The Statues Speak: Political Rhetoric in the Sculpture of Orsanmichele
*Designated as an Exemplary Master's Project for 2014-15*Orsanmichele was an important civic center in Renaissance Florence, dedicated to a series of miracle-producing images of the Virgin Mary. The guilds of Florence were patrons of the building and responsible for much of the construction and decoration of the space during a tumultuous political period that saw the peak of the citizen republic and its eventual fall as the Medici rose and seized control of the commune. This paper draws on scholarly historical research and first hand visual analysis of Orsanmichele’s external statuary. My question is whether the messages signaled by the statues of this religious cultural center went beyond the immediately apparent religious level. By examining four statues within the political and religious context of the period, I hope to demonstrate the role that these statues played in telegraphing the shifting political and civic values of the commune. Nanni di Banco’s Four Crowned Martyrs represents the voice of the citizen guild members intent on reinforcing their roles as community leaders. Ghiberti’s Saint Matthew represents the voice of the bankers at the time when financial leaders were a rising political force. Donatello’s Saint Louis of Toulouse speaks for the Parte Guelfa, the old line elite and historical leaders of church and state. And Verrocchio’s Christ and Saint Thomas asserts the moral authority of the Medici through their control of the Mercantzia. Together, these and other statuary of Orsanmichele do more than represent historical saints and a miraculous Madonna: they tell of the ongoing political struggle for control and influence in Renaissance Florence.
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