Translated from Italian by Aidan Valente
In the absence of documentary sources, for the statue of Saint Peter both dating and artistic paternity have always been strongly controversial. It has been traditionally attributed to Donatello due to the words written by Vasari; in fact, he asserted that the Arte dei Beccai had assigned the execution of the work to Brunelleschi and Donatello together, but that the latter had worked alone.
For the sculpture, “most wise and wonderful,” also attributed in the past to Nanni di Banco and to Michelozzo, there was recently advanced a new hypothesis, that sees Filippo Brunelleschi as the author of both the tabernacle and of the statue, in which the artist would propose a model of antique statuary in a time in which his interest in sculpture is documented, shared with Donatello.
Less suggested, but perhaps more convincing appears the just-as-recent attribution that revives the name, once advanced in the past, of Bernardo Ciuffagni, postponing the dating to the middle of the second decade of the Quattrocento.
The Saint Peter turned out to be one of the marble statues in the best condition of conservation, perhaps because it is carved from a special quality and compact apuane marble, was removed from its tabernacle in 1990 and restored by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure the following year. It is the only statue on which traces of gilding were not found, not only from degradation, so that it is supposed to have had none from the outset. The poor porosity of the marble has preserved the work not only from degradation, but also from absorbing the oils laid on all of the marbles between the end of the Settecento and the Ottocento, to match them to the bronzes.
For the restoration and execution of the copy placed in the tabernacle at the occasion of the Museum’s opening, the Academia of Florence and the Association of Butchers participated as sponsors in honor of their ancient art.
#Incredulita di San Tommaso
The Tribune of Merchandise had acquired, in 1463, the niche of the Guelf Party that, years before (previous to the year 1452), had removed the bronze and gilded statue of Saint Louis by Donatello. The work was commissioned to Verrocchio in 1466, when the artist was just tired, and was completed in 1483. In 1468 it was already established that the statues were two, and the innovative idea of placing Christ and St. Thomas in the tabernacle, not statically isolated, but dialogue among themselves in an almost theatrical simulation of an affective and psychological encounter, it was already entirely elaborated between 1473 and 1476 when the figure of Christ was finished.
The accurate restoration of the group, removed from the tabernacle in 1988, was concluded by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in 1992, and has highlighted the excellence of executive technique: the two figures are in fact made of bronze, with the “lost wax” technique on the back like bas-reliefs, and for each one it used a unique metal alloy casting. In order to prevent the possibility of an albeit minimum defect, very high metal thicknesses were made and the surface, after the smelting, was finished, polished, and chiselled with extraordinary care.
The work was molded at the laboratories of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, while the casting of the copy was recently executed under the care of the Superintendence for Environmental and Architectural Heritage.
#San Giovanni Battista
The statue of Saint John the Baptist was realized by Ghiberti under the commission of the Arte di Calimala from 1413 to 1416, while he was engaged on the North Doors of the Baptistery, and was the first grand work cast in bronze in Florence with the “lost wax” method. The same artist noted in his diary his preoccupation with the enterprise: “I did not cast it at my own expense; if it did not go well, I would have to lose the expense.”
The recent restoration has brought some defects to light, attributable to an incorrect evaluation of the weight that, producing a shift in the center of gravity, impedes the statue from standing on its feet alone.
The work is signed “OPUS LAUR[E]NTII” on the hem of the garment, in which the cleaning has revealed traces of gilding.
Ghiberti prefered to represent the prophet as an adult, according to the typological Eastern iconography in vogue at the end of the Trecento, rather than the youth as found in the Renaissance. The critical reception of this Ghibertian sculpture was very low, judged very severly by critics, and considered the artist’s least successful work until the thirties of this century. It was disliked for the languor of the figure and the lack of harmony between the realistic and Eastern elements. A reexamination of the work, considered within the artistic evolution of Ghiberti and no longer in relation to contemporary Florentine sculpture, has finally started, in recent times, the most deserving of reeavluations: the Saint John the Baptist may be today safely considered a masterpiece of Late Gothic Florentine statuary.
