Del Migliore on the Bigallo
Ferdinando Leopoldo del Migliore, Firenze: Città Nobilissima Illustrata (Arnaldo Forni: Florence, 1684).
75 – Oratory of the Old Company of the Misericordia and the Captains of the Bigallo
In order to understand the origins of this place, it is necessary that we speak – neither to be harmful nor prejudicial in favor of the Republic – of the levels of religious division that caused so much of the turmoil that infected and stained the Florentines. The Manichean (Patarini) heresy, which insisted that God was not the Creator of all visible things, provoked the zeal of Catholics who wished to defend true faith, and the two sides came to do battle with each other; the latter won the conflict at S. Felicita, where today there is still a sign of that victory on a column.  Saint Peter Martyr, known in those days as Fra Pier da Verona and who had initiated that battle, wanted to take advantage of the victory even though the Inspector General in Tuscany had exhorted the Florentines to set aside their animosity. Every time the city fell sway to that heresy, the Catholics were ready, with valor and with arms, to exert force to correct the errors of their ways; in this way a number of leading citizens who represented the twelve standards of the city (the neighborhoods) and the standard of the red cross on the white field (the entire commune) were able to call upon the people to organize in neighborhoods and strike against the full-throated recklessness of the followers of this dangerous cause. Therefore these twelve, because they sought arms to deploy and lead the people into battle, were in need of help. The saint (Peter Martyr) appointed a Crusader knight named Bzovio, regarded by the city’s soldiers as their best fighter, as the Captain of the Counter Heretics.
According to its Book of Entries 343, Volume 4, this group had originated in Florence under the direction of the celebrated Bu_satto with the help of the Inquisitors who fought heresy. It was supported in the time of Pope Innocent III, who came to power in 1198, and Pope Innocent IV gave it territories previously held by the Saracen King Saladin. Magri says that they wore a cross of velvet on their colorful hats that went from one side of the flap to the other, just like those worn by Greek clerics. But our knights, brave in battle against the infidel, went about in white clothes emblazoned with the red cross. Taking the sign of the cross, the captains who were appointed by Saint Peter Martyr and who had first led the confraternity of which we speak, first gave themselves the title of the Company of Saint Mary, and then changed it to the Misericordia, in order to perform pious works for which they later became famous.
A great portion of Florentines, including both men and women, joined the group with particular devotion and stayed in the glorious city even after the death of their beloved founder, Saint Peter Martyr. Today we can find a book owned by the Bigallo in which are contained the first writings of the new institution, marked on the front page in large letters with words commonly seen in the time, “In the name of our father, Jesus Christ, and the holiest pure saint, the Holy Mother Mary, Queen of Heaven and Woman of the World. In this book are written the names of the women of the quarter of San Giovanni and the area, who joined this Company of the Glorious Virgin Mary, patron of the city of Florence,  which was formed by the beatified martyr Saint Peter of the Order of Preachers in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ’s Incarnation 1260, on the feast of the Ascension of Christ.” It is important to note that the participants took this book seriously, for a number of corrections were made in the original text; and like a reliquary, the manuscript’s contents of important names of ancient families who were zealous defenders of the Catholic faith looks like scripture, and its authenticity shows the glory of Saint Peter Martyr’s endeavor in Florence. To fail to credit its authors is to deny them the strength of their faith. This book also corroborates a story told by some about an old painting that was once next to the portal of the Residence of the Captains of Orsanmichele which depicted Saint Peter holding in his hand the banner that he carried into battle against the abovementioned heretics, and which is today preserved alongside other relics in the sacristy of S. Maria Novella and exhibited to the people each year on his feast day.
Many hospitals were founded by the company, first by its soldiers and then by the confraternity of the Misericordia. The first of these was called S. Maria del Bigallo, located at a spot called Fontana Viva some five miles outside the city of Florence. This was the home of the nuns of Ripoli who, on 5 April 1267, signed a solemn contract with Ser Baldovino Ruffoli and the captains to accept his donation of funds to form the hospital that still goes by the name Bigallo. The nuns were received in this place, which is part of S. Domenico, and the edifice was built by a person famous named Buonaguida del Dado, known to have been part of the ancient Lamberti family. They went on to build other celebrated hospitals that some uneducated people don’t fully appreciate. In 1503 the captains ceded the Bigallo completely to the nuns, where they are to this day and are celebrated annually by the laity who present them with gifts of wax.
