Scanning the Baptistery - A Tale of Wonder
January 4, 2018 Day One
“Jet lagged, but determined”
What a day we had.
Built in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Oratory of the Misericordia (as it was then known) has endured expansions, fires, renovations, a merger, and more to become the elegant structure that stands on the Piazza del Duomo today. Read more about the structure’s tumultous history here. Explore the headquarters of one of the city’s most prominent charities, the Confraternity of the Misericordia, later merged with that of the Bigallo, and see the art that it commissioned to assert its place in Florentine society.
In 1321, a wealthy magnate named Baldinaccio Adimari gifted property that he owned in his family’s neighborhood to a newly formed charitable organization charged with the tasks of tending to the destitute, diseased, and disenfranchised. The building there housed the Misericordia from that time forward but, thanks to a series of additional gifts from neighbors, the company was able to expand its residence to the east and the west. Giovanni degli Albizzi Pellegrini, a member of one of the city’s most powerful families, donated property adjacent to the original building in 1351, and in 1355 the addition of the twenty feet at the corner of the Corso Adimari provided the company with the area needed for the loggia that now extended to the east.
From 1355 to 1360, a man named Leonardo Bartolini oversaw the construction of this loggia, which included work completed by a number of skilled laborers he subcontracted to produce details according to their areas of expertise: One Francesco Salvini received 13 gold florins for undisclosed work, while a painter named Bartolommeo earned the equivalent of 21 gold florins for his decoration of the top of the oratory – presumably its ceiling, but perhaps the walls of the upper floor of the residence. In 1363 the project was deemed complete when the so-called Ambrogio installed elaborate decorative ironwork, priced at 100 florins (but no more than that!), on the loggia’s western and northern arches.
Although more modest in scale than some of Florence’s other loggias, the intimate proportions and delicate decorations of this elegant monument make the Misericordia’s structure one of the most beautiful in the city. Ambrogio’s iron grill alone distinguishes it from other such edifices in Florence, but it’s easy to overlook it when taking in the entirety of the building for the first time. The marble exterior forms two sides of the loggia’s square box, with openings on the east and north sides providing visual access to the interior. Green marble, a decorative motif borrowed from the eleventh-century facings of the Baptistery and S. Miniato, provides a subtle articulation that frames the two arches, their pendentives, and the horizontal borders at the top and bottom. Column clusters form the discrete sections of each pier and serve as supports for the loggia’s arches, and then spring upward toward the quadripartite vault that flowers into porch’s ceiling. Twisting columns, perhaps allusions to the spiral ones said to have once adorned the interior of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, create the illusion of movement as one’s eye moves toward the interior. Foliage and rosette patterns dance across the surface of the entire white marble structure, making the loggia appear as an avant-garde welcoming center to all comers. This sense is only intensified by the figurative sculptures that decorate the façade.
Within the green strips that create sections across the loggia’s surface appear a series of modest bas-reliefs – perhaps carved by Arnolfo Arnoldi, under the influence of Andrea Pisano – that contain in them a set of undifferentiated heavenly figures who tilt their heads back to consider images of Christ at the apex of each arch. The quatrefoil frames on the east arch contain scroll-bearing prophets from the Old Testament who flank the half-length form of the Dead Christ – the so-called Man of Sorrows – while those on the north arch feature saints from the New Testament and the Early Christian church who receive a blessing from an image of the Resurrected Christ above them. Representatives from both books of the Bible here recognize Jesus as Savior.
Triangular spandrels on either side of each arch contain half-length figures of the four Cardinal Virtues: Temperance and Prudence appear above the rounded vault on loggia’s the east side, while Justice and Fortitude decorate that on the north. These same characters appear in Nardo di Cione’s lunette fresco of The Judgment of Brutus from the middle of the 1340s that decorated the main room of the Florentine Wool Guild, just down the street, on the way to the Ponte Vecchio. The concepts that guide wise decisions and just behaviors in and in front of the Misericordia have been paired with Judeo-Christian heroes whose exemplary lives and influential texts combine to form the experiential and codified bases for fourteenth-century moral codes.