The sculpture, conceived for the contemporary tabernacle of the Arte di Calimala, also designed by Ghiberti, but executed by Albizo di Piero, was removed from its original seat in 1992; the Opificio delle Pietre Dure completed its restoration in 1994.
Making the mold remains a project, for the copy for the tabernacle and that in gesso for the Gipsoteca dell’Istituto Statale d’Arte di Firenze.
#San Giovanni Evangelista
The historical sources relay that the Arte dei Setaiolo, wanting to substitute the marble statue of their tabernacle, commissioned the statue of their patron from the sculptor Baccio da Montelupo in 1515 and that the work cost 340 gold florins.
Vasari, recording that there were many competitors for this ambitious enterprise, wrote: “This work was finished by him with total diligence. It is said that when he had done the figure in clay, those who saw the order of the armature and the shapes he had on it, he had a beautiful thing, considering Baccio’s great genius in that. And those who saw it cast with such ease, gave to Baccio the title to have a great deal of mastery, made a nice cast. These hard times in that profesion, a good name, gave him; and today more than ever by all the artists kept this figure beautiful.”
It was rightly noted by critics how this sculpture is certainly an homage to the arte of Donatello and in particular to the Saint Mark of Orsanmichele, to which it allusively recalls the weathered pride of the face, made vibrant by the flowing beard, and the plastic yield of the ample folds of the mantle.
The work embodies in full the sculptor in that group of intellectuals inspired by Savonarola, who considered the link with the traditional Florentine humanism fundamental to rediscover the essence of moral, spiritual, and even artistic activity.
The Saint John the Evangelist, still in its tabernacle, is awaiting restoration.
#Madonna della Rosa
The statue, representing a Madonna enthroned with the Infant Jesus, but called the Madonna of the Rose for the bunch of dog roses that the Infant Jesus seeks to grab from the hands of the Mother, is not documented and is therefore the object of numerous critical hypotheses culminating with the attribution to Piero di Giovanni Tedesco, a late Gothic sculptor from the north, active at the construction site of the Opera del Duomo.
The work, of which analogies with neo-Giottesque painting have been noted, for the search for equilibrium and composure that distingues it, is noted for the highly documented episode of defacement, which cost the life of the “marrano” who may have been guilty and which is recording in the Latin inscription at the base, which recounts the date (1493).
The state of conservation, visibly better compared to those found in the other marble statues of Orsanmichele, is due to the fact that the work was shifted in 1628 to the interior of the church, and then returned to the exterior in 1925. Three hundred years of shelter have preserved the statue from degrading, saving it also from the bronzed tone, which is irreversibly left, though more or less accentuated, on the surfaces of the other marble statues, the object of bronze color coatings in the Sette- and Ottocento.
The statue was recently cleaned under the care of the Superintendence for Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Florence, revealing an intact surface, even if scratched from an old, drastic cleaning. There are no remaining traces of gilding, except those on the bunch of roses.
Like the other sculptures, the Madonna of the Rose will be molded as soon as possible to obtain a copy to be placed in the tabernacle of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, of which it was the patron, and that in gesso to be placed in the Gipsoteca dell’Istituito Statale d’Arte di Firenze.
The marble statue, commissioned by the Arte dei Vaiai e Pelliccia of which Saint James was the patron, was, like the tabernacle that contained it, at the center of a complex critical-attributive event determined also by the lack of sources documenting its execution. If the attribution to the Florentine sculptor Niccolo di Pietro Lamberti seems now agreed upon, on its dating the positions are less equivical, and if, at the base of various theses, the stylistic relationship between the statue remains, still intensely Gothic in elongated proportions and for the absence of volumetric and spatial recession, and the works of Ghiberti, in particular, the Saint John the Baptist and the Saint Matthew.
The statue of Saint James, to which in 1858 there were repairs to some fingers of the right hand, was removed from its tabernacle in 1986, and restored at the Opifico delle Pietre Dure in the following years: also its marble appears obscured by the treatment received between the Sette- and the Ottocento to render it similar to bronze and also, after cleaning, it has revealed traces of gilding on the hair and on the ornaments of the dress.