Because everyone is curious about the origins of the name, here’s why it’s called the Bigallo and the significance of that name. Because one wants to speak twice of the rooster [“gallo”], the first letter B stands for “Bi” (two) or “Bis” (another): Bi-gallo, then, means Two Roosters.
 Before passing over this, we must speak briefly of the other twelve hospitals under their care that were divided between two separate organizations: the first was called S. Maria del Bigallo (a.k.a. the company of S. Peter Martyr) and the other was called S. Maria della Misericordia, although both were governed by the same captains of the confraternity in Florence. This experiment lasted a long time, and with some success. But happily, in 1425 – at a time when the citizens of Florence were preoccupied with threats from outside their walls and disastrous wars threatened the state – the city fathers deliberated in the Senate and passed a law that united the two companies and formed a new entity with the name of S. Maria del Bigallo. Eight captains governed the company and placed on the façade of their residence hall their coat of arms, which was a shield divided vertically with, in one section, a red cross on a black field with the letter F, on another the letter M in a gold band, and on the third part a white rooster on a blue background with the letters S.M.B. underneath.
There were other pious works performed in the old institution, among them the receipt of orphans abandoned by their parents and relatives. In an act of supreme humanity, and with loud voices praising the diligence of the Florentines to look out for each other, there was a move made to expand the building by about half its size. In a series of entries in its statute books, particularly in the section Rub. 157 vol. III, we read the following words: “Assigned to the company at Piazza Orsanmichele, vagrant boys and girls were to be cared for in the house of the Misericordia by official civic decree.” Those who did not abide by this were punished with the fury of the law and branded with reputations that made them out to be as bad as thieves. Not content to let degenerate parents get off with this simple stigma, writers of the time made sure to cite transgressions in their books, where they wrote, “haec tenet ambiguo Pueros errore vacantes, Nec pati pereat nescia turba laris, tuta sed hec fido maneant sub culmine donec reddantur Patribus pignora cara suis.” “Protected by the pledge of the trustworthy fathers who have promised to tend to them under this roof, children do not suffer the crowds or perish here, despite the errors of those who have left them with us, ignorant of the importance of the hearth, until that time when those children are returned to them.”
Fra Mariano, who was mentioned in the book of the Works of M.S. _ in the library of the church of the Ognissanti in Florence, described its role as an orphanage as one of the charities that defined the devotion of Tuscans. This occurred during the time of the Principate, following the exercises undertaken by the magistrate of that time who was listening to the advice given to him by Pope Paul III Farnese. In 1541 Paul had to balance the wishes of his cardinals and Florentine citizens, and had a bull written to create a company that would count the number of abandoned children admitted into the Bigallo. He got Grand Duke Cosimo I to support it, and filled with good intentions, they were seen carrying  a sign of blessing to their subjects, sincerely applying his benedictions to those who were afflicted by the famine in that time, one of the worst in that period, which devastated the poor of Florence (but was not as bad as we endured during our battle of Tuscany). He ordered that the Orphanage of S. Caterina, in which were housed abandoned boys and girls (as we have seen), receive the patronage that was bestowed upon it by the pope on 8 July 1543 so that the children could live a decent and comfortable life.
The year before, on 26 June (1542), the Grand Duke had declared that he, for the sake of the wellness of the orphans, would have the power to elect the captains of the Bigallo, which thus altered the general provisions that had been made for all the old hospitals in the past. These captains would receive the blessings of and privileges from the church, but they would be expected to conduct regular visits in return. The Archbishop Andrea Buondelmonte, on 17 October 1543, and the Cardinal Ridolfi, on 18 November, sanctioned this solemnly, as written and described by Ser Scipio Braccesi. Pope Sixtus V later celebrated this decision in a bull of 12 September 1587 which gave powers to those who founded a lay hospital like that of the Cavalieri di S. Stefano, that was neither for the sick nor for worship. After making this announcement, the first act of public possession and absolute control made by the magistrate was the decree of 1575, ordered by the chancellor and rectors of the commune who were waiting to visit the orphanages in order to obey the instructions they’d received from the government. As the pope had commanded that this position slowly transfer from ecclesiastical control to a secular authority the Grand Duke wanted to make it clear that thirteen gentlemen should form a body called by the ancient name of the Captains of the Bigallo and have officers called Head, Principle Director, and so on. A decree made by the supreme magistrate on 17 November 1542 reveals the selection of these captains by the archbishops, who hoped they would govern well because they had been appointed to their posts by members of the clergy and would observe the laws of God, difficult as it would have been for the captains to do so considering all the varying interests of people who were involved in the place and the judgments that had to be rendered over them.  He wanted, above all, to make sure that the authority to preside over all things civil – that is to say, criminal – would reside with the magistrates and not the clergy; this included the passing of inheritances to heirs, as one reads in the ninth book, rewritten on 119.