The very form of the public loggia carried some symbolic importance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Often installed for pragmatic purposes – namely to provide the public with a form of protection from soaking rains or the intense Italian sun – the loggia came to be understood as a civic structure that, even when built by private citizens, was a gift to the commune at large. For example, the Loggia dei Lenzi, situated adjacent to the Palazzo della Signoria, gave the governmental piazza an architectonic emblem of democracy, as its form, location, and function suggested an accessibility to literally anyone who wished to venture inside it. Giovanni Rucellai’s loggia, placed opposite his palace in the middle of the fifteenth century on the occasion of his son’s marriage to Cosimo de’Medici’s daughter, heightened the owner’s sense of self-importance as he simultaneously celebrated his prominence in the city as a Medici kinsman and his role as a public servant through this “donation” of an architectural structure to the residents of Florence. In keeping with this signification, the loggia for the Misericordia was both a symbol of the charitable nature of the institution – both the building and the services rendered inside it were gifts to the city – and a symbol of the company’s prominence in the urban environment – it was made of expensive materials, followed long-standing Florentine design traditions, and sat on prime real estate in one of the city’s most important squares.
Early painters of Florentine cityscapes occasionally included representations of the loggia when producing vistas of the Piazza S. Giovanni, although their renditions differed from artist to artist and from painting to painting. The building features prominently in the fresco by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Ambrogio di Baldese that originally decorated the façade of the residence hall that faced the Baptistery, and portrayed its appearance with impressive accuracy. These artists included in their painting of 1386 the column clusters, iron grates, spandrel figures, and the rosette decoration that forms the left side of the loggia’s entrance that mark it as such a remarkable space, suggesting that the building’s details truly mattered to both the fresco’s painters and its audience. Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, by contrast, painted in 1515 a much more simplified version of the space in his predella for the Bigallo altarpiece (with figures by Alberto Arnoldi installed in 1364): the sixteenth-century artist emphasized rectilinear pilasters (rather than sculpted column clusters and spiral colonnettes) as supports for the arches, avoided the articulation of each bas-relief, and omitted the figures of the Cardinal Virtues that were sculpted in the spandrels. Even though he truncated the residence in his painting – he shows only two arched bays on the north façade instead of three – he was careful to include iron bars within the archway and the rosette plinth at its base. The late sixteenth-century aerial view of Piazza S. Giovanni by either Giorgio Vasari or the Flemish painter Jan van der Straet (a.k.a. Giovanni Stradano, a.k.a. Johannes Stradanus, d. 1605) references the loggia only through the pictorial employment of rounded arches that mark the facility as distinct from those around it, but then fails entirely to capture even a semblance of its actual appearance beyond these obvious rounded vaults. Fabio Borbottoni (d. 1902) reproduced the loggia’s architectural features with some accuracy when he painted his version in the late nineteenth century, but he omitted completely the sculptural elements embedded in the archways: it’s as though they were never installed on the building’s façade at all.
“1363, 24 June. The captains directed the administrator to pay the painter, Bartolommeo, 62 lire, 4 sold, and 6 denari for pictures at the head of the oratory (see carte 37). 1363, 24 October. The Captains of the Misericordia – Statio Dati, Tellino Dino, Piero Borsi, Duccio di Giovanni, Ruberto Martelli – in the name of the confraternity and the company, discussed a number of things listed below. First, they discussed the work in the Oratory where one sees figures, that is on the face of the pedestal made by the master Ambrogio that is designed and made as well as is possible; for the best value, make sure we don’t spend more than 100 gold florins.”
A.S.F., Carte Strozziane, Magliabecchiana, XXXVII, cod. 300, 132 (Poggi, “Bigallo,” 194, n. 1; Saalman, The Bigallo, 44, n. 1). “1321. Libro della Compagnia della Misericordia dove sono notati tutti quelli che aiutorno comperare la casa dirimpetto alla porta del Battesimo di S. Giovanni, comperata da Baldinaccio Adimari, dove hoggi si ragunano i capitani della Misericorida. 1321 et 1322 si fece la detta compera.”