The mold and the copy, recently settled in the tabernacle, were executed under the care of tthe Superintendence for Environmental and Architectural Heritage in 1995, while the copy in gesso will be soon handled by the Istituto Statale d’Arte, which will conserve it in the Gipsoteca.
Remaining for now in its place, the relief, of admirable Gothic elegance, located at the base of the tabernacle and represents the Martyrdom of Saint James.
The marble statue of Saint Mark, patron of the Arte dei Linaioli, was placed in the niche assigned to it, on the southern facade of Orsanmichele, in the year 1413. From documents we know that, four years previously, the Arte had commissioned to the sculptor Niccolo di Pietro Lamberti a block of Apuan marble for the monumental sculpture. In 1411 the sculpture’s assignment was entrusted to Donatello, committing him to hand it over “gilded and fitted with every appropriate ornament,” before the first of November, 1412. In the meantime, the Prefects Giovanni and Albizzo di Pietro had been appointed to realize the not entirely finished tabernacle, like the statue, in April of 1413.
The Saint Mark, always admired for its formal values and for the great force with which it expresses gravity and moral committment, was, like the other marble statues exposed in the external niches of Orsanmichele, subjected to one or more bronze-colored patinas applied before the last decade of the eighteenth century, and was removed from its seat on the occasion of the second World War. Once again separated from its tabernacle in 1977, it was restored under the care of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence, in which laboratory, thanks to a sponsorship by the Rhone Poulenc and the care of Michel Bourbon, was realized the copy relocated in the niche, as well as a copy in gesso deposited in the Istituto Statale d’Arte di Firenze.
The accurate restoration, rediscovering the fluidity of the model and the traces of gilding (on the hair, beard, book, pillow, and hem of the robe) has brought to light how much of the Gothic remains in this sculpture, which modern criticism regarded instead as the first totally Renaissance work in the artistic course of grand Florentine sculpture.
The statue was commissioned by the Arte dei Maniscalchi, of which Saint Eligius was the patron, together with the Orafi, who were associated for the occasion. The work is not documented like the Four Crowned Saints and Saint Phillip, and also, less than the others, cited by historical sources. However, criticism did not question the attribution to Nanni di Banco, already present in the Anonymous Magliabechiano and taken from Vasari. Like the aforementioned works, there remains a great deal of discussion about the dating, and still controversial is the chronological sequence of its execution. The strong Gothicism of the figure and, on the other hand, the less-stressed classicism, are understood by critics as a starting point or a sign of evolution, that would be explained by the influence of Ghiberti’s style and, in particular, the figure of Saint John the Baptist executed for Orsanmichele. More recent studies, in noting some unfinished details and a disharmonic assembly of the statue and of the other reliefs of the niche, hypothesize that the whole thing was mounted directly after the death of Nanni di Banco and therefore support the thesis that the Saint Eligius is an extreme work in the life of the sculptor.
The statue, whose pastorale in the past was stolen several times until the decision to leave it without, was removed from the tabernacle in 1988 and restored by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which rediscovered traces of gilding in the hair and on the ornaments of the clothes where there remain fragments of ultramarine. Because there existed a copy in gesso in the Gipsoteca of the Istituto Statale d’Arte of Florence, they were able to avoid using the statue to obtain the stone copy. The new copy, made from the gesso, was placed in the tabernacle of the Maniscalchi on the occasion of the opening of the Museum.
The statue of Saint Stephen was the fourth statue in bronze cast for Orsanmichele, and was commissioned by the Arte dei Lanaioli, which in 1425 had decided on the substitution for a marble statue of the same subject, precociously (1340) placed in the tabernacle assigned to it. The work, for which in 1427 the Arte had allocated the money corresponding to four pounds of bronze, was already in the tabernacle the following year. Ghiberti likewise, in the second of his Commentaries, records the undertaking: “I undertook for the governors of the Arte della Lana a statue of bronze four and a half braccia high, standing in the oratory of the Orto Santo Michele, of which the statue is Saint Stephen martyr, which, being my second work, was made with great diligence.”