The bull of Pope Paul III was executed by the government as a way to regulate priests and other clergy, depending on the hospital, and it imposed massive punishments on those ministers who disobeyed – like those refused to carry out the law of ’75 that required them to visit orphanages in the countryside. In a document of 14 January 1585, those who lived there were allowed attend a public audience each Tuesday where priests performed the mass and read passages requested by the laity. They say that Agnolo Marzi Medici, the bishop of Assisi who was the first to be elected and who was the first secretary of state for Grand Duke Cosimo I, used to come with Roccetto – with no intention of disrespect for the citizens there – to administer justice required at that site of the sacred cult. It’s good, then, that we see the following words above the door leading into the Audience hall (of the Bigallo), written in gold to commemorate the pope whose benefice left so much for them: “The most peaceful Grand Duke, Cosimo the Magnificent, of Tuscany XII. Man of great piety, administrative skill, and love of country.” Reinforcing this statement is the subtle figure painted in fresco at the door that represents the Allegory of Mercy adorned with a rich toga, a walking stick and a cloak that hangs from its shoulders. In roundels appear the seven works of the Misericordia; all of this appears in a state of devotion, as the governors of Florence stand with the people on bended knee to demonstrate that the piety of pilgrims triumphs over the power of the forum, armies, and even institutions, as the following words state: “These are the mercies performed in this place, done according to the merit of this company and according to the ideas of these pilgrims, in the year 1342, on the day of September_.” And above the big door where orphans are received, in the alcove that empties out onto the piazza, a similar fresco painting shows the way abandoned children used to be received, with some attention given to the different kinds of clothes worn by the pious.
 There are also two other old stories, designed to show the concepts that have been described in this book, specifically the two principal acts performed in Florence by Saint Peter Martyr. The first shows the Saint giving the white banner, decorated with the red cross, to the twelve knights of this institution who, as we have said above, fought against the heresy of the Patarini. With great attention paid to their attire, with the red togas the likes of which are rarely seen elsewhere soppanante di Vaii co’ Maniconi larghi alla Ducale, worn they say by those ancient kings of the gold apron, they show the proper attitude in this singular picture. In the other painting appears the Devil in the form of a black horse charging toward the people in the Mercato Vecchio that confirms what is said about the saint’s life by his biographers.
There we have the different stories about the old Oratory of the Misericordia, located where there was once the Tower of the Guardamorto and the public room of the exhibition of the cadavers, commemorated above and in other places. These earlier structures were used by the Republic during the time of Saint Peter Martyr to house the knights, and although this cannot be confirmed in any texts (despite the researches conducted in old writings of the Chancellor), Ser Amideo da Falgano wrote that he was a captain in the building when it was first used as an oratory sometime around 1240. We cannot be sure of this date because it is not written down, as was customary at the time. The sculptures that we see ornamenting the façade, including the two Madonnas and a bas-relief at the top of the walled up door, were celebrated by Vasari as the work of Andrea Pisano, who did a good job imitating the style of the ancients. The other figures that comprise a group of marble figures on the altar, all in the round with two angels at the sides, have been inserted into a rich wooden frame to form three tabernacles. This is the work of Antonio, called Il Carota, an excellent master who did other works like this in intaglio. We can see inside them, at the base of the altar, pictures of certain little stories painted by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, the son of Domenico, a famous painter of the age.
And now we turn to the temple of S. Giovanni, located like an island in the middle of the Piazza.