Gilding the lily

A fresh look at golden Orsanmichele

Chris Dobson
February 5, 2015

Writing in the fifteenth century, Florentine Gregorio Dati described Orsanmichele as ‘an Oratory of wondrous beauty.’ The old loggia had become an expression of the city’s mercantile power and pride, a place of worship for the trade guilds, who commissioned bronze and marble statues to stand in niches on the exterior. Today it is still a beautiful building, and its famous statues are rightly seen as some of the greatest sculptures of the Renaissance, but few people realise that the exterior, the statues themselves, and the niches in which they once stood were rather more striking 600 years ago. Indeed, modern visitors would get a shock if they could see Orsanmichele as it was then.

 

The shining mercury-gilded surface of Donatello’s bronze statue of Saint Louis of Toulouse (now in Santa Croce) has survived intact, but recent restoration of other statues from Orsanmichele has revealed the widespread use of gilded decoration applied as gold leaf—now almost entirely lost. Ghiberti’s bronze statues (actually made of brass) had gilded borders on their clothes and gilded sandals. Gilding was also used on the marble statues: Donatello’s Saint George, now in the Bargello, shows evidence of the use of gilding all over the statue. The saint is depicted on horseback in the predella (the scene beneath the statue), and a plaster cast of this piece taken in the fifteenth century has surviving gilding on many details of the scene, so it is almost certain that the original was gilded in the same way. This famous ‘squashed relief’ would not appear nearly so ‘squashed’ if the details were highlighted with gilding, and if this predella was at one time gilded, then it follows that the others probably were as well, together with elements of the carved niches framing all the statues.

 

Fourteenth-century sculptures were painted in full colour. The taste for colour on sculpture persisted into the fifteenth century, and the Orsanmichele statues were no exception: the mitre of Donatello’s gilded Saint Louis is further decorated with blue enamel, and on the marble statues painted colour was applied to some details. On Nanni di Banco’s Four Crowned Martyr Saints, not only did the figures have gilded hair and beards but the gilded borders of the robe of one saint also bear traces of azurite blue, so we should re-imagine the group as a composition in blue, white and gold.

 

The shields bearing the devices of the guilds that commissioned the statues are proudly displayed on their niches, and I would be surprised if they were not originally in full colour. We know that the exterior of the building itself was brightly coloured: Dati also wrote that above every niche ‘is painted an angel of different colours,’ and it therefore seems reasonable to consider that quite possibly the Gothic tracery filling the ground floor arches also had gilded, and even painted decoration.

 

These new findings allow us to see Orsanmichele through different eyes and, on a bright day, those eyes would probably have needed sunglasses!

 

 

At 7pm on March 24, Chris Dobson will be speaking about Orsanmichele at Vinoutlet in borgo Ognissanti, 70r. For more information, please call 055 2670495.

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