“1321. Book of the Company of the Misericordia, where are noted all of the things for us, we purchased from Baldinacci Adimari the house that’s located at the gate of the Baptistery of S. Giovanni, where today the captains of the Misercordia meet. This house was bought in 1321 and 1322.”
A.S.F., Bigallo, II, 1, 26r. September 16, 1351 (Poggi, “Bigallo,” 225; Saalman, The Bigallo, 44-45, n. 2). “1351, 16 Settembre. Item dicta die Iohannes Albizi Pellegrini populi S. Cristofori obtulit se et domum suam positam super canto Cursus de Adimaribus societati nostrae et fuit factus familiaris perpetuus (cum certis pactis) cum salario 8 lib. fp. quolibet mense ….”
“1351, 16 September. Giovanni degli Albizzi Pellegrini, from the parish of S. Cristoforo, gave to our confraternity, in perpetuity but with certain pacts, his house that is located above the alley of the Corso Adimari with a payment of 8 lire paid monthly…”
A.S.F., Bigallo, II, 2, 27r. March 23, 1359 (1360) (Poggi, “Bigallo,” 227-28; Saalman, The Bigallo, 46, n. 5a). “…. In prima avuto consideratione alla constructione dell’oratorio e che bisogna e aconciare luogho dove le figure di marmo di nostra Donna e degl’agnoli, le quali si fanno e lavorano, si ponghano, e altre chose bisognia intorno al detto oratorio fare, e voglendo intorno accio provedere, deliberarono e stantiarono che Mattheo Portinari, camarlingho della detta compagnia, dea e paghi a Leonardo Bartolini tavoliere e a compagni fior. 100 d’oro, i quali il detto Leonardo debbia ispendere nel lavorio del detto oratorio e per quello fare adornare e cresciere.”
“First they considered the construction of the needed oratory at the place where (one sees) the marble figures of our Lady and the angels, including the work done on the building and its ornaments and all other things said oratory needs, and what needs to be provided for it; they deliberated and directed Matteo Portinari, the Company Procurer, to give to Leonardo Bartolini, carpenter, and his workshop a payment of 100 gold florins, which said Leonardo must use while working on the construction and decorations of said oratory.”
A.S.F., Bigallo, II, 2, 29v. June 5, 1360 (Poggi, “Bigallo,” 227-28; Saalman, The Bigallo, 46, n. 5b). “Item deliberarano estantiavarono che Leonardo Bartolini dea e paghi a Francesco Salvini pro parte di pagamento de lavorio che deono fare aloratorio f. xiii d’oro fecero la bolletta.”
“(The captains) deliberated and directed Leonardo Bartolini to pay the bill of Francesco Salvini 13 gold florins for the work he did to build the oratory.” A.S.F., Bigallo, II, 2, 31r. August 26, 1360 (Poggi, “Bigallo,” 227-28; Saalman, The Bigallo, 46, n. 5c). “Item deliberarono che Leonardo Bartolini de somma a lui depositata dea e paghi a Matteo Portinari Camarlingho della detta compagnia per ispendere dare e paghare a maestri in pietre calcine erea f. LX d’oro e di cio fecero la bolletta in due partite.”
“(The captains) deliberated and directed Leonardo Bartolini to return to Matteo Portinari, company Procurator, 60 gold florins that they originally gave to him so that they could pay the bill – in two installments – for materials purchased, and labor completed, by stonecutters.”
A.S.F., Bigallo, II, 2, 37r. June 30, 1361 (Poggi, “Bigallo,” 228; Saalman, The Bigallo, 46, n. 6). “…. In prima statiarono che il camarlingho paghi a Bartolomeo dipintore l. 62 s. 3 d. 6, i quali dee avere per dipintura del tetto de l’oratorio.”
“(The captains) directed that the Procurator pay to the painter Bartolommeo the sum of 62 lire 3 soldi and 6 denari for the work that he did to paint the top of the oratory.”
The Misericordia operated a kind of Foster Care unit inside its walls, and supported destitute families by tending to infants born into unstable environments. The hope was that these children would ultimately be reunited with their parents once affairs could be righted in the home, and sometimes this actually occurred. Often times it did not.
