andrea Orcagna built the ornate, bejeweled tabernacle to enshrine and protect it in 1359.
Not nearly as jazzy but just as cool are the long slits you can find in the structure’s pillars; they are grain shoots, reminders of the space’s original function.
Now, if it is Monday, a door in the back left will be open. Climb the narrow spiral staircase up the stone pillar (exciting in itself!) until you enter an airy second floor gallery.
Here, it’s easy to see how the original loggia arches were filled in to form the church. Also, the monumental statues that were just above your head outside the church can be studied in the round. Better yet, they are not copies, but the original artwork. The museum does a great job of telling the story of each statue with detailed note cards. Get your fill of guild saints before retiring to a window seat to take it all in – including the panoramic views of Florence’s storied downtown.
Upon leaving the church, you will exit through a bridged walkway, over one of Florence’s oldest streets, to a neighboring building. Turn around to take one last glance of the outside of Orsanmichele, appreciating it again from a new perspective. Then grin wildly from ear to ear, knowing that you just scored one of the best Florentine experiences and views without dropping a dime.