The History of the Loggia

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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.

Notes

“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.”