The fresco on the building’s façade presents a moralizing image about the circumstances parents might find themselves in when seeking the Misericordia’s services and the custodial care offered by confraternity members. Led by a woman in white, a number of children appear in the lower left, holding opened pomegranates and moving toward the composition’s center. A black-clad woman, an ominous reference to the sorrowful situation unfolding before her, points her finger into a circle formed by three others, one of whom holds a child in her arms. Another woman turns her back to us, revealing only the braided and unveiled hair than stretches down her back; perhaps signifying her as an unmarried and youthful woman. Her facelessness may be the artists’ way of providing anonymity to a sinful woman who now faces the consequences of her sexual transgressions, a way of acknowledging the presence of unwed mothers in Florentine society without actually identifying any one of them in particular.
The Misericordia’s loggia features prominently at the painting’s core as both the primary setting and, to a degree, the actual hero of this story. The child entering the facility from the left does so only under duress, and resists the confraternity member who forcibly grabs his arm to yank him inside. The frown on the man’s face reveals and accentuates the real-life dramas that transpire at the Misericordia on a regular basis, as well as the emotional toll endured by all parties during these familial severances. This dramatic anecdote is framed by the loggia of the residence hall, which seems to act as a participant in the action that unfolds within its arches.
Fortunately, the right side of the fresco tells a happier story. Now a trio of men – one of whom literally pushes a child out of the loggia – oversees the restitution of children with their elated parents. Women congregate before the doorway to the residence hall, which has been identified by Arnoldi’s half-length sculpture, installed in 1361, of the Madonna holding her own child (find the Madonna and Child). Whereas the left side features only women in the act of abandonment, the right side includes men, as well: we might wish to see them as fathers, but there is no way to confirm such an identification (they could be grandfathers, uncles, friends, or merely bystanders who witness this reunification). To the far left stands a woman in blue who acts as the counterweight to the one in black on the left side: she seems to serve as an allegory of the joy of familial reconciliation, as opposed to her scolding counterpart’s representation of the pains associated with abandonment.
The fresco’s placement on the building’s façade – just above the setting that Gerini and Ambrogio di Baldese represented in this image, in fact – made it immediately visible to all passersby who walked along or stood at the south edge of the Baptistery of S. Giovanni. Chief among these viewers would have been the parents and family members of infants who witnessed the portion of the baptismal ceremony that was performed in front of S. Giovanni’s south portal. As such, the image probably had an immediate impact on new parents and their families: the Misericordia, it seemed to say, could help them in times of need, but that there would be emotional strains involved should they choose to render their children to the confraternity’s care. It was, at one and the same time, both a somber warning and a gesture of great charity.
Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Ambrogio di Baldese used the architectural structure of the Misericordia as a character in this fictitious narrative, but they also employed other features of the urban environment as markers for viewers of the fresco who stood below it in the middle of the square. The viewer has been intentionally positioned to see this fresco with her or his back to the baptistery, which of course explains why that octagonal form does not appear in the painting. To the far left appears the façade of the new cathedral, finally walled up in 1381 and ready to be capped with a dome that had not yet been designed. The square building next to it seems to represent the city’s bell tower, articulated in pink with standing sculptures placed on top of it to recall the statues on the Campanile. A cluster of structures follows, perhaps representing the Palazzo del Podestà, the square granary of Orsanmichele (complete with niches containing sculptures, which would have been an accurate sight in 1386), the crenelated residence of the Wool Guild, and a spiral column in front of it that may allude to the base of a pedestal that was positioned at the mouth of the Old Market. To the right of the loggia appears a regal palazzo, complete with two towers, that may mark it as the old Bishop’s palace. Alternatively, this pink structure might echo the form of S. Maria Maggiore, the church located to the west of the loggia.
The artists have elongated this urban landscape and altered its features in an effort to plot out a pathway for viewers that they would understand. The city has been depicted not as a rational space, with vistas and dimensions and distances carefully mapped out, but rather as a series of independent landmarks easily identified by specific features that have no real relationship to the structures beside them. As Sonia Brozak notes, this conforms to the common approach that Trecento writers took when describing spaces in written texts. Dante and Boccaccio tended to take for granted their readers’ familiarity with urban environments and, when describing the settings of their tales, preferred to focus on specific landmarks in real places rather than review the vast cityscape in which those landmarks were located.