The Saint Stephen has not enjoyed critical success starting with Vasari, who praised only the verdigris of the bronze: it has never benefitted from the comparison with Saint Matthew, compared to which the sculpture appeared to many to have less artistic qualities, less avant-garde, and somewhat manicured with its impeccable drapery responding to the Gothic canon. But more modern criticism has emphasized the attention paid by the sculptor, in one view certainly Renaissance in volumetrics, in the proportions of the sculpture, and in the classicism of the face, for which it is even hypothesized an archetype shared with the Saint Phillip by Nanni di Banco.
The statue is still in its tabernacle awaiting restoration.
The Arte del Cambio wanted, with this bronze statue, to rival the Arte di Calimala, which had previously commissioned from Ghiberti the Saint John the Baptist. The events of the deal and of the realization of the work are documented minutely, from the election of the committee for the construction of the tabernacle in 1419 (one of the members was Cosimo the Elder), to the resgistration, in March of 1423, of the expense sums, among which appear the 650 florins for the sculptor.
We know that the head and the body of the statue, modelled in 1420, were cast separately in bronze and then united, and it is also noted that Ghiberti failed the first fusion, followed in 1421, and he had to redo it at his own expense the following year.
The bronze, finely chiseled in the curls of the hair and of the beard, bears, on the lower border of the mantle, which conserves traces of gilding, the following inscription: “OPUS UNIVEERSITATIS CANSORUM FLORENTIA ANNO MCCCCXXii.” To Ghiberti was also commissioned the niche, which was in the course of construction when the statue was finished.
A documented, late, and limited collaboration by Michelozzo has been amplified and subject to some critical fortune, then correctly resized. He was amazed by the strong and un-classical episode by which the work is permeated. Despite the undoubted stylistic references, in the realism of some particulars, with the Saint John the Baptist and with the final reliefs of the North Baptistery Doors, the sculpture appears quite antithetical to the spirit of the International Gothic, placing in relation Ghiberti with the humanistic Florentine world.
The bronze, which perhaps has suffered more than the others, for being placed in one of the two less profound niches of Orsanmichele because of their correspondence with the pillar inside which is the scale that connects the church with the upper floors, is still in the tabernacle awaiting restoration.
The statue of Saint George, placed in a tabernacle less profound for the coincedence with the inside stair inserted in the corner pilaster, was commissioned by the Arte dei Corazzai e Spadai, and the bellicose saint was coneceived by Donatello in the act of looking fiercely in the direction, north-east, where reside Florence’s traditional enemies.
Vasari caught the exceptionality of the sculpted figure that he defined: “…lively, in the head of that which one recognizes the beauty in the youth, the soul, and the valor of the weapons, a vivacity fiercely terrible, and a marvelous gesture of movement in that rock.” The merited fame of the work also extends to the admirable form that Donatello inserted, after 1417, at the base of the tabernacle, representing Saint George killing the dragon, noteworthy for the schiacciato relief and for the perspective intuition, that are at the base of the admirable fusion of the figures with a space that appears profound and seamless.
The great admiration, of which was always the object of the Saint George of Donatello, has made sure that special attention has been paid to it by those responsible for its conservation. The degradation that struck it in a particular due to the low depth of the niche and the northward exposure, forced it in the nineteenth centuriy to a series a shifts between his tabernacle and that, left empty by the Madonna della Rosa, of the Medici e Speziali, more pretected and better oriented. The early museumization of the statue, whose nose was also broken in 1858 with a thrown rock, dates to 1891, when it was definitvely moved into the Museo Nazionale del Bargello where one still finds it with the predella, recovered in 1976. In place of the Donatellian marble was placed, not without criticism, a bronze copy executed by Oronzio Lelli and the Fonderia Galli in 1892. The copy, cleaned some years ago, is still in place.
We do not know if it will ever be possible to fill the space created for the Saint George in preparation of the Museum. While taking into account the museumization of the Bargello and by now more than historicized, it seems to us that, in this case, there would be no valid historical and scientific reasons for bringing the work to the monument for which it was conceived, accompanied by all the other sculptures of Orsanmichele.
#I Santi Quattro Coronati
A unique group with four figures in the tabernacles of Orsanmichele, represents four martyrs killed by Diocletian and elected as patrons of the Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e di Legname, who were in part both architects and sculptors. According to a legend, infact, Castore, Claudio, Sinfoniano, and Nicostrato were most able artists, who had refused to execute a statue of Aesclepius for the emperor.
