Walk into palazzo Vecchio, and you may notice a
surprising amount of religious iconography for a secular town hall. In
particular, one fresco by Orcagna depicts a strange scene; a large and serene
woman standing next to an image of the palazzo itself, looking on as a smaller
male figure is forcibly dragged off a throne. This is Sant’Anna, one of the
unofficial patron saints of Florence. In the New Testament, Anne is identified as the mother of Mary,
grandmother of Jesus, and she is a frequent subject of Renaissance painters and
sculptors, especially in Florence.
The source of Anne-veneration dates back to
1342. In the grip of a financial crisis and at a political standstill, unable
to choose a new government, the Florentines decided to appoint an impartial
interim ruler to lead them fairly until a new government could be chosen.
They called on a French noble, Walter of Brienne, called Duke of Athens,
and he was sworn into power on September 26, 1342, the birthday of Santa Maria.
Walter of Brienne, however, quickly proved himself a
despotic ruler, imposing harsh taxes, and he was ousted after only 10
rule, on July 6, 1343, the feast day of
Santa Anna. Seizing on the symbolism of the two dates, the people of
Florence saw Anne as having rescued them from the cruel ruler
who had deceived her daughter, Mary. Since that time, Florence has
considered Anne a protector, and a considerable
amount of iconography around the city depicts her.
Orcagna’s fresco was moved to palazzo Vecchio from the
ancient prison of Stinche-perhaps as a warning to others who might be foolish
enough to attempt to seize control of the city under the protection of its