The two painters worked together on a number of projects, but Gerini in particular became a favorite of Florentine patrons at the turn of the fifteenth century. His works adorned altars and interior spaces of the Confraternity of the Pilgrims in S. Maria Novella, the sacristy in the Franciscan church of S. Croce, the guild church of Orsanmichele, and the Camaldolese monastery of S. Maria degli Angeli. He also worked in the towns surrounding Florence in rural Tuscany, a testament to the extent of his reputation. Largely overlooked by historians of early Renaissance art, Gerini’s popularity speaks to the public taste for Giottesque imagery just before the arrival in Florence of the transformative New Style of painting articulated in full by the artist named Masaccio (d. ca. 1427).
A.S.F., Bigallo, II, 3, 27v. July 5, 1386. “A Nicholo di Piero e Ambrogio di Baldese dipintori a di 22 di Giugno per resto del lavorio della dipintura della faccia dinanzi della casa della Misericordia, fior. 17 d’oro” (Poggi, “Bigallo,” 229; Saalman, The Bigallo, 46, n. 7a).
“July 5, 1386: To the painters Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Ambrogio di Baldese a payment of 17 gold florins for the completion of work on the picture for the façade on the house of the Misericordia, 17 gold florins.”
Representations and effigies of all shapes, sizes, and media could adorn the early modern altarpiece, a devotional object that was placed on top of the table where the sacraments of the Eucharist were venerated and consumed by priests. Usually the altarpiece took the form of a wooden painting that featured, up to about 1440 or so, separate panels dedicated to single figures or scenes. The central panel often, but not always, represented the Virgin and Child, while flanking panels celebrated an institution’s reverence for specific saints who might represent the patron of a religious order, parish, feast day, or individual benefactor. Above and below these large forms often appeared smaller pictures dedicated to narrative scenes, often representing moments from the life or lives of those saints occupying the larger panels above.
Arnoldi’s ensemble is that rare structure that both embraces and defies tradition. The three-dimensional forms have been arranged in a way that recalls the format of a painted altarpiece, with the central characters of Christ and the Madonna appropriately elevated above those who flank them. But Arnoldi, abiding by the requirements of his contract, sculpted two angels instead of saints to flank the Virgin, a distinct departure from the appearance of most Trecento altarpieces. Moreover, Arnoldi did not carve any bas-relief narrative scenes below these large statues in a way the might mimic a strip of predella panels placed at the base of an altarpiece. (this would be remedied only in the sixteenth century by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, who painted images of charitable scenes from the Bible that were added to Arnoldi’s altarpiece in 1515). As a result, the ensemble originally appeared as a group of standing figures perched on a platform above the altarpiece in a grouping not unlike the one devised by Giovanni Pisano for the Scrovegni Chapel in the distant city of Padua in 1305. This may explain why, in the records of deliberations concerning Arnoldi’s commission, the captains of the Misericordia mentioned the sculptors of Pisa as the qualitative bar by which the local artist’s works would be judged.
Arnoldi’s figures bear close resemblance to sculpted images produced in Florence during the first half of the fourteenth century. Despite being hidden by draperies that pull across her torso and sweep from left hip to right foot, Mary’s body seems proportionally accurate and naturalistically balanced thanks to a contrapposto pose formed by her flexed right knee and straight, weight-bearing left leg. The hefty Christ child, perched on his mother’s bent left arm, raises his right hand to her neck in a gesture of intimacy that contrasts with the more didactic presentation of the small crucifix that he holds in his left. The two angels hold candelabra that appear as columns and turn their heads (attenuated on top of rather slender and elongated necks) inward toward the holy couple. The chubby cheeks of Christ and the volumetric bodies of all four figures suggests the influence of Arnolfo di Cambio, whose marble figures on the façade of the nearby Duomo had been in place since the first decade of the century. But the craned necks and heads of the angels, combined with the swaying hips of the Virgin, recall the more Gothicized work of Giovanni and Andrea Pisano, the latter of whom was active in Florence during the decade of the 1330s.
