If Monuments Could Sing: Image, Song, and Civic Devotion Inside Orsanmichele

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Book Chapter

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Orsanmichele and the History and Preservation of the Civic Monument


Any discussion of what Orsanmichele looked like must eventually entail a discussion of what it sounded like. From its very foundation, song and image were bound together in the devotional activity that propelled the oratory’s fortunes. Giovanni Villiani’s early fourteenth-century account of Orsanmichele’s institutional beginnings reveals much about its character:

In that year [1922], on the 3rd of July, there began to be manifested great and obvious miracles in the city of Florence by a figure of the Virgin Mary painted on a pilaster of the loggia of Orto San Michele, where the grain is sold …but the friars , preachers and minors, out of envy or another reason, did not believe them, wherefore they have fallen into great disgrace with the Florentines…[O]ut of custom and devotion, a number of laity sang laude before this figure, and the fame of these miracles for the merits of Our Lady, so increased that people came from all over Tuscany in pilgrimage, just as they come now for all the feasts of Our Lady…and since [its membership] was the greater part of the buona gente of Florence, the state of this company so improved that the many benefits and alms of bequests for the poor amounted to more than 6000 lire.

At the heart of an account that reveals the distinctive qualities of this site—the easy confluence of religious devotion and mercantilism, its deeply laic nature, a Marian devotion of broad social appeal throughout and beyond Florence, and a rapid success—is Villani’s clear linkage of the act of devotional singing before the image, the miracle-working status of the image, and the company’s resulting material prosperity.


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