On this group, as with the Saint Phillip and the Saint Eligius, there are not received documents, but the sources are in concord in attributing the work to Nanni di Banco. Very controversial is instead the date of execution, as is the chronological succession of the three works by Nanni di Banco at Orsanmichele, to the point that, in relation to the more or less earliest date hypothesized by critics, the undoubted classicity of the sculptural group was explained as a goal (from late-Gothic to Renaissance language) or instead as another Trecentesque departure towards a successive, refined Gothicism. The most recent studies, on the basis of unedited documents, place the statue in the period found between 1409 and c. 1416/17.
The work, pervaded by a strong spirit of Antiquity by the solemn poses and composures and for the very placement of the figures in a semicircle, probably borrowed from an Antique example, was sculpted using three blocks of marble: the two figures to the left are in fact linked by many blocks of marble, while those on the right are both obtained from a single block.
The Four Holy Saints, the last sculptures in marble still unrestored, will be taken shortly from the tabernacle and brought to the laboratories of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
In absence of documents on the commission of the work, the historical sources are in agreement on the attribution to Nanni di Banco of the statue of Saint Phillip the Apostle, patron of the Arte dei Calzolai, but critics are not likewise in agreement on the dating, always closely connected with that of the other works by the artist present at Orsanmichele: the Four Holy Martyrs and the Saint Eligius. The two works, by their figurative language, more classic in the first and therefore closer to that of San Filippo, and more Gothic in the second, were alternatively considered as points of departure or arrival in the artistic evolution of the sculptor. Only recently, on the basis of stylistic considerations, a more precise dating of the single statues that comprise the Four Holy Martyrs, has permitted the placement of the execution of the Saint Phillip between that of the youngest and that of the oldest of the four Saints, allowing to date it with a certain reliability to the years 1410-1412.
The sculpture, which may be considered one of the most academical works by Nanni di Banco, was retired from its tabernacle in 1992, and was restored in the laboratories of the Opifico delle Pietre Dure: also on its surface, along the pleated border of the the vestment and the shoes, there were found evident traces of gilding. The Superintendence for Environmental and Architectural Heritage is currently executing the copy, for which the impression has already been taken.
The events relative to the statue of Saint Luke, which is signed and dated “IOA. BOL. BELG. MDCII,” are well described in a series of documents, of which some were found and published very recently.
The statue substituted the marble Saint Luke, actually exposed in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, executed before 1406 by Niccolo di Pietro Lamberti, also author of the tabernacle. The Arte dei Giudici e Notai had initially charged the sculptor Stoldo di Gino Lorenzi of Settignano who, before dying in 1583, had only time to procure the marble. His death determined the commission to the famous sculptor and the decision to erect the statue in bronze, as it was like those of Ghiberti and of Verocchio posted in the same facade on the Via Calzaioli. From the date of Giambologna’s charge, in 1583, to the date of finalization, in 1602, almost twenty years passed during which the sculptor, depsite the pressures of the Arte, had to give precedence to numerous Granducal commissions. In any case, it is certain that, in 1590, there already existed in Giambologna’s workshop the life-size terracotta model, which would have served for the casting, and likewise certain to appear that the setting of the sculpture, even if updated at the moment of the effective realization, presents figurative solutions of accented Mannerism. which are well framed in the artistic production of the 1580s, moreso than in that seicentesque of Giambologna.
The Saint Lukehas suffered an unmerited critical misfortune, despite the fact that Bernini himself lauded it greatly. It has damaged it to be wrongly considered a late work produced by the artist in old age, and it has resonated with the marble statue of Saint Matthew the Apostle of the Cathedral of Orvieto, allocated to Giambologna in 1595, performed by Francavilla in 1600 and for this believed antecedent to Saint Luke, while instead the documents authorize us to assert that the ideation of this last and the terracotta sketch, which then served Francvilla, preceded the Orvietan commission.
The statue is still in the niche on the outside of Orsanmichele, awaiting restoration.