In fact, these visual recollections of the work of earlier Pisan artists confused later critics of Italian sculpture. In his famous sixteenth-century study of Italian art and architecture (the famous Lives of the Artists), Giorgio Vasari erroneously attributed Arnoldi’s figures to Andrea Pisano and his assistant, Ciognara, perhaps due to their participation in the sculptural project to cast bronze reliefs on the south doors of the Baptistery that face the Misericordia’s residence from the middle of the piazza. His mistake is understandable due precisely to Arnoldi’s intentional employment of the Gothicized approach to sculpture that his patrons, the captains of the Misericordia, demanded from him.
“MCCCLIX, indictione XV, die XVIII mensis Iunii - Filippo di Bartolo Filippi, Rusticho Donati, Filippo del Nero, Davanzato Iohanni (Davanzati), Giovanni di Firenze, e Francesco di Pero Capitani della dicta Compagnia, in loro nome e de loro compagni, deliberarono le infrascripte cose, cioè. - In prima etc. - Item allogarono a fare la ymagine di marmo di nostra Donna col filio in braccio co’atto di misericordia, adornata, fregiata da fregi d’oro e lustrata come si conviene, e simigliantemente due angeli, la quale figura dee essere d’altezza braccia tre o più, e quella degnagnoli braccia due o mezzo o più, a Alberto d’Arnoldo maestro del popolo san Michele Berteldi: prese a tutte spese di quello Alberto, con salaro di fiorini centocinquanta per la figura della nostra Donna e di fiorini centotrenta per le dicte figure degnagnoli, e con candellieri in mano a detti agnoli, la quale figura dee essere di quella bontà e maesterio che la figura di nostra Donna in Pisa: della qual bontà, industria e maesterio, si debba stare a detto di tre ovvero di quattro maestri, buoni et legai et di buona conscientia della città di Firenze, che si debbiano elegere pe’ capitani che saranno per lo tempo; e se non fosse bella come quella di Pisa non si debba torre. E le ymagine degnagnoli debbiano essere di quella bontà e di quella bellezza di marmo che risponda alla dicta figura. E dee avere il pagamento in questo modo: al presente fiorini cento d’oro, e quando la figura di nostra donna sarà compiuta, salvo lustrata, abbia fiorini cinquanta d’oro, et quando vorrà comperare il marmo pegn agnoli abbia fiorini cinquanta d’oro: e l’avanzo, compiute, poste, e aconcie a tutte sue expese le dette figure al’oratorio. E le figure dee dare di qui a due anni cominciando il di ch’ averà i detti primi cento fiorini: e dee sodare di ciò per carta di Ser Tino. (Filza e fasc. predetti, a carte 12). - 1364 16 agosto. - Item deliberarono et absolvettero Alberto Arnoldi maestro et Alesso suo mallevadore della promessa fatta per loro di fare le figure di nostra donna cogl’agnoli e dichiararono essere fatte secondo la promessa fatta per lo detto Alberto, e a me comandarono che la carta e ogni promessa sia cassa, annullata et per me cancellata (Ivi a carte 57).” See Passarini, 93-94, note 2, who cites the source of these documents as A.S.F., Bigallo, II, Deliberazioni dei Capitani II.
“1359, Action 15, 18th day of June: Filippo di Bartolo Filippi, Rusticho Donati, Filippo del Nero, Davanzato Iohanni (Davanzati), Giovanni di Firenze, and Francesco di Pero captains of this confraternity, in their name and on behalf of their compatriots, deliberated on the following things: First, they agreed to offer to Alberto Arnoldi, master from the parish of San Michele Berteldi, the commission to produce an image in marble of Our Lady holding her Son in her arms in an act of mercy, decorated and adorned in gold and lustrous colors as is appropriate, with two angels: the Madonna should be at least three braccie tall (roughly 1.5 meters) and the two angels at least two and half braccie tall (roughly 1.25 meters). All of these figures must be by the hand of Alberto, who shall receive a salary of 150 florins for the figure of our Lady and 130 florins for the two angels, who should be holding candles in their hands: the figure of Mary should be of a higher quality than the figure of Our Lady in Pisa. Its quality will be judged by three or four masters deemed to be qualified by the city of Florence, which shall appoint them at the time. And if it is deemed to be inferior to the one in Pisa, the Bigallo will not be obligated to keep it. And the images of the marble angels must be of the same quality and beauty of the said figure of Mary. He will be paid in the following manner: he will recieve an initial payment of one hundred gold florins, and when the figure of Our Lady has been completed to our satisfaction he will have fifty gold florins, and when he has purchased the marble for the angels he will receive fifty gold florins to cover the cost of materials; he will compose and install in the oratory the figures at his own expense. And the figures will be completed in two years from the time of their initiation, as indicated by the date of the first payment of one hundred florins. See the statement notarized by Ser Tino (aforementioned book, carte 12). 1364, 16 August. They met and absolved the master Alberto Arnoldi and his son, Alesso, of wrongdoing in the production of the figures of Our Lady and angels, and they declared him to be in accord with the agreement made, and they asked me to check the contract and all the agreements, which I annulled and canceled (see carte 57).”
Arnoldi’s Madonna and Child conforms to the half-length form popular at the time. The Virgin’s swung hip supports the Christ child in her left arm, while her right hand clutches both her own breast and the boy’s fingers. The two figures incline their heads toward one another while their halos intersect and overlap. A series of parallel forms – Mary’s right forearm and Christ’s legs, Jesus’s back and the Madonna’s right bicep, Mary’s left hand and her son’s tilted head – leads our eye in a gothic zigzag across the surface that culminates at the composition’s apex where the two heads nearly touch. The glazed background and pointed arch suggest that these figures reside in a celestial zone both above and within the Piazza S. Giovanni: they occupy the heavenly realm in perpetuity but simultaneously preside over the citizens of Florence while protecting the institution of the Misericordia (including both its members and those who take advantage of its services) at all times.
Installed above the heads of visitors to the residence hall and positioned in the doorway that led directly to the oratory where Arnoldi’s figures on the Misericordia’s altarpiece stood, the Madonna and Child prepared lay Florentines for the experience they were about to have inside the place where mothers and their children were either separated from each other or reunited after a period of estrangement. The appearance of the Holy Family at this important, limnal juncture between the public space of the city (in the form of the piazza) and the private space of the Misericordia surely offered to viewers of all genders, ages, and vocations a sense of the services rendered by the company as well as the quality of care its members promised to provide for the children offered to it by families in need. As such, the intimacy between Arnoldi’s figures seems both tender and anguished, for some of those who entered into the residence hall from this portal could not have been happy about the transaction that was about to occur.
Images of Mary were predictably popular in domestic settings, where women of all ages and stations recognized her as a symbol of matronly love. Her placement above the front entrance of the city’s best-known Foster Care center must have made her particularly appealing to those Tuscan women who, when approaching the confraternity in their time of need, may have been reminded that the Virgin had given birth out of wedlock and probably well before her twentieth birthday. She was a sympathetic and completely appropriate patron for the confraternity of the Misericordia.
“MCCCLXI, indictione XIIII, a di 25 di giugno. - Item stantiarono et deliberarono che’l camarlingo della detta compagnia presente, e che sarà per innanzi, de’ denari della detta compagnia, dea e paghi, e dare e paghare sia tenuto e debbia, al maestro Alberto d’Arnoldo, per pregio d’una figura e ymagine di marmo di nostra donna col suo filio benedetto al collo, la quale è posta sopra l’uscio dell’oratorio, fiorini sedici d’oro (Ivi a c. 37).” See Passarini, 94, note 2.
“1361, Action 14, 25 June. They deliberated and decided to send the company’s administator (burser) to pay the debt of 16 gold florins to the master Alberto Arnoldi as final payment for the figure and marble image of Our Lady holding at her breast her blessing son, which was positioned over the portal of the oratory.”